Giving God a Bad Name

I have now come across a grand total of THREE people who have looked on this blog, so I’d better get active!

There have been a lot of attacks on the Christian faith recently. You might have noticed Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion on the best sellers list for some months now. French atheist philosopher Michel Onfray recently visitied Australia and caused a big stir. He was publicising his latest book called The Atheist Manifesto. And then there is Christopher Hitchens and his latest book, God Is Not Great ( aplay on the Muslim confession of “Allaho Akbar” = God is great).

Why this sudden outburst of Atheist propaganda?

I think there are probably two main factors. The first is that 9/11 caused a lot of unhappiness witht he religion that is supposedly behind it, Islam. Personally, I do not believe that Islam necessarily condones terrorism. But I do believe that there are parts of the Quran and the hadith that could be taken out of context and used as justification for such atrocities. The saddest thing about the whole matter is that the ‘sensible’ Muslim community and the leadership of religious Islam has been very very slow to condemn the violence. Even today, their statements against violence have tended to be very lukewarm, although the new Mufti of Australia, Melbourne’s Sheikh Fehmi Naji El-Imam, seems to be much more sensible; so far…

People have reacted strongly to this. The three authors I mentioned above all blame religion for most of the evils and violence in the world. Their views are not new – they have all been saying the same thing for decades. What IS new is that after 9/11, people are far more willing to listen to them. The problem is, though, that they throw the baby out with the bath water! Yes, religion, like anything else in life, can be used for great good or for great evil. Their approach is that religion can only produce evil, so we should be rid of it. They purposely ignore all the good that religion does in people’s lives. One of them, Christopher Hitchens, even goes so far as to attack Mother Teresa of Calcutta, and has written widely of his dislike and disrespect for her.

Mother Teresa? Wow! Now that tells you a lot more about Mr Hitchens than it does about Mother Teresa!

The second factor is the growing power of American Protestant fundamentalists in politics. As you probably already know, Southern baptists have increased their political influence greatly, and both Bill Clinton and Goerge W Bush have come under their umbrella. This has resulted in a situation where President Bush can publicly state that God told him to invade Iraq. What’s wrong with this? What’s wrong is that I am pretty sure that God told him no such thing! He is simply using God to back up his own philosophy, whether sincerely or deceitfully, we may never know.

This opens the Christian faith to attack. “Your God tells you to invade Iraq, and kill thousands of innocent women and children? Well then, we want nothing to do with your God!” That’s pretty much the reaction the above authors have expressed, and sadly, they have found a lot of sympathetic hearts out there.

The latest Australian census data shows “No Religion” to be growing at an amazing rate. It is likely that this means that many people who were Christian in name only are now being more honest and putting ‘No Religion’ instead of the Church of their parents, but it is sad, for I ma sure that such abuses of faith as those above have indeed turned many sincere people away from God.

And that’s the big issue here, and the issue that all those athiest authors seem to avoid. All this evil does not come from the religion itself, it comes from the abuse of the religion. I can speak with confidence only for Christianity, but it is certain that Christ never intended His followers to be doing the sort of things our friend President Bush has been up to, and to associate Jesus with those actions is almost blasphemy!

I think it is a really wake up call for all of us. It is a warning to all Christians that we must get back to the basics of our faith and not allow it to be hijacked and corrupted in these ways.The Kingdom of God was never meant to be an earthly kingdom. Sure, we have to get involved in the society around us, and strive to be a light in the midst of the darkness, but if we allow that very darkness itself to enter our hearts, haw can we shine? If the salt loses its flavour, how shall it be seasoned?

So we MUST build our own lives with God first. All that we do in society must be firmly grounded in the foundation of a sincere, Biblical life with Christ. He must be the one who speaks and acts through us, not we ourselves, and this requires a lot of honesty and humility on our part, not to mention genuine submission to Him.

We are in the midst of a major battle, and the temperature is rising. I think that over the next 10-20 years, this direct attack from atheism is going to be the biggest danger to our Church in Australia. We have to start equipping ourselves from now, if we are to be prepared to meet it head on…


The Stranger

The little boy walked out of the classroom and on to the crowded school playground. Everywhere he looked, he could see kids. Kids chatting away happily. Kids playing games excitedly. Kids chugging down sandwiches ravenously. Lots of happy, contented, comfortable kids … except one.

The little boy walked slowly across the playground, hoping that someone would say something to him. They didn’t. He stopped to watch a soccer game optimistically, hoping someone would invite him to join. They didn’t. Finally, awkwardly, he reached a bench by the fence under a tree. He sat down, alone, and began to chew on his lunch, trying all the time to look as if he was deep in thought, and sitting alone by choice.

Of course, he wasn’t.

Have you ever had an experience like this? If you have, then you probably grew up with a fear of being the outcast. you will understand perfectly the horror of the kind of situation I have just described. There’s no doubt about it: being the stranger, the outcast, must be one of the worst experiences in the world.

Or is it?

There was one Outcast who didn’t seem to mind very much. He sort of hung around with other outcasts and strangers, until He sort of made His own little circle that every stranger could feel a part of. This new circle was well outside the normal ‘in crowd’, and most of those in the in crowd smirked and then wondered, and then grew jealous and decided to squish it. But the nice thing is that although they thought they squished it, it is still growing bigger.

