Enabling churches to be more inclusive

‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.’ Luke 14:21

Christian Blind Mission Australia has long worked with the disadvantaged across the globe but has recently fixed its gaze on an apparent injustice closer to home.

According to a CBM, disability ministry is a growing need yet only 5 per cent of Australian churches have any intentional programs to include people with disabilities.

Inspired by Jesus’ call in Luke 14, CBM Australia has developed a program of the same name that seeks to better equip churches to meet to be more inclusive of people with a disability.

Information about the launch of the program says:Luke14 is a CBM initiative aimed at equipping churches to welcome and include people with a disability. It is a process that assists churches to both reach in to improve church access and understanding, and reach out to offer support and friendship to people and families living with a disability in the community.

‘Many Australians living with disabilities aren’t a part of a caring church family, let alone involved in ministry. Luke14 seeks to help make our churches places where every person is appreciated, welcomed and encouraged to serve.’ 

CBM’s Luke14 will be launched with special guest speaker Therese Rein, wife of former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, at St Anne’s Ryde Anglican Church Conference Centre on Thursday, November 25 at 9,30am and in Wollongong at Figtree Anglican Church on November 26 at 9.30am. Both launches are free. Check out the CBM website for details.


Worshipping at the altar of popular culture: Hollywood Jesus

Hollywood Jesus no doubt started out as a genuine attempt to engage with popular culture but is now dangerously close to blasphemy, certainly in regard to its Santa Paws at Your Church “sweepstake”.

A promotional email sent out by Hollywood Jesus, a US Christian movie website, invites readers to enter a ‘Santa’s BFF (best friends forever?) contest in which first prize is a visit by Santa Paws, a free screening of the movie and DVD give-aways. Check it out:

The church does need to engage with culture and to communicate in a language that touches the heart and souls of real people.

But there is a place for purposeful discernment – what are we trying to achieve and what do we risk losing by gaining some temporary popularity? And probably we should ask, who is making money out of it?

When I first saw this email I felt sure it was a hoax, with a virus hiding behind every link. Or perhaps the Chaser boys had sent it out to see how many tacky Christians they could snare.

But it’s real and sincere and obviously no one involved saw a problem with it. And unless you pull back and ask, who is meant to be influencing who at Christmas time, or anytime, it might just slip by as another great way to get lots of unchurched families dropping into the church building to have a great old time.

Except what kind of Jesus could really be communicated in the sickly-sweet company of Santa Claus (or Paws), Walt Disney, Hollywood and good old American (and Australian) consumerist tripe!Read More »

Farewell institutional power, hello grassroots influence

Sermon on the Mount by Bloch. Image: Wikipedia

Churches have probably lost the fight against the NSW Government’s plan to introduce ethic classes in public schools at the same time as optional special religious education.

Education Minister Verity Firth is glowingly positive about the review of the classes and while there are no plans to remove SRE, the once ‘sacred’ right to offer Scripture without competition in NSW public schools will soon be a thing of the past.

Of course this is a manifestation of a wider truth that the church has lost much of its institutional power and perhaps in the future will lose even more.

There are positives though and the main one is that if churches and Christians learn they can’t rely on a privileged institutional role in society, they may finally revert to the ancient source of Christian vitality –  personal and community transformation through offering real life encounters with a living God.

This of course can’t be done any other way than through authentic relationship and engagement with people of all kinds.

Grassroots influence verses institutional authority – which one sounds more like Jesus?Read More »

Saints and murderers – beware the trappings of Christianity


Mary MacKillop holding her life orders.

The trappings of Christianity are precisely that, a trap – just ask Teresa Lewis or Mary MacKillop.

When we adhere outwardly, publicly or religiously to Christian faith but deny its inner, personal change, eventually we – and others – are snared in a trap of our own making.

What tends to happen is that the appearance of being a good Christian becomes an ever broadening disguise, hiding the real turmoil within. We would have been better to deny the appearance and be honest about the reality.

