Monday, February 23, 2009

National Day of Mourning- Australia, a nation found wanting (Black Saturday bush fire tragedy)

For the last two weeks I have been grieving for the loss of life and suffering here in Victoria, due to the tragic bushfires that struck on February 7th, known as Black Saturday. 209 people have officially died in the fires, although it is thought that the final death count will be well above 300 people.

Many have grieved in this time. Many would ask about God's role in all of this suffering. I know without a doubt that God has been grieving too in this time. God is well acquainted with suffering. God entered this world in a very real and human way. He became a human in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus died a very cruel death, and faced much suffering in the lead up to his death. He suffered for our sake to pay the price for our sin.

God has not been absent in this time of suffering for Victoria. Every time that people have called out a desparate prayer in the last two weeks, he has been near and acting to answer people's prayers. But why did God allow such suffering then? At once this is a complex and simple question. Complex, because suffering is always so hard to understand. It is even hard to understand how Jesus' suffering could be effectual for us, but it is. Simple because there is an explanation, even if it is not pretty. I see the simple explanation as this: Long ago people sinned, and God could not allow sin in his presence; this sin brought decay and death into the world; the planet earth is sick as a result, not all is as it should be. Tragedies and natural disasters occur because the world is sick, it has a disease, suffering is inevitable. This does not mean that God does not care. God does care and has indeed intervened for there to be an end to suffering. That is a complete story in itself, that I have only alluded to here.

But I want to draw the attention to Australia as a nation. There can be no doubting that Australia is a post-Christian country and is far from God. I have a thesis however that Australia (the quintessential working class, descended from the convict spirit Australia) has never really heard the gospel. The church has always been known as a distant authoritarian structure of the upper and eventually some of the middle class. The church has never been something that working class Australia has been able to relate to, nor has the church ever taken the time to relate to working class Australia. So in a sense it is not strange that much of Australia does not have a good relationship with God. In the words of Kenny (recent Australian comedy movie) "if God shows up mate, I will give him my full attention." This could easily be extrapolated that the evangelical church in Australia has taken little time to show up in the culture of working class Australia. There is certainly a large cultural divide there.

It would have been my hope that people would turn to God through the tragedy of the horrifying bush fires that struck two weeks ago. The response of Australian society though has been that "we can and we will rebuild." Don't get me wrong, yes it is good and right to rebuild, but it is not good to have the pride to think we can do this all by ourselves.

I attended the memorial service at the Rod Laver arena yesterday. It was an important opportunity for Australia as a nation to grieve the loss of so many lives. However, there was almost less grieving and pausing than there were affirmations of human strength and our ability to rise above any adversity that strikes us. If we stop for a moment though, we have to remember that some of these fires could not be stopped. We did not have the human strength to stop fires leaping 30 kms in 6 minutes. We were exposed as vulnerable and fragile. We are weak on this planet, and do not have the strength to face every danger.

My heart has been grieving for the last two weeks for the loss of so many lives, and the pain of so many families. God has been grieving too. But yesterday my heart grieved on a deeper level, for a nation without God. God was given only cursory mentions yesterday. No mention was made of the fact that he too has suffered. No mention was made of the fact that he shares our pain in this time. In short, God was not allowed to fully participate and show his love and compassion for us as a nation. God was censored yesterday. But it goes deeper than that.

My wife turned to me during the service and said "what does it take for a nation to turn to God?" What does it take for people to admit that we are weak and that we can not do it without God's help. The over riding religious paradigm yesterday was that we as humans can triumph without God's help. The presence of various religions were there, but they were ALL impotent. None of them actually offered a voice of true hope in God's love. They were found wanting. I found it particularly embarrassing that neither the Catholic or Anglican Archbishops could not actually offer a message of hope. Kevin Rudd himself actually had more positive things to say than them. Of course I expected nothing of the Uniting Church moderator who could not even bother to take the time to mention the name of Jesus (surely their realisation as a humanist liberal religion has come), nor a Buddhist abbess who neither had a message of hope.

