Tuesday, December 25, 2007

HoHoHo!!!

Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas...

How quickly things can change. In the month since the change of government here in Australia there has been a significant shift across the landscape. Suddenly we find ourselves owning the challenges of climate change, facing up afresh to the significant disadvantage suffered by Indigenous Australians, and looking with new eyes at Australia’s place in the world. Economic news now draws a dark cloud over 2008 across the world, with most serious impact looming for the less-well-off. A deep malaise seems to have been shaken, and a fresh perspective has taken hold. Where this new-found energy and perspective leads is an open question, but such a significant shift in such a short space of time serves as an important reminder of those who hold to the gospel hope.

Into an oppressed and riven community was born a special child of promise: the long-awaited and anticipated Messiah. But the news was not announced generally for all to hear. It first infiltrated from the margins: announcement of birth to a young lady and her betrothed. Still carrying this news and newly married, they head off to Bethlehem – the wife heavily pregnant – where she gave birth. Again the news was proclaimed to a small and marginal few. Shepherds in the field were the social equivalent of toilet cleaners – yet it was to these that the angels proclaimed the birth of the Christ-child. The news was discovered by some wise men of the East, who came to pay homage while native Israelites remained unaware. Their wisdom extended to warning the parents, leading to the family’s flight into Egypt – the very place where Israel had known captivity. When the child came of age, he was proclaimed in the wilderness by a strangely-dressed prophet. He began his ministry by calling as followers fishermen, tax collectors, zealots and the like. Hardly mainstream Israelites. From birth to adulthood, through ministry to death and then on to resurrection, the child of promise gathered the people whom society had discarded or disregarded – hardly the people by whom to wage a peaceful revolution.

Yet as surely as the Christ-child was born, so too hope. In a strange place, amongst odd people, with few recognised resources. But by the power of God this hope has transformed communities, nations, families and individuals through the centuries. In the space of a few short months, from annunciation to birth, the world’s landscape was transformed. And we are invited not only to be part of that transformation, but to be transformed by it. In all our frailty, in all our wonder, in all our frustrations… This transformation is to be born in us too!

May the wonder of Christmas, the birth of hope, and the miracle of God-with-us bring new life to your Christmas season, and into God’s future.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

A Special Christmas Song

If you are sick of conventional carols, here is an unusual "choir" including such classic performers as Neil Diamond, Stryper and Barney... yes, you heard correctly.

Presenting Winter Wonderland sung by the greatest mix of stars our planet has to offer.


(In order of appearance)

Frank Sinatra
Elvis Presley
William Hung
The Partridge Family
Willie Nelson
Macy Gray
The Andrews Sisters
Stryper
Dean Martin
Manhattan Transfer
Barney
Neil Diamond
Barry Manilow
James Taylor
Clay Aiken
Jewel
Johnny Mathis
Brian Setzer
Eurythmics
Tony Bennet

and last but not least...
Mr. Ringo Starr

It truly is a winter wonderland.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Paying Attention?

With so many different signals available to us each day, we learn to switch off - we can become oblivious to noises, sights, even smells while we focus on particular tasks and challenges. However, it seems there is a cost. We suffer from attentional blindness, which results in us missing key pieces of information even when we are trying to attend to it.

This video shows how neuroscientists have demonstrated how this phenomenon occurs, and shows one way in which one can increase attention to notice things that we often miss.

The research shows how our brains become overstimulated and therefore less sensitive to shifts in information. Through prayer and meditation, the mind becomes more alert and more sensitive to the information around us - there are physiological changes which take place.

Perhaps Spurgeon was right when he said that he was so busy that he needed to spend the first three hours in prayer!



Top 10 Quotes for 2007

I know the year isn't over, but that doesn't stop Time magazine from making its determination already!

Top 10 Quotes taken from Time.com
#1. "I really am not the kind of guy that sits here and says, 'Oh gosh, I'm worried about my legacy.'"
- President GEORGE W. BUSH, when asked about his falling approval numbers and mounting criticism of the Iraq War during an interview with CBS' 60 Minutes (Jan. 14, 2007)

#2. "In Iran, we don't have homosexuals, like in your country."
- MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD, president of Iran, responding to a question about the treatment of gays and lesbians in Iran during a visit to Columbia University in New York City (Sept. 24, 2007)

#3. "This record is not tainted at all. At all. Period."
- San Francisco Giants slugger BARRY BONDS, after breaking Hank Aaron's Major League Baseball all-time home-run record with his 756th career homer amid rampant speculation that he has used steroids. Bonds has always denied that he ever "knowingly" used performance-enhancing substances, but he was indicted in November for allegedly lying to a federal grand jury about using them (Aug. 7, 2007)

#4. "If you didn't like Darfur, you're going to hate Baghdad."
- Gen. DAVID H. PETRAEUS, warning of the consequences of an early troop withdrawal from Iraq (Aug. 14, 2007)

#5. "This is it. This is where it all ends. End of the road. What a life it was. Some life."
- Virginia Tech gunman CHO SEUNG-HUI, in a chilling video he made and sent to NBC News before killing 32 people and committing suicide in the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history (Apr. 16, 2007)

#6. "I don't think they're piling on because I'm a woman. I think they're piling on because I'm winning."
- HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON, on intensifying criticism by rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination (Nov. 2, 2007)

#7. "The planet is in distress and all of the attention is on Paris Hilton. We have to ask ourselves what is going on here?"
- AL GORE, in an interview with the British paper The Sun, before adding that he believes in 10 years it will be too late to save the planet (June 18, 2007)

#8. "I spent the better part of the past three months enduring criticism that is normally leveled at some kind of genocidal tyrant."
- RUPERT MURDOCH, News Corp. owner, on the outcry over his purchase of the Wall Street Journal (Aug. 8, 2007)

#9. "Hello, Condoleezza Rice? You have me to deal with now."
- A MASKED HAMAS GUNMAN, joking into the telephone of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas after taking control of his government compound (June 15, 2007)

#10. "Why don't you just shut up?"
- KING JUAN CARLOS, of Spain, to Hugo Chávez at a summit in Chile after the Venezuelan President called former Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar a fascist (Nov. 10, 2007)

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Parliament of World Religions 2009

I was privileged to attend the formal launch of the Parliament of World Religions 2009 at Federation Square on Thursday morning. This event, held every five years since 1993, and first held in 1893, calls together people of all faiths for dialogue and conversation, in the face of the realities facing our world. We evangelical christians have been skeptical of such calls, wondering what we might find in common with people of other faiths, particularly in the face of the unique call of the gospel and the unique person of Jesus Christ. The preference has been to avoid contact (for the large part), for reasons which generally run counter to the missional call of the gospel.

As we seek to minister in our local settings, we seek understanding of the peoples we are called to reach. By entering dialogue, such understanding is fostered, not only for the different values and ideals held, but also in clarifying what our own faith response might be, and how the gospel intersects with such realities. The Parliament of World Religions seeks to encourage and foster such conversations across people of all faiths. And, in a world such as ours, we ought to be encouraged in dialogue with people who recognise and affirm spiritual values in an openly and unashamedly materialistic setting. The event promises a strong emphasis on the situation facing Indigenous Australians, and our responsibilities in the face of them all.

The gathering will not hold worship events, nor will their be any resolutions. Dirk Vicca, chair of the Parliament of World Religions made a helpful call: "It is not perfection that is important, but direction." In a world where religious beliefs serve as a backdrop to many of the major international challenges, to gather for conversation and understanding is an important call. It matches strongly with Jesus' call to be light and salt in the world.

Friday, December 07, 2007

The Vegetable Orchestra

In keeping with the environmentally sustainable theme, here's an organic orchestra - when you've finished playing, you can share a meal together!



Sadly this invites a litany of puns, whether you carrot all... or not. I'll go no further with that. But if you want to go further, check out their web site, which offers a suite of vegetable tunes.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Can't Think Now, I'm Busy

John Watson from The Age reflects on the importance of down-time:
publication date: December 1, 2007

In my lifetime, the number of Australians has doubled. When last I looked, our population was estimated at 21,150,121 and growing by one every one minute and 44 seconds. A second country has sprung up alongside the one of 10.5 million people recorded at the 1961 census, almost literally so as half of today's population is either foreign-born or born to a migrant parent. Only a minority would argue that Australia has not benefited from the resulting evolution of a more diverse, interesting and dynamic society, but it is also a more crowded country.