As guilt and condemnation do their insidious work, and as we have more to lose if our charade is exposed, we work harder on the exterior, becoming even more lost on the inside.

Jesus gave the simple example of the religious leader coming to pray, full of hubris, flaunting his religious superiority but in reality being further away in God’s eyes than the scorned tax collector who stood at a distance, ashamed of his wrong-doing, and seeking mercy and forgiveness.

Extreme examples in today’s world come to light with the execution of a US woman and the one-time excommunication of soon-to-be-Catholic-saint, Mary MacKillop.

Teresa Lewis was executed in Virginia on Friday afternoon (AEST) fo arranging the killings of her husband and a stepson over a $US250,000 insurance payment.

Amazingly, Lewis had the appearance of a strong Christian and even prayed with her husband in bed before getting up and unlocking the door of their home to let in the killers.

The Sydney Morning Herald reports that Lewis admitted her life had been marked by outrageous bouts of sex and betrayal even as she ‘hewed to the trappings of Christianity’.

‘I was doing drugs, stealing, lying and having several affairs during my marriages,’ reads a statement by Lewis. ‘I went to church every Sunday, Friday and revivals but guess what? I didn’t open my Bible at home, only when I was at church.’

Which is why a Christian life marked only by ‘meetings’ is not a true marker of discipleship. Jesus said that while we would find his presence in the company of other believers, so too among the poor, in serving others and in a heartfelt searching of our own hearts.

Mary MacKillop by all accounts was someone known for these qualities which is no doubt why she was responsible for exposing the paedophilia of a priest, and then excommunicated for her troubles.Read More »

Kill the church but go easy on the gurus…

As a wobbly sounding plane flies over head through the cloud and light rain of an early Leichhardt morning, I consider another staple of inner west life, the Inner West Courier.

It has thrown up a spiritual conundrum, a coded message of religious reality in our time. Actually, it’s just demonstrating the bleeding obvious…

On page 12 of the August 31 edition, a story celebrates the awarding of the Australian Writers Guild Kit Denton Fellowship Award to Petersham resident George Casti for his script I Want to be Slim.

Great, I think. Good to see some local talent being rewarded and $30,000 can make all the difference as a writer seeks to stave off poverty and establish their craft.

I read on to see what his script is about: ‘…award judged on courage and excellence… Catsi’s “anti-Hillsong” script won… religion is a very polarised area… satirical script is about the Rev Slim Limits and his performance in getting the masses to follow his evangelical ways.’

Mmm, so George gets $30,000 to perfect his script, poking fun, in a courageous and excellent way, at a section of society that, obviously, it is perfectly appropriate to ridicule. The Courier report is matter-of-fact, as if we shouldn’t be surprised that a local church is award-winning, satire material.Read More »

Are we missing the very frontline of faith?

The Australian community is engaged in an extremely active and vigorous debate about the reality of God and I’m not sure the church at large is even aware it is going on.

While we faithful pray in our services and gatherings that God would move in our land, we may be missing the very answer to those prayers. (Try and stay with me my atheist readers, I know your blood pressure just rose at the mention of answered prayer.)

One of the first signs of spiritual revival might well be that people are even thinking about first order issues such as the origins and nature of life, is there supernatural or spiritual reality or only a material universe, and if religious claims are true how do we deal with many apparent contradictions and problems.

These kinds of questions are often and vigorously debated mainly in online forums and often in response to an increasing number of articles in the media addressing these questions from one perspective or another.

I can assure you this was not the case 10 or 20 years ago when most Australians didn’t want to discuss faith at all and where apathy and materialism (in this sense of material gain) seemed far more important.Read More »

How will we create in 2020?

Ever wondered where the rapid spread and influence of technology, particularly in the area of digital communication, is taking us?

Author John Maeda has some interesting ideas of what our lives might look like in 2020. For him, digital technology will become more of an unconscious norm leaving us free to major on more nuanced, creative and physical realities.