I don't actually expect that the nation of Australia would somehow have miraculously fallen on its knees and worshipped God with abandon yesterday. But surely a simple cry of "help!" would have been enough. I actually think that if as a nation yesterday some leaders (any leader, please) had taken the time to simply ask God for help in getting us through this crisis, that something special would have happened. A simple cry of help from the Prime Minister or one of the Archsbishops (even the Buddhist, but that wouldn't be possible as Buddhists are atheists) would have started a transaction with God that would have opened a new day for our nation.

We are found wanting as a nation. Kevin Rudd says that we passed the test, because we have pulled together in unity. But that unity can never be complete until we ask God for help. If we think we can go it alone, then we are found wanting.

The most telling moment for me was an eerie one. In the thick midst of pluralism a young man was called forward to play the Jewish Shofar. A watered down description was given, platitudes about the Jewish new year and a call to prayer were given as an explanation of its purpose. This is inaccurate. The Jewish Shofar is used as a call to Worship. I have played a Jewish Shofar before, and I have gotten a sound from it. It fills the room, with an all encompassing trumpet call that speaks to the deepest depths of our souls. When the young man stood yesterday to blow the Shofar, he tried at least ten times to get a sound from it, but nothing but sputters came. Now I am sure that they would not have asked someone to play it that was unable. At first I thought it was embarrassing that he could not play it. But nobody in the arena (well very few) would have known that he failed to make the Shofar play. I then realised what was happening. The Shofar is a call to worship the LORD. As a nation it would have been a call to worship. It would have been the beginning of the transation of which I spoke. If we had have called on God as a nation for help, then he would have responded by calling on us to worship Him. But we could not call out for help. Sadly, (but I completely understand why) God would not call us to worship either. I fully believe that God did not allow the Shofar to blow. It was eerie. Most people in the arena would have had no idea.

God is not punishing our nation. I don't believe that his time for judgment is now. There will be a time for judgement, but I actually think that God reserves this for the end of our lives. Hebrews 9:27 explains this simply : "Man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgement." God is waiting for our nation to call to Him. He loves us and has compassion for us in our suffering, but he will not force himself upon us, he will wait patiently. Again the question remains, "what will it take for us to turn to God as a nation?" Perhaps war, or economic depression?

Last evening we had a time of prayer and worship back at Kangaroo Ground with some of the other students. We took some time to pray for Australia, a nation without God. As my wife prayed, she admitted that she would like to pray for rain, but that she had a sense that God is even more concerned that Australia would turn to him. There is a very telling promise in scripture, that I think is timely for Australia. It comes from 2 Chronicles 7:14 "If my people who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land." This is a promise of good things, not of punishment. But it will first take humility from Australia, not pride as we have been showing recently. God is waiting and will act when we turn to him.

We have now had 12 years of drought in Victoria. Our water reserves in Victoria are below 30%. The fires have furthered damaged our water catchment areas. We are facing a dire time, of potential water shortage. Water is the essence of physical life. Our spiritual lives as a nation, at least in Victoria are progressively void. In a symbiotic kind of way, the sicker we get spiritually as a nation, the sicker the land gets.

How long will we wait before we turn to God? I hope not too long. The land is getting sicker. What will it take for us to turn to God as a nation? I hope that it will not take more suffering for us to wake up. But I fear we are quite deaf, and that worse tragedies are yet to come, be that economic depression or even war (that seems to follow such trends).

Australia I call on you, turn to your God.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Australia's darkest hour- Black Saturday bushfire tragedy

I have hesitated to write about this because I don't in anyway want to sensationalise this horrible tragedy. Victoria and indeed Australia is in the midst of its worst ever tragedy and national disaster. I have lived in Russia and Canada and at times felt that I was becoming something other than just Australian, but at the moment I feel the pain of being an Australian in a very deep way.