Australians are crowded not only by other people, but as a result of countless technological and social developments that, I suspect, have more serious implications for our collective capacity to think, create and remember. The reasons are to be found in the way the brain works, but more of the science later. Such thoughts have nagged at me since I read the writer Paul Theroux's reflections in The New York Times on "America the Overfull", in which he lamented the loss of "a country of enormous silence and ordinariness (and) empty spaces". Theroux acknowledged the seductions of nostalgia — "Yes, it is just silly and fogeyish to yearn for that simpler and smaller world of the past" — but the lost world he describes holds lessons for the creative, innovative nation that Australia aspires to be, as we have been told ad nauseam this past election year.

"I grew up in a country of sudden and consoling lulls, which gave life a kind of pattern and punctuation, unknown now," Theroux wrote. "It was typified by the somnolence of Sundays … There were empty parts of the day, of the week, of the year …" Of course, some people still see the value in setting aside such time each week in defiance of this 24/7 society. (A New Yorker cartoon by Robert Mankoff makes wonderful play of this by depicting a man bearing a briefcase and speaking into his mobile phone as he walks along a busy subway platform: "And remember, if you need anything, I'm available 24/6.")

For me, the contemporary relevance to Australia's "clever country" aspirations lies, paradoxically, in Theroux's recollections of a quieter past and, in particular, of the solitude of a long drive of the sort that we can rarely experience on today's crowded highways, even if we chose not to hop onto the next cheap and convenient commuter flight. Theroux paints the picture perfectly (although the italics are mine): "Late at night, in most places I knew, there was almost no traffic and driving, a meditative activity, could cast a spell. Behind the wheel, gliding along, I was keenly aware of being an American in America, on a road that was also metaphorical, making my way through life unhindered, developing ideas, making decisions, liberated by the flight through this darkness and silence."

When did you last have several hours of unbroken, idle contemplation to yourself? Our lives are crowded, noisier, faster, in almost every way. People, technology such as mobile phones, the internet and other mass communication, our ways of work, have all eaten into our time and space. The imperatives of productivity and efficiency demand that not a minute be wasted. Time is money. But the cost to our quality of thought is immeasurable. We are too busy to think.

This came home to me on election night, when Kevin Rudd delivered his acceptance speech from a lectern bearing the words "New Leadership. Fresh Ideas." Rudd is perhaps the most obviously intelligent politician I have met in the past two decades. Yet even he has succumbed to the pressures of running the political treadmill through a year-long campaign. Two samples from his acceptance speech illustrate how badly he lapsed into unthinking cliche, tautologies and what George Orwell memorably described in his essay, Politics and the English Language, as worn-out, "dying" metaphors.

"Today the Australian people have decided that we as a nation will move forward," Rudd began. "To plan for the future, to prepare for the future, to embrace the future and together as Australians to unite and write a new page in our nation's history." That was apparently so stirring he reprised it later, twice, in a brief speech. "It is time for a new page to be written in our nation's history. The future is too important for us not to work together to embrace the challenges of the future and to carve out our nation's destiny."

Australia's quest for a renewable energy source would be over were we able to harness the spinning of Orwell in his grave. His primary concern was not the aesthetics of language — though he valued that — but that "using stale metaphors, similes and idioms" came "at the cost of leaving your meaning vague", with "phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse". As Orwell explained, "the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you — even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent — and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself. It is at this point that the special connection between politics and the debasement of language becomes clear."

There is evidence to show Rudd has thought deeply about issues before this year, but the same cannot be said of last Saturday night's speech. It probably seems unkind to pick on him when so many others are guilty, as Orwell wrote, of using political language "to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind". But I pick on Rudd to show that even someone of his intellect is not immune from the numbing effects of nonstop activity and stress on fresh expressions of thought. We have all experienced the impact of stress and constant interruptions on our train of thought: our computer chimes in to announce the arrival of an email; the mobile goes off for the umpteenth time; a colleague hurries across for a brief consultation. Where were we? The shadow of a thought has already slipped away.

As for taking the time to come up with considered responses to complex problems, bugger that. There's no time to spare in the worlds of business and politics. The pressure is on for instant answers that show we are "on top of the problem". We often hear references to "policy on the run", but when did any politician go into contemplative retreat to think about policy solutions? When snap judgements are demanded and given as an issue arises, is it any wonder that short-sighted policies are the result? Just for once, I'd like to hear a politician ask for time to think about a new problem.

We seem to resent allowing even academics in their "ivory towers" the time that deep thought requires. They must not be spared the demands of productivity and efficiency, not when they are funded from the public purse. Universities are in effect treated as industrial-scale idea factories, required to produce more ideas with immediate applications, and fast. Yet the way the brain works, even the best of brains needs extended quiet time to make sense of existing knowledge and then to arrive creatively at new ideas. Whether big or small, most new ideas come to us in moments of idle contemplation. The worth of original big ideas can hardly be overstated.

An insight into the forces of gravity came to Isaac Newton when he contemplated the fall of an apple from a tree. John Conduitt, Newton's assistant and husband to his niece, described the moment in his account of Newton's life: "In the year 1666 he retired again from Cambridge to his mother in Lincolnshire. Whilst he was pensively meandering in a garden it came into his thought that the power of gravity (which brought an apple from a tree to the ground) was not limited to a certain distance from earth, but that this power must extend further than was usually thought."

Newton was meandering when he experienced his flash of insight, on which he built the foundations for the next two centuries of physics. We sometimes refer to such insights as a eureka moment, in reference to Archimedes' use of the term (Greek for "I have found it") at the moment, more than two millenniums ago, when he realised that the displacement of water depended on an object's volume and density. Legend has it that he was taking a bath at the time. It is no coincidence that neither Newton nor Archimedes was working head down at their workstations when inspiration came — although years of deep thought had preceded the moment the big new idea took shape. Such flashes of insight take place in quiet contemplative moments and involve a distinctive kind of brain activity, which shows up in brain scans, as connections between existing knowledge and a new idea are made. John Howard's prime ministerial walks became a subject for parody, but it isn't just the exercise that he and most of the rest of us need. In his temporary zone of self-created silence, save for the puffing of his entourage, he gave himself time to ponder the problems he confronted, to think. What we know about brain physiology also goes a long way towards explaining the apparent amnesia that operates in modern politics and society. I have struggled to understand, for instance, how journalists who were around at the time could ask Howard why he wouldn't sign the Kyoto Protocol when his government did, to much fanfare, in 1997. Not that most Australians don't suffer similar, apparently inexplicable memory lapses in their professional and private lives. We forget significant events and the sequence in which they took place as we rush on to the next item on the agenda, the next distracting activity.

The answer again lies in brain studies that have confirmed we also need time free of distraction to store long-term memories. For any memory to last, it must be transferred from short-term memory to long-term memory, which involves a physical and chemical process to create a memory trace. The memory needs to be physically embedded by connecting new and old knowledge in the brain. That takes about half an hour, which is why concussion victims cannot recall the period preceding their injury.

Even minor mental interruptions interfere with the memory consolidation process, so we remember best when we are unhurried and undistracted by the intrusion of other thoughts or demands on us.

The greater the focus of our attention, the greater the amount of information brought into short-term memory and then transferred and retained as long-term memory.

Social distractions, lack of sleep, anxiety and stress all diminish attention and memory; conversely, being rested and relaxed improves our ability to concentrate, think and remember. Aerobic exercise is also significant because increasing the supply of oxygen to the brain improves its functioning. It's not just politicians who work long and often unsociable hours. Most of us are probably deep on the deficit side of the brain's ledger of requirements for effective thinking and memory. Earlier this year, a Human Rights Commission report found that 16 years of economic growth had left Australians wealthier but time-poor and stressed. "A truly prosperous society is one that values time as well as money," it concluded.

The crush and rush of modern life impoverishes all of us by crippling our creative capacity and diminishing our wealth of memory.

We have been deprived of the long silences in which we can interrogate our own minds and wait patiently for previously unrevealed truths to emerge. We are poorer as people for this and, ultimately, poorer as a country whose hopes for a prosperous future depend heavily on the development of human intellect in a knowledge economy.

In politics and workplaces and at home we do so many things in old ways simply because we don't have time to take stock of what we do and think of new ways that are more efficient and more economically and environmentally sustainable.

It is not only governments that run out of ideas. We can change governments, but if we truly value ideas and creativity we'd also make changes to our crowded lives. At home and at work, we should all aim to create time and space for the simple, vital act of thinking.

John Watson is a senior Age writer.

Friday, November 30, 2007

An environmentally responsible Christmas?

What a waste spending all that money on Christmas trees which can only be used once a year, and for a single purpose. Here's a very creative way of using common materials for Christmas and keeping in the spirit of the season.
Typically Australian creativity!