‘We’ll witness a return to the integrity of craft, the humanity of authorship, and the rebalancing of our virtual and physical spaces. We’ll see a 21st-century renaissance in arts- and design-centered approaches to making things, where you-the individual-will take centre stage in culture and commerce.’

This may have implications for churches (and already is) where technology allows small, boutique churches to be heavily related to their own indigenous culture while powerfully connected in an organic way to global communities.

Read Maeda’s full article in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Ethic classes – ‘new atheism’ in poor disguise

As the debate rages over the trial of ethic classes as an alternative to Scripture in state schools, those in favour of the new program ask, in a smugly reasonable tone, ‘Why can’t the churches respect parents’ right to choose?’

As if that is all that is really at stake. As if this is really just about a choice between your child going to Scripture, ethics or having a half-hour break.

What it is really about, and why some churches are fighting so hard, is the final and complete secularisation of public schools, fueled by the rampant new atheism which views religion as poison.

No matter what politically correct sounding arguments emerge from both camps, at stake is the privilege of access to public schools.

The goal of the new ethic classes is to so threaten the status and viability of Scripture that it will eventually disappear.

Of course the Minister for Education will never say that, in public, nor the proponents of ethic classes. But you can hear it slipping through in an odd angry shot at the Anglicans or the Catholics during media debates, and it is rampant in the unofficial grassroots commentary.

My children attended a school that did not have Scripture, in which recognition of Easter and Christmas was completely secular. Christmas carols were out, ‘seasonal songs’ were in.

Parents of faith often felt under siege and so desolate was the atmosphere of the place, I eventually pleaded to be allowed to organise an assembly that in a light-hearted way, told the real Christmas story.  One half hour in an entire year…

So what is at stake is not so much the to and fro over Scripture and ethics. It is the choice between a completely secular atheistic system or one where there is some decent recognition that people of faith exist.

But we shouldn’t be surprised by these battles. The secularisation of society has been raging for many years and, in reality, the institutional power of the church (which gave it the right to Scripture classes) has long been in decay.

Christian commentators such as Joel Edwards of Micah Challenge have said that the church needs to accept the demise of institutional power, and take up the opportunity of grassroots influence.

Newer churches, such as the Pentecostals, have never had institutional power which is why they have been so much better at grassroots influence.

Maybe the way to win the current battle, is for Scripture and the Christian communities of inner city to be so vibrant, so alive, so full of grace and power, so full of kindness and generosity and love, so authentic in relationships across dividing lines, that instead of relying on ancient privilege, they benefit from a new invitation to participate in schools, organisations and communities… PH

Aid attack makes Micah’s voices all the more important

Just a few weeks out from Micah Challenge’s Voices of Justice conference, News Ltd publications such as The Daily Telegraph are carrying a story questioning the Australian Government’s overseas aid commitment due to alleged rorting of payments.

The article begins: ‘Australia’s foreign aid program is under siege after revelations tens of millions of dollars are being wasted on mega-salaries for consultants and rich contracts for private firms. An extensive investigation revealed a lucrative foreign aid “industry”, raising questions on the Rudd Government’s decision to double funding to $8 billion-plus a year.’

The main issue raised by ‘aid experts’ is the payment of extremely high salaries to a variety of consultants. Examples listed include a senior justice adviser to East Timor receiving $757,960 tax-free paid out of Australia’s aid budget for a two-year contract. Read More »

No surprise that churches asked to house asylum seekers

While trendy inner city secularism ardently tries to remove any trace of Christianity from Australian social fabric, it is no surprise that the government has turned to the church to house asylum seekers due to overcrowding.

With facilities at Christmas Island overflowing, Department of Immigration officials have been quietly calling churches to ask if they have facilities to house up to 100 children and families.