We have had drought for some years now. The land is very parched and dry. Just recently we had the worst heat wave in 100 years. Then to top it off on Saturday we had the highest temperature record for a capital city in Australia at 46.4 C. Where we are living it almost certainly was 48 degrees in the shade. There were high northerly winds of around 80 km/h, basically coming from the desert regions of Australia. With these kinds of conditions it almost inevitable that there will be fires somewhere.

I have grown up with a psyche of bushfires in my mind. I was in grade 3 when the last tragedy struck, the "Ash Wednesday" fires of 1983. But as a city boy, I never really connected. I felt safe. The fires were never going to reach us, deep in suburbia. This was always my subconscious thought through the years. I felt sorry for people who faced bushfires. But in some way they accepted the risk, as part of the location of where they lived.

On Saturday, it was just too hot for us to stay at home. It was too hot to be outside so we did not go to the swimming pool. We drove to the Greensborough library, and funnily enough did some study in the air conditioning. The AC was struggling to keep up, but it was ok. At 5pm we went for pizza at La Porchetta. It was still burning hot. The winds were burning Abigail as we walked from the car to the restaurant, and she really didn't like that. We sat for an hour and a half, relieved in air conditioning again, enjoying a nice meal with gelato. Some 20 kilometres away, people were facing hell.

At 6:30pm we left the restaurant, the air had cooled to about 30 degrees, and there were some drops of rain in the air. Melody looked in the sky and said "is that dust or smoke?" I replied, "oh, I hope it's not bushfires."

We drove back to our home in Kangaroo Ground. At 30 degrees, I was moaning about the "fake cool change." But some 20 minutes drive north of us, people were burning, literally.

It wasn't until I sat down on Facebook, that I noticed someone had written in their status, "I can't believe that 14 have died today in the bushfires. "Oh my goodness" I realised, "something bad has happened".

I turned on the radio that evening as I often do, and it was wall to wall bushfire coverage. Warnings were being given about imminent urgent threats. People had to decide whether to stay and defend their properties, or to leave and flee. By this point the towns of King Lake and Marysville were completely ablaze. People knew that there could be bushfires, but it actually happened so suddenly, that some had no chance of escaping. In the high winds, burning embers covered 30 kilometres in 6 minutes. This was akin to an earthquake. The people caught in the epicentre of the fire were completely stuck.

I stayed awake half the night listening to the radio, and thinking that it wasn't that far from where we lived. I began to connect with people's stories, in a way that I never had when I lived in the city. "This could have been my family" I began to realise. I was terribly confused and starting to feel people's pain.

In the morning before leaving for church, I heard that there was an alert message for Hurstbridge. This meant that they could possibly face fires within a few hours. On Sunday morning the temperature had dropped to 20 degrees and the winds had died down. But the major damage had already been done, and there were many fires still burning. We packed a bag with our computers and passports and a box of photos not yet scanned. (Our lives are so minimal that it was so easy to decide what to take.) We would not return that day until we knew it was safe.

At church, yes we prayed for victims of the fires. But I had this sense that the reality had not really hit. Throughout the day the death toll started to climb. 26, 45, 66, even up to 100. What kind of tragedy had just struck? There was a ring of fires circling Melbourne and many other dangerous fires throughout the state. In the afternoon, we were at my parents, and I was making calls to the CFA and looking at their website trying to understand the situation.

We did return later that evening when it became clear that Kangaroo Ground was safe. There were still and indeed are fires to the north of us. Some of them are becoming contained, and the wind is blowing from the south.

The last couple of days I have been quite shaken. I feel people's pain. I feel like I can hear the cries coming down the road from the north. There are so many people who have lost loved ones. I have felt a deeper love for my own wife and daughter than I have known before as I realise how precious they are and I how blessed I am to have them alive with me. I have found it quite difficult to concentrate on my studies.