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Philip Adams on the Election outcome

Adams goes a long way to explaining the sense of relief which accompanied the election outcome for me in this blog post from The Australian.

SPARE me the sentimental tosh about John Howard. Here’s why his departure is a joyous occasion.

The scene: The Great Hall at the University of Sydney. The grand opening of a conference for the Centre for the Mind. Crowds have gathered to see Nelson Mandela cut the ribbon. As chairman of the advisory board it is my duty to welcome our patron, the Prime Minister. That long-time opponent of sanctions against apartheid South Africa will then welcome Mandela. When I complain bitterly about my chore, the vice-chancellor murmurs, “Protocol.”

A last-minute phone call from a protocol officer in the PM’s department.

“Do you really want to introduce the PM?” he asks.

“Of course I bloody well don’t!”

“Yes, it would be a bit hypocritical.”

“Not as hypocritical as the PM introducing Mandela.”

The resolution? The VC will introduce Howard. I’ll move the vote of thanks. When I explain the change, Mandela isn’t fussed but asks me: “How’s Paul Keating getting on?”

This backstage kerfuffle is nothing to Malcolm Fraser’s loud performance in front of the gathering dignitaries, including the PM. He tells of a crisis early in his prime ministership involving Vietnamese close to the Australian embassy. They are understandably desperate to be allowed into this country. Fraser phones Gough Whitlam, who agrees they should be welcomed. “So did my entire cabinet, except for one person. Guess who!” And he points the finger at Howard.

The scene: John Laws’s 2UE studio in 1988. Anticipating One Nation by many years, Howard warns the nation of the dangers of Asian immigration. So outraged is the response to his statement that Howard loses his job as Opposition leader a year later.

The scene: A new prime minister manipulates Hansonism in the mid to late 1990s. Forget dog-whistle politics. In a campaign as deafening as any air raid siren, Howard declares war on multiculturalism and political correctness. White Australia rises from its grave. Bigotry is unleashed via an epidemic of racist graffiti, schoolyard attacks and shock-jock broadcasting. Thanks to the main parties’ accommodation of One Nation, Australian racism is world news.

The scene: A few thousand refugees flee the Taliban and Saddam Hussein in 2001. Howard brands them queue jumpers, illegals and has cohorts hint that they’re terrorists. The Tampa sails into view and our detention of decent people in concentration camps becomes an international disgrace. Kim Beazley rolls over. The ALP is complicit in this political pornography, this immense stunt. Kids overboard. The Australian Navy is appalled by what it’s ordered to do. More than 350 die on the SievX. All this wins Howard another term.

The scene: 9/11. Howard jumps the queue to sign up for the misconceived war on terror and the horror story of the Iraq invasion. Immense numbers of Iraqis are killed. We are complicit in hundreds of thousands of deaths, in Abu Ghraib, in torture, in rendition. It isn’t democracy that blossoms in the Middle East. It’s terrorism. To this day Howard insists that the fiasco of Iraq is a success.

The scene: Guantanamo Bay. Howard permits the monstrous treatment of David Hicks.

The scene: The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission prepares Bringing Them Home, the tragic account of the stolen generations. Before publication date in 1997, Howard’s bovver boys not only deride the document but slander Ronald Wilson. Historical revisionism kicks in. Reconciliation is rejected. The black-white divide deepens. Quadrant crows. Pauline Hanson is pleased.

The scene: The Kelly gang - the husbands of retiring member Jackie Kelly and her would-be replacement - are caught distributing a piece of crap designed to press the hot buttons on anti-Muslim bigotry. We’re told this attempt to throw fuel on the world’s most inflammatory issue is a prank. The PM promptly denies any knowledge of this dirtiest of dirty tricks, yet it sits within the culture of bigotry he has encouraged over many years.

The scene: As the election gains pace, Howard’s immigration minister Kevin Andrews targets the alleged criminality of Sudanese refugees and immigrants. Deja vu all over again.

The scene: A few days before the election, Howard is asked to list his proudest achievements. Right up front he says the destruction of - yes - political correctness.

Is Howard a bigot? His support of apartheid South Africa, his long-term indifference to the issues of Aboriginal Australia, his exploitation of the refugee issue and his on-the-record hostility to Asian immigration would suggest so. Or is he a main-chancer, a cunning manipulator of other people’s fears and racism? If the latter, isn’t that morally worse? That’s why I’m not shedding tears at Howard’s departure. Because his fondness for the Menzies era involved the revival of too many aspects of White Australia. No other modern PM on either side of politics would have touched it with a barge pole.

Away with the manger

From The Age

Taking the pressure to be popular off the Christmas story offers a chance for a whole new meaning.

In the town where I grew up, the Christmas pageant was the highlight of the year. We'd arrive early and thrust our way past the adults to sit at the blue line. We'd watch, enthralled, as marching bands, exotic floats, dancing ballerinas and clowns went past. We especially loved it when it came time for the nativity scene. The baby was cute but, more to the point, it meant that the very next float was Santa's. And while he would go on to set up shop in Myer, the nativity would be carefully wrapped up and put into the storage shed.

Ownership rights for Christmas have long been a tricky subject. We've become used to the tug-of-war between what we've designated as the sacred and the secular at Christmas, but over the past couple of years the ground has shifted even more. Christianity is no longer fighting for its share of centre stage - it's discovering that it can no longer assume that it has a place on the stage at all.

You can predict the letters that will fill our papers this Christmas as easily as I can. "We need to get back to the real meaning of Christmas," they'll proclaim, as though there can only be one, and as though Christianity holds its copyright.

For hundreds of years, Christianity has assumed a privileged position as the meaning-maker within Western society. But in the last few generations, Christianity has become like the favourite great aunt who sits in the corner of the room at Christmas - we play along with her for the day, listen nostalgically to her old stories, and with bemusement to her folk wisdom. "We must try to see more of her during the year," we say as we leave, knowing we won't.

At the risk of overworking the analogy, for many people, their great aunt has long died and been buried. Many people in our community whose heritage was Christian have decided firmly against it.

To say that Christianity is under threat, however, is more than a little melodramatic. Christianity has a resilience and tenacity that's enabled it to survive horrific persecution and oppression, from its earliest days in the Roman Empire, until now in communist China. The decision by a local council in Melbourne to not have a nativity float in a Christmas pageant won't kill off Christianity. Thinking that having a nativity float is a sign of a Christian society is a far greater threat.

It's ironic that Christmas has become the season over which this battle for making meaning is fought. The origin of the festival left the way open for the argument to continue forever. It wasn't until about 400 years after the birth of Jesus that anyone felt it necessary to mark the day.

Historians largely agree that the celebration of Christmas came about just after Constantine had made Christianity a recognised and privileged religion within the Roman Empire. Religious leaders were looking for a way to make Christianity more widely accepted among the populace, so they adopted an existing mid-winter festival and layered it with Christian meanings.

Many of our Christmas traditions came from the pre-existing festival: preparing great feasts of meat and ale to use up all the stores before they went off. While people would celebrate surviving the darkest time of year and the promise of light to come by dancing and singing naked in the streets, we've translated that tradition into a much more tasteful version, with the fully clothed Salvos singing Christmas carols from the back of a truck.

So much for those of us who thought that Jesus was actually born on December 25, and that we were joining in some world-wide birthday party that's been thrown ever since in his honour.

The relationship between what's been defined as sacred and secular has always been murky. Our tendency has been to define some traditions and behaviours as sacred, without recognising that they are - at best - just carriers of something sacred.

Perhaps the great mistake of the Christian church since the festival of Christmas began is that it has compromised itself so deeply in order to be palatable to everyone. It doesn't recognise that it has lost hold of much that is sacred. Which means we no longer recognise the irony of playing Christmas carols in a shopping centre.

Taking nativity floats out of the Christmas pageant and not insisting that Silent Night gets sung next to Jingle Bells may give Christianity the best chance it has had in years to offer something deeply sacred to the world. It gives back the freedom to not be attractive, to not have to be enticing. It lets Christianity stand on its own. It gives us the chance to distinguish between the truly sacred and the purely religious or nostalgic. Please, God, it gives us the chance to never hear Away in a Manger again.

Best of all, if the Christian Christmas story is released from the pressure to be popular it means we can take the nativity from its place in the corner of the sparkly shopping centre, where the star at its top gets lost among the glitter and glitz of the decorations.