It highlights the uniqueness of the Christian Church: a grassroots organisation with branches in virtually every community in the nation consisting of local people of diverse backgrounds who are motivated by common bonds of love and compassion.

Guided by Christ’s parables such as The Good Samaritan and the sacrificial example of the Cross, Christians have throughout history stood out because of their willingness to offer aid to the poor and homeless and even their enemies.

While using the issue to criticise the government, Opposition Immigration spokesman, Scott Morrison, could only speak charitably of the churches:

‘ I have no doubt that Christian churches will respond generously, which is their nature,” he told the Sydney Morning Herald. Read the full story here.

Maybe this is one more reason why trying to force out the teaching of Scripture in schools is wrong. It denies the real place of Christian values in our community. PH

Religion of hate loses touch with God of love

‘Many women who do not dress modestly … lead young men astray, corrupt their chastity and spread adultery in society, which (consequently) increases earthquakes.’ – Senior Iranian cleric,  Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi, as quoted by Iranian media. 

‘Thank God for eight more dead troops. We are praying for 8,000 more. We’ve turned America over to the fags; they’re coming home in body bags.’ April 16, 2010 Press Release from Pastor Fred Phelp’s Westboro Baptist Church, Kansas, US. 

If Mr Sedighi and Mr Phelps met in the street they would no doubt be mortal enemies, except they are speaking from the same script. One believes God is sending earthquakes to Iran due to short dresses and the other believes God is sending home dead soldiers because of the US tolerance of homosexuality. 

While these two ‘clerics’ might seem to be at opposite ends of the religious spectrum (Muslim v Christian) they are actually of the same religious spirit, just wearing different colours. 

Religion is a set of laws that people observe externally with scant regard for the state of their heart, or other’s. Power is gained by asserting these laws in ever-increasing measure to affirm one’s own superiority and to ensure the others sublimation. 

It is true that we live in a moral universe and that there is a way of living that is right before God. But none of us attain it and our only hope is not more religion, but a freeing relationship with the one who is always truth, and love.When the religious power-mongers of Jesus’ day brought an adulterous woman before him, he first reminded them of their own sin and then dealt graciously with the woman. ‘He that is without sin, throw the first stone.’ No stones were thrown and the only one entitled too, Jesus, chose to love, forgive and gently direct the woman to a better life – one that she found in following him. 

Now if Jesus didn’t cast a stone, how is that Mr Sedighi and Mr Phelps (and, let’s be honest, occasionally you and I)think they can? Because they have lost sight (or never known) their own brokenness before God and that in Jesus, judgement has fallen, been met, and the way thrown open for new life. Does God hate sin? Yes, because of what it does to people. Does God hate people? No, he died for them. All of us. 

A certain Australian pastor, who I’ll refrain from naming at this point, made some frighteningly similar remarks to these vengeful clerics in the context of the Victorian bushfires last year. It is to be hoped that he submits his theology to the crucible of his peers before making any more remarks like that… PH

Faith can be born in, and survive, a shipwreck

With critics claiming the Pope’s reputation has been shipwrecked by his inaction over the clerical abuse of children, His Holiness visited Malta last weekend to commemorate the 1950th anniversary of the Apostle Paul’s shipwreck near the island, an event recorded in the book of Acts.

Interestingly, the two issues came together on Malta when the Pope met with eight Maltese men, victims of sexual abuse by Catholic priests.

Conversion of Paul as depicted Caravaggio

The Sydney Morning Herald reports that Pope Benedict promised them with tears in his eyes that the Catholic Church would seek justice for paedophile priests and implement ‘effective measures’ to protect young people from abuse.

Benedict expressed his ‘shame and sorrow’ at the pain the men and their families suffered and prayed with them during the meeting at the Vatican’s embassy in Malta.
One of the men described the meeting as ‘fantastic’. ‘Everyone was crying,’ he said. It is the first time Benedict has met with abuse victims since the worldwide clerical abuse scandal engulfed the Vatican earlier this year.