The national response has been swift and appropriate. Both the Premier John Brumby and the Prime Minister Kevin Rudd have poured out emotion to people and on tv. They have been fine leaders and I can not fault them at all in how they have handled this tragedy. Kevin Rudd has been hugging people and having them cry on his shoulder. The Aussie "sentimental bloke" (a famous Aussie poem) is alive and well.

The Country Fire Authority made up of volunteers has worked ceaselessly and tirelessly to combat the fires. They are heroes of immense proportion. There have been many personal heroic stories, such as an 18 year old taking a bulldozer through the bush to rescue his trapped family.

Australians band well together in tough times, and this is surely a cultural strength. But it is also a weakness. The effort to help those suffering has been unanimous. People have given a lot of material goods and money. But there is also a temptation to cope with the suffering by getting to work. I am afraid that we will not mourn properly as a nation. I have contacted a key person in the Anglican church to get a message through to the Archbishop, that perhaps we could have a day of mourning for the sufferers. We need to pause and feel their pain. It would be an equal tragedy, if we just got on with our lives and forgot their loss. Up to 300 people are thought to have perished now. The official toll is close to 200.

My hope is that all international people I know would be able to identify with Australia's pain. Please pray for our nation. Please pray for people who have lost loved ones. Please pray that people would find God in their loss.

We are ok, we continue to keep an eye on things. Our biggest concern is for the ones who are victims.

This is truly Australia's darkest hour.

Monday, February 02, 2009

I knew I wasn't out of touch

In recent years I have tried keeping up with modern music and have found it increasingly more difficult to do so. Truthfully I have lacked the desire. I have often wondered if this is because I am aging or because there is nothing of real quality out there. Some would argue that it is because of my age, but I will lay out my case.

Groups like Jet and the White Stripes just don't do it for me. All they are doing is rehashing 60s music. Today's i-generation may not have heard 60s music and so it is new to them, but really it's uncreative. I just asked a 23 year old today what she listens to, and the first thing she mentioned was Michael Franti. "Well" I replied, "I was watching him play when he was "The Disposable heroes of hipropisy," that gained an impressed response from her, and validated my sense of not feeling 'out of it'.

In 2008 the only music I added to my collection was the latest albums from- King's X, Delirious? and Coldplay. In 2007 it was Radiohead (barely listened to In Rainbows), Silverchair (loved Young Modern) and Vineyard UK's "Love Divine." This year I'll add U2's "No line on the horizon" in March, and maybe not much else.

It's not that I don't want to listen to new music. I do. I have enjoyed a bit of Snow Patrol over the last couple of years, some Jack Johnson and some Audioslave. But let's face it, none of them are from the younger generation. Silverchair are probably the only musicians who are younger than me that I listen to. Perhaps the younger generation don't cut, or simply are not mature enough.

Then I stumbled on this short article in yesterdays Herald Sun called "Today's music is dull" by Eleni Hale:

Generation X thinks today's music is rubbish. Baby boomers are angry that songs from their youth are repeatedly ripped off and ruined.

And even Generation Y thinks their parents' music is more meaningful than theirs.

A study into the music views of each generation by McCrindle Research found many believed today's tunes lacked staying power.

More than 50 per cent of 1300 people surveyed said today's artists and their music would be forgotten in a decade.

The study was launched to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the plane crash that killed Ritchie Valens, the Big Bopper and Buddy Holly on February 3, 1959.

The crash inspired Don McLean to write the very successful song American Pie.

The study found most Australians, including Gen-Yers, believed songs from the '60s and '70s were more memorable and meaningful than today's music.

Baby boomers said they deplored hearing songs from their youth remade by modern bands - the most hated cover song was Madonna's version of American Pie.

I feel validated. Maybe that is why U2 are still as big as they are. They have no competition. Although I must admit that "All along the watchtower" was the lowest point of the career, which is a good lesson in being creative with your own material instead of trying to rehash old stuff.