We can put it unashamedly next to the dumpster out the back, where there are no other stars to light the dark.
Cheryl Lawrie
November 25, 2007
Cheryl Lawrie is a Melbourne writer.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

It's Election Day in Australia

Democracy is a form of government that substitutes election by the incompetent many for appointment by the corrupt few.- George Bernard Shaw -

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Going out with style


Ever wanted to make a colourful exit from the world? It doesn't have to be done any more in the manner of death, but in the colour of your casket. The group is called Life Art, and describes their coffins as environmentally friendly (they are made of cardboard), which presumably means the paint is non-toxic... but can it guarantee the contents to be similarly so? Is there anything in this world we can't make a dollar from?

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Movie Physics

Ever thought about the natural consequences of holding a gun that fires off thousands of rounds in a short space of time as you've watch Terminator, or some such other cinema 'classic'? What about the flash when the bullet is fired? Or perhaps the soft "phut" when a silencer is applied? Maybe your interest isn't so much to do with guns... how about that long, red laser beam? Or perhaps jumping through a plate glass window without sustaining even a little scratch?
Or, perhaps you might have worried about your car bursting into flames in an accident (preferably off a cliff, exploding at the moment of impact)?

If we learned our physics from movies, we'd be very confused people. Here to set the record straight, and to learn some basic physics, is Intuitor. Be warned, what makes good physics doesn't necessarily stand in the way of good entertainment (and vice versa). If you like The Matrix, or A.I., and use it as the foundation of a scientific education then don't worry too much about your career in science.

It makes an interesting read... and I learned something to!

Friday, October 19, 2007

When a "virtual presence" replaces an incarnated presence, it may be that our virtue is virtual as well, says by Brian McLaren. I am particularly challenged b McLuhan's observation that "every technological innovation is an amputation" - we lose something even while we gain. The question to be pondered is whether the loss is greater than the gain. McLaren seems to suggest that we might be crossing the point of return in different ways:

I've had a couple of semi-sleepless nights lately because some members of my congregation got into trouble and needed my pastoral help. Their situation seems so messy, so ugly, so intractable, and I feel the weight of trying to help them get through it with their faith intact. I confess, though, that I've wished at times I could be one of those pastors who never actually has to deal with people, who simply "shows up" (interesting term) on screen, not in person.

I am certainly not against "video venues." Nor am I against Christian websites. Nor (obviously) am I against the use of books and journals (like the one that connects us here). I am for the thoughtful and careful use of technology in ministry, whether we're talking about the printing press, the telephone, radio, the internet, or satellites.

But we would be foolish to rush into new technologies unaware of their unintended consequences, the side effects that Marshall McLuhan began warning about back in the 1960s and 1970s (see Shane Hipps's The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture: How Media Shapes Faith, the Gospel, and Church, Zondervan, 2006).

Every technological innovation, McLuhan would say, is an amputation. For example, with the invention of the wheel or lever or chain saw, we use our muscles less. With the invention of the calculator, our mental computational skills grow rusty. While microphones help us whisper to thousands, they also make it less necessary for us to learn enunciation and vocal projection. And spell-checkers … make it EZ for us never to lern the lie of the grammaratical land.

What of technologies that in a sense amputate presence? The television and the DVD, the videoconference and perhaps increasingly, the hologram, project our presence, but do they in some way amputate presence as well?

I recently heard someone say that preaching is going the way of the Eucharist: we're moving from "real presence" to "virtual presence." The preacher seen via projection or download is "with us," but only in an abstract sense.

Projection is a fascinating word, especially when contrasted with incarnation. I imagine the first chapter of the fourth gospel reading, "the Word was projected into our world to be observed among us," and I wonder what difference it would have made.

One difference: you can't crucify a digital image. And that, to me, is one of the great amputations that comes from "virtual presence" or "projected presence" replacing incarnational presence. Looking back on my years as a pastor, I have to say that preaching was relatively easy and fun. But being close to people, being present in a community, often was downright agonizing.

Many of us have thought to ourselves, Ministry would be great if it weren't for the people, and increasingly it has become possible to "have a ministry" without ever having to actually live, in your flesh, with people in their flesh. In fact, vicarious ministries (via books, radio, TV, or whatever) have a higher status in the minds of many than the work of actually being with people who argue, fail, disagree, react, sin, attack, have emotional breakdowns, get sick, call you at 2 a.m., betray you, try your patience, and eventually die and leave you in grief.

That loss of "real presence" is bad for the church, no doubt. But I can't help but think it's also bad for us as pastors and leaders too. Because if our ministry is only virtual, it may be that our virtue is virtual as well.

When we can't get hurt, when we can't sacrifice, when we can't share the pain of people in their actual presence and in "real time," something in us may be getting amputated. Paul spoke of "glorying" in his afflictions for the sake of those he served.

That's good for us to remember if we start envying the "virtual pastors."

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Bury me with...

British charity Age Concern, which promotes the interests of elderly people, polled more than 100,000 of its customers and found that being buried with their pet's ashes was the most common funeral rite request. However, some of the other requests represent an interesting fear.

The top eight requests were:
1. To be cremated with their pet's ashes;
2. To have a mobile phone in the coffin;
3. To ensure they are dead;
4. For a mirror to be held over the face to check for signs of breathing;
5. To be cremated naked;
6. To be buried in their own garden;
7. To be buried with their teeth in;
8. To be buried with all their savings.

Number eight suggests that there are still those who want to argue that you can take it with you.

Me? Do what you want with my body when I'm gone, as I'm not going to have much use for it!!

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Something to blow your mind


The Right Brain vs Left Brain test ... do you see the dancer turning clockwise or anti-clockwise?

If clockwise, then you use more of the right side of the brain and vice versa.

Most of us would see the dancer turning anti-clockwise though you can try to focus and change the direction; see if you can do it.









LEFT BRAIN FUNCTIONS
uses logic
detail oriented
facts rule
words and language
present and past
math and science
can comprehend
knowing
acknowledges
order/pattern perception
knows object name
reality based
forms strategies
practical
safe
RIGHT BRAIN FUNCTIONS
uses feeling
"big picture" oriented
imagination rules
symbols and images
present and future
philosophy & religion
can "get it" (i.e. meaning)
believes
appreciates
spatial perception
knows object function
fantasy based
presents possibilities
impetuous
risk taking
source: Perth Now

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Church where it's all about ....

Are you tired of shopping around for that church that fully meets your needs? Then check out the ever-popular “Me Church…where it’s all about you.” This is the church you’ve been searching for–unquestioningly dedicated to meeting your every need. While you are in church, your car gets a wash, a buff and an oil change! You’ll receive free tickets to the Super Bowl! And they sing all you favorite worship songs: “It’s All About Me,” “There Is None Like Me,” and “I Am Why I Sing.” Your church-shopping days are over!



From our good friends at MSA, visit their blog space, sign up for their seed sampler newsletter.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Time

Time is that quality of nature which keeps events from happening all at once. Lately it doesn't seem to be working.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Burma

Burma's generals have brought their brutal iron hand down on peaceful monks and protesters - but in response, a massive global outcry is gathering pace. The roar of global public opinion is being heard in hundreds of protests outside Chinese and Burmese embassies, people round the world wearing the monks' color red, and on the internet - where our petition has exploded to over 200,000 signers in just 72 hours.

People power can win this. Burma's powerful sponsor China can halt the crackdown, if it believes that its international reputation and the 2008 Olympics in Beijing depend on it. To convince the Chinese government and other key countries, Avaaz is launching a major global and Asian ad campaign on Wednesday, including full page ads in the Financial Times and other newspapers, that will deliver our message and the number of signers. We need 1 million voices to be the global roar that will get China's attention. If every one of us forwards this email to just 20 friends, we'll reach our target in the next 72 hours. Please sign the petition at the link below - if you haven't already - and forward this message to everyone you care about:

http://www.avaaz.org/en/stand_with_burma/t.php

The pressure is working - already, there are signs of splits in the Burmese Army, as some soldiers refuse to attack their own people. The brutal top General, Than Shwe, has reportedly moved his family out of the country – he must fear his rule may crumble.

The Burmese people are showing incredible courage in the face of horror. We're broadcasting updates on our effort over the radio into Burma itself – telling the people that growing numbers of us stand with them. Let's do everything we can to help them – we have hours, not days, to do it. Please sign the petition and forward this email to at least 20 friends right now. Scroll down our petition page for details of times and events to join in the massive wave of demonstrations happening around the world at Burmese and Chinese embassies.

A support rally is planned for this Saturday at noon in Melbourne (Federation Square). I will be conducting a wedding at that time, otherwise I would be there.