While this meeting had not been foreshadowed by the Pope, he gave three other powerfully relevant reasons for his visit to Malta.

Read More »

Why die, why rise?

This is my take on connecting with our community this Easter.

‘Christian tradition, pagan festival, money-making exercise… what exactly is Easter?

If it is about someone dying on a cross, and rising from the dead, why?

If it is supposed to have something to do with me, why? If it is supposed to change the world, why?

Easter 2010 at Eternity Christian Church is an opportunity for asking and answering questions; for reflecting, belonging and celebrating.

You may leave with as many questions as you came with or you might just feel you found something…’

The painting is by Canberra artist Ben Sherwood who did this pastel on cardboard piece in about 30 minutes during an Easter service at Newtown Neighbourhood Centre quite a few years ago (if your out there somewhere Ben, drop me a line!) It now hangs in our church and is one of our favourite works of art.

We borrowed the Good Friday Candlelight Service idea from a church in Port Macquarie (saw their posters one year) and it works nicely with the quieter, reflective feel of Good Friday.

Anyway, beyond all the ideas, the spin, the occasion – we really do long to see the mystery of His cross and resurrection undone in our own hearts and for others too.  PH

Living a life of action

To some, living a life of action might suggest bungy jumping and skydiving. But according to dynamic-speaking-duo, Jeremy and Catherine Hallett (Eternity, March 28), it runs much deeper than extreme sports.

The ‘why’ of living a life of action is to glorify God and see his kingdom advance.

The ‘what’ is to move from apathy (going through the motions) to action to kingdom by identifying ourselves as followers of Christ and stepping into a new boldness.

The ‘who’ of a life of action is everyone, or more specifically, everyone who makes themselves available. The ‘when’ is now and forever, in season and out of season – providing we have taken time out to hear what God wants us to do.

The ‘where’ of living a life of action is to start at home – our relationships, family, daily lives – and allow God to grow it from there.

Finally, the ‘how’ will be different for everyone but starts with rejecting fear and embracing the truth that God gives us abundant life.

Hear anything good at church today? Add it as a comment! PH

One man stand comes to a game end

Jim Wallace of the Australian Christian Lobby told me recently there was disappointment in the Christian community with church leaders who are perceived as failing to take public stands on tough social issues.

He said this reluctance often stemmed from the ‘hard hits’ they received in the media and opponents whenever they spoke out from a Christian perspective.

Perhaps church leaders have been watching the treatment dished out to former South Australian Attorney General, Michael Atkinson, who has single-handedly held back the introduction of R18+ video games in Australia.Read More »

Imagine beyond what we think we’ve learned

When Jesus reiterated the command to love God  (Mark 12:30)with everything we have he included the mind in the sense of our faculty for deep thought or imagination.

The human capacity to see something first in our imagination before seeing it formed (by the work of our hands or words of our mouth) is drawn from the very image of Creator God who spoke into being what he held in his heart.

Mark Youens, speaking this week in Port Macquarie, challenged the church to rediscover imagination. Just as Einstein’s creative approach to physics led to many of his great discoveries such as the theory of relativity, so too church leaders need to look afresh at the church to see what the real ‘constants’ are. Perhaps, Mark said, it is not Sunday services and church buildings but the making of disciples (Matthew 28:19-20).

Imagination is the ‘playground of the prophetic’ but there are also vain imaginations, such as the kind that led to the Tower of Babel. These imaginations are empty and profitless, manipulated as they are by human ambition.

Too often the church fails in imagination, Mark said, because its leaders have become institutionalised, begging the question, ‘Can we imagine beyond what we think we have learned?’ Another cause is that our imagination is manipulated by our own reason. We take what God has given creatively and make it less so we can hold it more easily in our hands. ‘Some things are never meant to be held in our hands,’ Mark said.

It is a season to re-imagine the kingdom of God as opposed to being preoccupied with the singular goal of building large churches.

Imagine if… PH