Monday, September 24, 2007

The Sinister Story Behind Chocolate

This story might be regarded as bad news for those chocaholics among us...

originally published in The Age, September 18, 2007

Chocolate is regarded as a treat, a sweet luxury often given as a gift. But that is only part of its story. The rest is more sinister. Two hundred years after the British Empire abolished the slave trade, nearly half the world's chocolate is made from cocoa grown in Ivory Coast, West Africa, where tens of thousands of children are forced to work on plantations as slaves.

A 2002 study estimated that at least 284,000 children were trapped in forced labour in the West African cocoa industry, the majority of these — some 200,000 — were to be found in Ivory Coast. Even the most conservative estimates, including those by the chocolate companies themselves, concede that the number of chocolate slaves is at least 12,000.

These children are forced to apply pesticides without protective clothing and to work for up to 12 hours a day on the plantations for little or no pay. Their toil helps the giant chocolate makers produce the chocolate we find on the shelves of our stores.

Parliamentarian and social justice crusader William Wilberforce, whose life-long crusade resulted in the abolition of the slave trade — which then formed a critical part of the economic foundations of the British Empire — would be horrified. A recent feature film, Amazing Grace, heralds Wilberforce's crusade to free the slaves, yet the tragedy is that more people are ensnared in slavery today than in the entire 400 years of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Human trafficking generates $A37 billion annually and enslaves at least 12 million around the globe. Some estimates even put the number of people enslaved as high as 27 million. And the epicentre of today's slave trade is in Australia's backyard — South-East Asia.

The tragic nature of this industry is evident when you realise that the average age of a girl locked in sexual slavery in South-East Asia is 12 or 13.

However complex this trade in people, it is inescapable that there is a strong and foundational link between poverty and modern-day slavery. People who are poor are more vulnerable. We can't fight slavery without fighting poverty.

Overseas aid is critical to developing better public justice systems but it is also important in providing livelihoods for emancipated slaves.

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, people trafficking is the world's fastest-growing crime, already bigger than the international drug trade and second only to the illegal buying and selling of arms.

But action is being taken. Stop The Traffik, the organisation I founded three years ago, now has more than 600 member organisations in 60 countries around the globe determined to raise awareness of the problem and to demand action at all levels to bring it to an end. One of the most powerful tools we have at our disposal is as consumers. In 2000, the chief executives of the major chocolate makers were hauled before the US Senate and a bill was proposed that would require the chocolate industry to certify all their chocolate as "slave-free".

The cocoa industry successfully lobbied against this, arguing that the supply chain for cocoa was complex, with middlemen buying the beans and mixing them before selling them on to conglomerate buyers.

But such major companies control the market and they can determine under what conditions they buy their cocoa beans. Unless the industry can guarantee that our chocolate is not made from beans picked by trafficked children, then we will never make progress. Industry must be able to tell people which farms beans are from and must guarantee no trafficked labour.

Consumers for their part should buy chocolate only from those companies that give this guarantee. It is a practical way we can all contribute to today's crusade to end modern-day slavery.

Human trafficking is a global problem that requires a global response. At the end of his life William Wilberforce referred to the battle against slavery as "unfinished business". Today, working together, we can complete the task.

Steve Chalke is founder of the global Stop The Traffik campaign.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Nifty Computer Tricks

Here's a few nifty little computer quirks which you can use to amuse and confound... Some conspiracy theorists might get some ammunition in the process!

#1 An Indian found that nobody can create a FOLDER anywhere on the Computer which can be named as "CON". TRY IT NOW, IT WILL NOT CREATE A "CON" FOLDER

#2 For those of you using Windows, do the following:
1.) Open an empty notepad file
2.) Type "Bush hid the facts" (without the quotes)
3.) Save it as whatever you want.
4.) Close it, and re-open it.
Noticed the weird bug?

#3 This was discovered by a Brazilian. Try it out yourself...
Open Microsoft Word and type
=rand (200, 99)
then press ENTER and see the magic.....!

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Study: Iraqis May Experience Sadness When Friends, Relatives Die

July 25, 2007

CHAPEL HILL, NC—A field study released Monday by the University of North Carolina School of Public Health suggests that Iraqi citizens experience sadness and a sense of loss when relatives, spouses, and even friends perish, emotions that have until recently been identified almost exclusively with Westerners.

An Iraqi study group reacts to a car bombing. Researchers (not pictured) gathered data from a fortified observation booth.

"We were struck by how an Iraqi reacts to the sight of the bloody or decapitated corpse of a family member in a not unlike an American, or at the very least a Canadian, would," said Dr. Jonathan Pryztal, chief author of the study. "In addition to the rage, bloodlust, and hatred we already know to dominate the Iraqi emotional spectrum, it appears that they may have some capacity, however limited, for sadness."

Though Pryztal was quick to add that more detailed analysis is needed, he said the findings cast some doubt on long-held assumptions about human nature in that region.

"Contrary to conventional wisdom, it seems that Iraqis do indeed experience at least minor feelings of grief when a best friend or a grandparent is ripped apart by a car bomb or shot execution style and later unearthed in a shallow mass grave," Prytzal said. "Last December's suicide-bomb killing of 71 Shiites in Baghdad, for example, produced unexpected reactions ranging from crumpled, sobbing despair to silent, dazed shock."

Iraqis have often been observed weeping and wailing in apparent anguish, but the study offers evidence indicating this may not be exclusively an outward expression of anger or a desire for revenge. It also provocatively suggests that this grief can possess an American-like personal quality, and is not simply a tribal lamentation ritual.

An Iraqi mother expressing American-like grief at the loss of her son.

Said Pryztal: "When trying to understand the psychology of the Iraqi citizenry after four years of war, think of a small American town roiled by the death of a well-known high school football player."

According to Pryztal, the intensity of the grief does not diminish if the mourner experiences multiple bereavements over time. "If a woman has already lost one child, the subsequent killings of other children will evoke similar responses," he said. "In the majority of cases we studied, it appeared as though those who lost multiple kids never actually got used to it."

Though Pryztal expects the results of the study may be of some interest to students of Arab psychology, he did concede that the data may not be entirely accurate because it was gathered directly from Iraqis themselves.

"Almost all the Iraqis we interviewed said the war had ruined their lives because of the incalculable loss of friends and family," Pryztal said. "But to be totally honest, these types of studies can be skewed rather easily by participant exaggeration."

Psychologists and anthropologists have thus far largely discounted the study, claiming it has the same bias as a 1971 Stanford University study that concluded that many Vietnamese showed signs of psychological trauma from nearly a quarter century of continuous war in southeast Asia.

"We are, in truth, still a long way from determining if Iraqis are exhibiting actual, U.S.-grade sadness," Mayo Clinic neuropsychologist Norman Blum said. "At present, we see no reason for the popular press to report on Iraqi emotions as if they are real."

Pryztal said that his research group would next examine whether children in Sudan prefer playing with toys or serving as guerrilla fighters and killing innocent civilians.

...gotta love The Onion

Friday, September 14, 2007

World Vision's Triennial Council

Jim Wallis makes some interesting and encouraging reports on the most recent World Vision triennial council in Singapore.

A World of Hope (by Jim Wallis)

Last week I had the great blessing of participating in World Vision’s Triennial Council held in Singapore. It drew together almost 500 people—World Vision’s country directors and many staff, board chairs, and members from every region of the world, as well as the international board of directors who will guide and govern what has become the largest relief and development organization in the world. World Vision has grown enormously, especially in the last several years, and is seeking to determine its future direction. The organization serves 100 million people in almost 100 countries, with 23,000 staff members and an annual budget of $2 billion. It was indeed a privilege to deliver the opening and closing addresses and to have many opportunities to interact with this extraordinary and significant group of people each day of the conference.

I saw an organization in the dynamic process of moving from alleviation to transformation. I felt the passion of an international community of humanitarian faith-based workers who care deeply about the poorest children of the world, and who clearly yearn to embrace a God of justice, not merely a God of charity. That was the call they responded to in Singapore. The response was especially powerful from those from the global South, where the churches are growing dramatically and the conditions of life for so many have forced the people of God to address the issues of global justice.

The response of World Vision to the Asian tsunami was especially impressive, along with so many other places where natural disasters and human conflicts have caused so much suffering over the last three years. But we talked about how the greatest “disaster” in the world today is the very structure of the global order itself, and how disasters such as the Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina only serve to reveal these underlying injustices. If we are to be faithful to the biblical vision, we must judge those global structures to be unjust.

Organizations such as World Vision have the choice of merely being the beneficiaries of the guilt of the developed world in serving the victims of an unjust global order, or they can serve the poor in a way that shines a spotlight on global injustice and the moral imperative for transformation. It is more and more clear that World Vision desires to make the second choice. Many from the global South told me they had never heard an American speak this way, but the Americans at Singapore were also clearly in sync with the need for World Vision’s prophetic vocation.

We must be Christians first, the World Vision delegates strongly affirmed, and citizens of nations and members of tribes second. Today, globalization seems to have an inevitable logic, but no comparable ethic. But international bodies such as World Vision, which know no geopolitical boundaries, could help create the ethics and values that globalization now lacks.

World Vision now has three organizational pillars: relief, development, and advocacy. Advocacy is the newest and most controversial pillar, but the imperative to deal with the root causes of human suffering, with the injustice that leads to disaster for so many, and with the policies of nations and international organizations that obstruct real solutions to poverty, has developed a real momentum within the organization. And rather than just becoming another lobby group, their deepest response was to the vocation of “changing the wind” of international politics and priorities.

“World Vision changed this week,” many people said to me as I departed. We could all feel it. It seemed that what has been growing within the organization for some time took a great leap forward during those days in Singapore, and there is no turning back. World Vision will not just be a collector of a guilty, affluent world’s donations to sponsor poor children, but rather a catalyst to help build a global movement for spiritual and social transformation. World Vision’s size, influence, and credibility positions the organization very well to be a prophetic leader in that movement for justice on the global stage that speaks truth to power—not just as a service provider when disaster strikes.

On the last day we spoke about a biblical theology of hope in a world of pain, and how hope, backed by faith, was the key to bringing about the global sea changes we desperately need. The choice today is less between belief and secularism, but between hope and cynicism. The theme of the final day was “A World of Hope,” and what I saw and felt at World Vision’s Singapore Triennial Council made me very hopeful indeed.

Sav Rocca's "Welcome to NFL"

This commentator has obviously never seen an AFL (Aussie Rules) game! Watch how Rocca just brushes it off as inconsequential...

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Dawn Rowan Update

The Australian Government continues to pursue Dawn Rowan to bankruptcy, not responding to any pleas made on Dawn Rowan's behalf. Minister Mal Brough, who has responsibility for the case, is stonewalling in the face of thousands of submissions. Today Tonight in Adelaide included an update on August 23, the night before Dawn's most recent court appearance. This is the first video.



The second video is an updated report from Adelaide's Today Tonight on August 24, detailing the surprising response from Dawn in court.



Visit http://dawnrowansaga.blogspot.com/ for regular updates. Write to Minister Brough to make your submission on Dawn's behalf.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

It doesn't take a genius

MENSA is an organization whose members have an IQ of 140 or higher. A few years ago, they had a convention in San Francisco, and several
members lunched at a local cafe.
While dining, they discovered that their salt shaker contained pepper and their pepper shaker was full of salt. How could they swap the contents of the bottles without spilling, and using only the implements at hand? Clearly this was a job for Mensa!
The group debated and presented ideas, and finally came up with a brilliant solution involving a napkin, a straw, and an empty saucer. They called the waitress over to dazzle her with their solution.
"Ma'am," they said, "we couldn't help but notice that the pepper shaker contains salt and the salt shaker.."
"Oh," the waitress interrupted. "Sorry about that." She unscrewed the caps of both bottles and switched them.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Sponsored kids unionize for better terms

CHESAPEAKE, Va. — John Randall and family recently received a letter from their sponsor child in Honduras. But instead of offering an update and gratitude for their continued support, 11-year-old Maria Salvador told them she was boycotting them.
"She said it was nothing personal, but her sponsor child union wanted better terms," says Becky Randall, 34. "She asked us to please remove her photograph from the refrigerator and cease all communication with her until the strike is resolved."
In a new wrinkle for child sponsor ministries, sponsor children in several countries have united to demand better terms. They are asking for $45 a month, up from the standard $28, plus a 7 percent annual increase, new uniforms, better medical care and more frequent gift packages from sponsors.
"American sponsor organizations can’t exist without us, and we want a better deal," says one child union representative.
The strike organizers are mostly older teens who grew up in sponsor programs, but have been influenced by resurgent socialist movements in South America. The newly created Union of Sponsored Children is demanding that Americans "pay a fair price" for the "privilege of supporting the children of the revolutionary worker-citizens of South America."
One girl, Carlota Garcia, 12, of Venezuela says she was always happy with the gift packages that included dolls, hair bows and school supplies from her sponsor family. But after attending a union rally she now believes she has not been getting her fair share.
"We deserve better," she says. "We aren’t pets that will be happy with cheap toys."
The Allen family of Pittsburgh, Pa., was bewildered to learn about the boycott from their sponsor child, Guillermo Montez, 9, of Bolivia.
"Our kids cried a bit when we got the cease and desist letter," says father Jeremy. "I had to tell them it was just business, and we’d get Guillermo back when the strike ended."
Jeremy, a former steel worker, says he felt proud that the sponsor kids were unionizing and "seizing their own destiny." He has already complied and is sending $45 a month to Guillermo.
Sponsor organizations are scrambling to negotiate an end to the strike by Christmas, when they sign up the majority of their sponsor families. But the child unions say they will hold out “however long it takes."

Friday, August 31, 2007

Taking Faith Healing Too Far

A faith healer asked Moshe how his family was getting along. "They're all fine," Moshe said, "Except my uncle. He's very sick."
"Your uncle is not sick," the faith healer said. "He THINKS he's sick."
Two weeks later, the faith healer ran into Moshe on the street. "How is your uncle getting along?" he asked.
Moshe shrugged, "He THINKS he's dead."

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Sex on Television

The first episode of a raunchy new drama(?) series aired this week in Melbourne, and has caused a deal of controversy. The series, Californication, stars David Duchovny of X-Files fame. The first episode - a mere 32 minutes in length - was punctuated by a number of sex scenes which pushed the boundaries for nudity, sexual depiction, and of good/bad taste. It's not often that I find myself agreeing with Andrew Bolt, but I do agree that some serious questions need to be raised about a society in which this can be passed off as entertainment.

The first episode begins with a Duchovny dream sequence, where he is shown entering a Catholic church and encountering a nun... a scene which quickly turns into a sexual encounter which reverts to the bedroom and 'reality' (as opposed to the dream). Bolt asks whether this would be acceptable if the woman were a Muslim - a valid question of our culture. What is it that allows people, in the name of entertainment, to effectively desecrate the central beliefs of a major section of its society? Surely in an admittedly pluralistic society we honour our differences rather than degrade them?

But even more deeply, we need to ask about a society in which sex has been equated with entertainment. Early movies allowed the imagination to play its part. The scene would close with a kiss as the bedroom door closed, then return in the morning. We did not need to witness 'the act', as our imaginations were allowed to take over. Have we lost our collective imagination, such that we have to show everything in order to demonstrate how cultured we are? It is this lack of a collective imagination which imperils our future more than anything else, as we remain locked in present realities unable to imagine alternative ways of being in the face of climate change, environmental concerns, and acts of terrorism. We spend more and more time defending what is as opposed to dreaming of and creating what might be.

And when sex passes as entertainment, we debase the very essence of our humanity, in which the greatest acts of intimacy are mere fodder for the lonely, watching, world. We yearn for deeper relationships, more meaningful community, yet find ourselves spectators of others who are paid for this purpose. The depictions are so far from reality that we are lost. Perhaps this goes some way to explaining the high levels of drug use, relationship, health and marriage breakdown and mental health problems amongst the celebrity caste - whose lives seek to echo the 'realities' they construct on the set. We long for deep intimacy with our fellow human beings, yet settle for a cheap alternative: and a horrible ruse at that.

And here's where I part company with Andrew Bolt. The television executives who bring us this are merely reflecting their viewers. These shows would not be made or aired unless there was demand for them. I haven't seen the ratings for the show, but the attention given to it guarantees many more will take a look in the coming weeks. Media executives are rarely leaders when it comes to shaping culture... they merely reflect back to the audience what is in the hearts already. We (the share owners, and the audience) demand that they bring increased audiences and increased profits - shows which we will watch, and therefore command advertising dollars. Perhaps they have read our society all too well.

The gospel offers an alternate and powerful picture of the future, one which captures our spirits and imaginations. In this future, we are invited into a level of intimacy which cannot be captured on screen or mimicked by actors. Perhaps that is its trouble... it isn't too easily marketed, and sometimes we in the church haven't been too good at demonstrating it either.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Zeitgeist

One of these new environmental "SMART" cars was parked out front a few days ago. It's apparently advertising a new chocolate bar, but also represents something of the spirit of our age.


Humourous, but concerning at the same time, don't you think?

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Assimilation lives!

Sorry - rant coming...

The recent changes to laws relating to Indigenous communities has been a hotly debated issue, as the Federal Government has moved to quell what it claims is an epidemic of child abuse. The government has assumed control of all Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory, including the removal of land rights and the scrapping of the permit system which allowed Indigenous communities to control who had access to their land. Whilst acknowledging the existence of problems in many (not all) Indigenous communities, one has to be suspicious of a return to the paternalistic policies of bygone eras. Surely we can trust Indigenous people to work through the issues, properly supported by the government, rather than simply told what to do.

But the real agenda was released today when the PM declared that the only way forward for Indigenous people was assimilation:
"We have a simple aim and that is whilst respecting the special place of Indigenous people in the history and the life of this country, their future can only be as part of the mainstream of the Australian community," he said, reported in an ABC news item. This is simply appalling - a declared return to the type of cultural imperialism which has left a series of messes around the world, not least of all most recently in Iraq. Whilst the Western way of life offers many positives, there are serious downsides (which unsurprisingly our PM refuses to acknowledge: climate and environmental issues amongst the prime)

It's time we recognised that cultures are not morally neutral. There are good and bad elements in every culture. Pretending that our Western culture is perfect - or better in every way - exhibits a blindness of fatal proportions. Unfortunately the cost will fall most heavily on our Indigenous peoples and the lands they (now) own.

Indigenous Australians have survived in this land far longer than we, who would not ourselves have survived but for the wisdom of the Indigenous people. We've created many of these problems, let's help and support these communities in resolving the issues in their own ways - in ways which give proper respect to their culture.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Screen Sirens

How well do you know women in film? This montage morphs the faces of female stars of the screen from 1907 to 2007.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

The Continuing Dawn Rowan Saga

Let me encourage you to act in support of Dawn Rowan, whose full story can be found here. Dawn is subject to bankruptcy proceedings by the Federal Government arising from an action to (successfully) defend herself against baseless claims made in a government report. Dawn is the pioneer of the Women's Shelter movement in South Australia.

An update from a supporter reads:
Thanks everyone for the email/postcard/letter/personal campaigns you
have waged to contact Federal parliamentarians on Dawn's behalf. Let's keep those contacts happening.

The ball is now apparently in the court of Senator Nick Minchin. Here's his email address: why not contact him as soon as you've read this?

Philip Ruddock has replied with form-letters to those who sent letters or postcards. I don't think anyone's yet heard from Mal Brough, or the PM, or Peter Costello. Parliament sits again in a week's time, so hopefully there'll be some personal lobbying happening then. [Parliament is now sitting]

One or two have mentioned a rumour going around Adelaide about Dawn's
alleged refusal to negotiate a settlement with the Commonwealth. See her Blog for an answer to that falsehood:

Last week in the South Australian Upper House Greens senator Mark
Parnell asked the SA Attorney-General a question about Dawn's case. It's here: and I've put it on to Dawn's Blog.

Dawn goes to Adelaide for her next bankruptcy hearing on 24th August.
Can Adelaide friends be there to support her? Thanks.

Friday, August 17, 2007

The Name of God

A Dutch Bishop has stirred some interest with his call for people of all faiths to refer to God as Allah, as reported on the ABC website. Bishop Muskens suggests that God doesn't mind what name he is called, and during an eight year stint in Indonesia celebrated the Mass by referring to God as Allah. It's an interesting and fraught notion.
First, to suggest that it makes no difference to God what we call Him might be stretching matters a bit too far. It is one thing to find a culturally-relevant way to express faith, yet another to suggest that all such expressions are universally relevant and transferable. In some senses, to name God is to reduce Him, to give power over God by the one who names. The great Hebrew name for God can be loosely translated as to avoid that type of limitation: "I am who I am" or "I will be who I will be". God defined by Godself.
The response of Gerrit de Fijter, chairman of the Protestant church in the Netherlands, is enlightening and revealing in many ways, "Calling God 'Allah' does no justice to Western identity. I see no benefit in it."
...the fact that Allah doesn't do justice to Western identity is both a strength and a weakness: in one way countering the blind spots of our own understandings of God, and at the same time potentially denying aspects we would wish to affirm.

An underlying concern is the embracing of a view that we must all see God alike. I'm not sure that is true of any two people. Words have the power to create meanings as well as reflect them. If we are to affirm that the God we worship is greater than us all, we have to affirm the limitations of a particular and therefore culturally endowed understanding. But we must also, as Christians, affirm the notion of incarnation - that God is revealed in particular contexts. Determining the relationship of the universal to the particular and vice versa is an ongoing challenge for us all. But I do believe we are impoverished if we reduce God (or life for that matter) to a one-size-fits-all view.

A possibly complicating issue in this matter is that Islam as a faith does not generally accept the notion of cultural and contextual knowledge, at least in relation to revelation. It is founded on the belief of the timeless and eternal truth of the Koran and the prophet Mohammed. To adopt the term 'Allah' for God in the christian church may be seen either to embrace or to insult Islam, depending on whether we are seen to be seeking to turn the notion of Allah towards Western frameworks.

It was C S Lewis who once said that anything we say about God is a lie, inasmuch as it is not the full truth. A Western view of God, as much as an Islamic view, is both enlightening and limiting, opening up to new vistas, and closing of others. While the Bishop's suggestion is worthy of discussion, it is no panacea.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Should they license parents?

I found myself asking this question when reading the following news report:

A New Zealand couple is looking to call their newborn son Superman - but only because their chosen name of 4Real has been rejected by the government registry. The couple originally decided on the name because when they saw the ultrasound they decided that their son was "for real". I only wish that the boy's parents were. I'm sure he's going to thank them profusely when he hits the playground, whatever his parents finally settle on.... "Superman!!! Are you for real?!"

I have some friends who adopted an overseas child, and received a certificate to prove that they were competent parents before the adoption went through. This NZ couple is putting forward a good argument for spreading the net wider. Just because a couple can procreate doesn't make them sane, sensible and reasonable people!

Monday, August 06, 2007

Fingerprints of the Divine?

As an experienced student of forensic science (TV style), I have been forcibly informed that we human beings leave parts of ourselves wherever we go. We cannot pass through a place without leaving behind some mark of our presence. Cyber experts offer similar injunctions: our web surfing, our emailing, and other on-line transactions and activities leave a trace which afford some sort of historical profile. Adding in the use of mobile phones, banking and EFTPOS, not to mention the ubiquitous presence of city and road surveillance cameras, and use of an e-tag, it is no wonder that civil libertarians have us looking over our shoulder wondering about Big Brother and trumpeting our need for and right to anonymity. We are subtly trained to frame these fingerprints traces in a negative way – somehow threatening our true self, leaving it subject to the whim of others.
At funerals I am often taken by the fingerprints which a person has left behind: the memories, ideas, passions and values which have left their mark on others, some for life. As I was listening to the unfolding life story of a friend’s mother this week, I came to understand that these fingerprints and traces are an essential aspect of who we are: people with connections, people who are part of a community – interconnected and interwoven with the lives of others in so many different ways. As I listened to the eulogies, I was reminded of Jesus’ injunction at the commencement of his ministry, “The kingdom of God is breaking in upon you.” I began to ponder whether the mark of God’s kingdom is to be found in the many aspects of our DNA which are left in different places and on different people.
In the busyness of life, I often find myself distancing from people, preferring not to be distracted as I commit myself to the tasks before me. I am tempted to move people on quickly so that I can return to my chosen task, seeking my own space, protecting my own privacy in a way, often unaware that I may be turning myself away from the very kingdom I am seeking.
Then once in a while I remember. I pause to talk with an oft-difficult and demanding man sitting on a bench, to listen to his story, and find myself rekindled with a sense of wonder and refreshed by the touch of his humanity. I occasionally choose to walk down the street in the hope of an encounter with someone in the community, sometimes returning disappointed because there has been no encounter.
Does my often fierce protection of personal space and privacy cut me off from the in-breaking presence of God? Are these tell-tale forensic trails really part of the fingerprint of the Divine?
An edited version of this article appeared in The Sunday Age on 5 August 2007

Friday, August 03, 2007

Prayer for Dreamers


We pray for the dreamers of this life, O God,
for those persons who imagine new possibilities,
who long for what others cannot perceive,
who spin dreams of wonder and majesty in their minds.
Defend them from ridicule and harsh criticism,
from self-doubt and lack of faith in their dreams,
and from abandonment of this call to make things new.
Grant that from their dreams
may come forth blessings for humankind
to enrich the quality of life
and the wonderment of us all.
Amen.

- Vienna Cobb Anderson -

Saturday, July 14, 2007

The Greatest Nuclear Threat?

There is a deal of concern expressed about the dangers of countries getting hold of nuclear weapons. Coupled with increasing interest in nuclear energy in Australia - widely regarded as a safer and carbon-reducing form of power generation (itself a point subject to intense debate), news of the death of an Iranian Nuclear Scientist ought to give us all pause for thought. The scientist died from poisoning with uranium hexafluoride gas at a uranium conversion facility. Such accidents raise concerns about the possibilities of another Chernobyl.
It could well be argued that there are few redeeming features for nuclear fuel, and all of them are outweighed by the potential downside. While we continue to invest energy, resources, money, and time into nuclear and oil-based energies, the renewable energy option continues to suffer - along with the entire planet - from neglect.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Suffering which perfects?

The passage in Hebrews which speaks of Jesus "having been perfected by suffering" (Heb 2:10) has always been somewhat problematic... "Why is it that Jesus needed to be made perfect in the first place?" was one question it brought to mind. Yet I wonder whether that is the question the author seeks to address in this passage.

In popular thought suffering is rarely regarded as something worth embracing, or of intrinsic value. Popular Western thought regards suffering as something to be avoided at all costs, viewing it as of little innate value. We justify therapeutic cloning, stem cell research, and many other technological advances on the basis that they reduce suffering. What then of the One of whom it is said that the author of salvation as perfected through suffering?

Clearly suffering is not something which is alien to the character of God. Hebrews indicates that Jesus suffered as we do, yet was in no way diminished by that suffering. On the contrary, it indicates that his suffering was an essential aspect of his work of salvation. Through his suffering came salvation for us all. By his suffering we are redeemed, opened to the life of God through His Spirit. This is not to suggest that all suffering is redemptive, nor that all suffering should be embraced. Neither is it to indicate that we ignore the possibility of reducing suffering. Rather, here we are invited to embrace the possibility of redemptive suffering... the knowledge that some of life's hardest lessons - emerging from our deepest suffering - bring us something of great value.

I have read numerous autobiographies in which the writer has outlined a moment of deep grief in their life which has helped them to refocus and appreciate important aspects of life that were lost. Setting aside the penchant towards hagiography, there is truth in the fact that suffering sometimes brings us to face the deeper questions of life and discover something of the eternal once again.

Monday, July 09, 2007

There's No Place for Hell in a Catholic School

A local Catholic school has relented after initially refusing to enrol a student in their prep class whose surname was Hell. The school was (apparently) concerned the boy would be teased. Hell could not ultimately be vanquished and now inhabits its hallowed halls!

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Beyond the Magic Bullet

For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong - H. L. Mencken

The search for a “magic bullet” is a legacy of the twentieth century. During the early years of the new millennium, this quest has morphed into a search for a “theory of everything”, which seeks to explain all physical phenomena by a single theorem. It is an exercise which surfaces in strange forms across the public landscape. In recent times we have seen the impact of this thinking in relation to climate change, water shortages, and Indigenous Affairs. Although an evidently complex search, the ‘theory of everything’ approach in public life is attractive, as it is easily saleable.

The industrial era introduced us to the concept of economies of scale, in which it was recognised that the cost of production of any particular item could be reduced by manufacturing in larger quantities. Over the course of the past century we have consequently seen the proliferation of mass production, initially in the manufacturing industry, then spreading out into farming, health care, and human services. It has become accepted lore that the most economic and efficient answer to any problem lies in finding the correct solution which can be replicated on a large scale.

Until the internet.

The Internet maintains its effectiveness and integrity by disaggregation: breaking up its major functions across a wide range of smaller users. It is less vulnerable to attacks or problems at a single point, which, even if effective, are more likely to reduce its effectiveness than destroy it altogether.

Disaggregated solutions are anathema to governmental thinking. In the past six months we have been introduced to solutions for power generation, carbon reduction, increased water security and, most recently, Indigenous disadvantage, through the attractiveness of the “magic bullet” – a public policy theory of everything which addresses the (complex) problems and offers a digestible solution which appears simple and reasonable, and ultimately saleable.

The push for nuclear energy production within Australia makes an interesting starting point. We are so locked into the notions of economies of scale that the idea of building another (or a series) of large-scale electricity production centres seems the only sensible (and economic) answer. But what if we adopt the internet approach, which recognises the advantages of disaggregation, and the potential infrastructure already in place? There are literally millions of household roofs around the country which make ready mounting points for solar panels – millions of local collection and generation points which are capable of feeding power into a local network, bringing the places of generation and consumption much closer, and obviating the substantial loss of power (up to 80%) over the length of transmission lines currently in place. This disaggregated and connected approach has the added advantage of making the power generation process much less vulnerable to the types of outage we experienced in January of this year. Whilst the cost of solar panels is presently relatively high, the economies of scale arising from such increased production and technological development will inevitably reduce the unit cost over time, as well as increased effectiveness and efficiency arising over time. The cost of developing nuclear power stations and other conventional options for mass generation requires billions of dollars of investment over many years, technology which is locked in for a generation or more. Such massive forms of technology are less easily upgraded. By way of contrast, I have upgraded my modem and computer twice since first accessing the internet over a decade ago.

The historic separation between places of production and places of residence is already breaking down, flowing from the advent of the internet and the ability for many to telecommute. Why not add breadth to this experience by building on the potential productive capabilities of the home in relation to electricity generation? In stark contrast to the NIMBY response to nuclear power stations, solar panels are welcomed and much more likely to be a GOER (Generated On Every Rooftop) option. Much like the introduction of pay television, and (hopefully) high-speed broadband, a GOER philosophy is ideal for progressive roll-out.

The magic-bullet approach has also been well-rehearsed in our responses to the current drought. As we seek to ‘drought-proof’ our future, the major focus has been on large-scale solutions, culminating with last week’s announcement of a major desalination plant by the State Government. Left to one side has been the capacity of local and disaggregated solutions to ameliorate the significant problems. Writers in this publication in the past week have drawn attention to the significant water run-off wasted in our urban centres. Discussion of grey-water alternatives has also sidelined, making way for the theory-of-everything approach garners the headlines. Acknowleding that a range of encouraging small-scale moves have been undertaken in local water collection in recent times, little public energy is expended in developing workable and replicable models of small-scale, local solutions, beyond the introduction of water restrictions.

When the solution to such problems is cast in terms which require billions of dollars of expenditure in large-scale single-location facilities, the general public is both disempowered in its response and marginalised in the debate. Such paternalistic positioning also creates a disconnect between the problem and the solution. The contribution of the average citizen - who is responsible for energy and water consumption - to the solution, is primarily through taxes and charges. In contrast, when the solution is disaggregated and localised, the citizen’s connection is enhanced. Those who have to rely on tank water have developed a greater connection in understanding and behaviour between drought and water usage than has the average mains-connected water consumer in the city. The impetus for lifestyle change is much more urgent where the available tank water can be easily measured and connected to individual and household actions.

A further problem emerges in the public consciousness when there are quantum leaps in electricity generation and water supply capacity. When new power stations and water desalination plants come on-line, they convey the idea of a problem solved, which often reduces the urgency to change local behaviour. Disaggregated solutions, on the other hand, empower citizens to be part of the solution by contributing to the available capacity and through greater understanding of the impact individual lifestyle choices make. The converse has never been more evident than in our Federal Government’s response to greenhouse emission targets: our contribution is so small that it doesn’t matter. Under this logic, if there isn’t a magic bullet, then the will to be involved is diminished.

There is no doubting the ability of the magic bullet approach to draw attention to the problem and to provide the impression that action is being taken – witness the response to needs in Indigenous communities over this past week. This issue and the mooted action highlights the paternalistic assumptions and further disempowerment at the most crucial level of all – where behavioural change needs to take place. At the same time it diverts attention away from similar problems in the wider Australian community.

The internet has become the most powerful means of communication yet devised, and one of the most effective and pervasive vehicles of social transformation. It has proved to be adaptable to change and improvements in technology, whilst at the same time one of the most difficult to regulate and control, because of its disaggregation. It continues to power forward because of the level of ownership at the grass roots. It is a lesson governments do well to learn as they seek to tackle the significant social and environmental issues of our time.

The old dictum “You won’t solve a problem by using the same thinking that created the problem in the first place” offers a timely reminder for a fresh approach. The most powerful movements in history have arguably been grass roots movements. In the face of the present enormous challenges which identify quantum shifts taking place in the environment and the community, our government needs to be embracing quantum shifts in the way it addresses the challenges. The people stand ready, able and capable of being part of the solution.