Even now, strangers and outcasts are finding this society of outcasts, and being welcomed with open arms. In fact, most people don’t ever find their way into it until they are outcasts and strangers. Which means that you generally don’t get in unless you’re pretty down and out, at the end of your tether, on your last legs, and any other metaphor you can think of.

Funnily enough, we spend most of our lives pretty much trying to avoid joining this group, and thus never get to meet it’s wonderful Founder. We invest a tremendous amount of effort and time into fitting in and making ourselves feel at home. We do this in a hundred different ways. We are doing it when we laugh at that crude joke, or let ourselves get so attached to that electronic gadget, or feel that we are part of the furniture at work.

I learned how to be a stranger at a young age when my family had to move from the house I had grown up in. I loved that house! On the last day, I even secretly gave the wall a kiss to say goodbye (I was pretty young). I learned that day that it is painful to be too attached to any material thing on this earth, because sooner or later, you were going to have to lose it, and then it would feel like you were losing a part of yourself. Better not to let it become such an important part of yourself in the first place!

But you have to be attached to something. No one can live their life in a sort of free fall! Every single one of us has to belong somewhere. Enter the Stranger. The nice thing about Him is that He will never disappear on you. Never. Ever. When you feel you belong to Him, you feel like you don’t need to belong to anything else. You have your identity, you know who you are, you know where your house is (and your treasure and your heart also).

… and we too who are sojourners in this world, keep us in Your faith, and grant us Your peace until the end …

Sometimes You Can’t See Your Own House Until You Have Travelled Far Away From It.

This week I was privileged to represent the Coptic Church at a conference in Canberra called the National Civic Society Dialogue. The general idea is to bring together representatives from a variety of “Civic” organisations – not government, and not businesses – organisations that represent “the people”. So, there were a number of people representing religious groups through the National Council of Churches in Australia (including yours truly), as well as people from charities, unions, envirnmental organisations – that kind of thing.

This two day dialogue was the follow up to the first meeting held about the same time last year. The purpose of it is to discuss what kind of society we want Australia to be, and how can we, the “civic” part of society, help to make it so. Last year’s meeting was a huge talkfest: lots of ideas and comments, but with very little to show for it by the end in terms of concrete actions.

This year, the organisers seem to have got the message, and there were a lot more workshops with small groups working to develop very clear and practical outcomes. I was on the “Fair and Equitable Society” workshop, where I heard some remarkable stories of disadvantaged members of our society, and got a glimpse of the kind of things that can be done to help them.

Before I go on to look at this issue, I should just remark that Peter Garrett came in to give the keynote speech on the second morning, and he struck me as being unusual for a number of reasons. Firstly, he is taller and skinnier in real life than he looks on the telly (if that’s at all possible!). Secondly, he is a remarkably relaxed public speaker. He lounged around the podium in Old Parliament House in front of 80 strangers as if it were his living room. And thirdly, he did not use political doublespeak. He is one of the very few politicians I know who will give a straight ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer to a question, and, believe it or not, I actualy heard him admit that he did not know the answers to some questions, but would try to find out. WOW!

Back to disadvantage. One of the surprising things I learned was that the largest conentration of Aboriginal people in Australia is not at Uluru or Cape York. It is not even in Redfern. It is, wait for it … Mt Druitt NSW! And the stories I heard made me want to cry. Apparently, one of our local primary schools has a 60% suspension rate among its students – its Year 1 students. That’s not a typing error. I’m talking about six year olds. Of course, there is a very high proportion of indigenous children among that 60%. Sadly, they are caught in vicous cycle. They have a very poor home situation. They come to school unable and unmotivated to concentrate because of their difficult home circumstances. They do badly at school, they find themselves often in trouble, and they generally will find school so rotten an experience that they will opt out as soon as they can. with little education and a reputation for being ‘naughty’, they cannot get a good job. They grow up to be poor, unhealthy and aimless. Eventually they have children and they cannot give them a good environment at home, and the cycle starts all over again. Very, very, sad. And it’s all been happening right on our doorstep for years, and we never knew about it (at least, I didn’t!)

But there is a happy ending to this story. I met a remarkable lady in canberra who works for a group called the Chain Reaction Foundation. They have a programme running at this particularly troubled school called “The Enablers Program” (sorry about the American spelling of Program – their choice, not mine!) In a nutshell, they run a special playground for these troubled kids while they are suspended, which they attend together with their parents. While they are there, their trained volunteers and counsellors work with them to change their attitude, their hopelessness and their poor self-image. They try to show them that learning can be fun. They try to to find out their strengths and encourage them to make use of them. It seems to be working remarkably well, and a number of really tough cases have turned right around.

This Foundation is willing to train volunteers. The course runs for 24 hours, either squashed into three full days, or done over 12 weeks at say, two hours, one evening every week. I wonder how many of our congregation would be willing to take on the challenge? What a GREAT service! I am hoping to get this lady to pop into our church one day soon and give us a talk about the work her organisation does.

I couldn’t help thinking, “Here we are looking for the poor to serve in Egypt and Sudan and Africa and Asia, while all the while, the poor have been collapsed at our very doorstep without us ever suspecting it!

But I wonder how our congregation would take this service? Would they accept it if an Aboriginal family came to Church? Would they stare at them and make them feel uncomfortable? Or would they patronise them and treat them as inferior? I wonder…

Perhaps, before we get really serious about getting involved, we should do a bit of education for our own people first?

What do you think…


Fr Ant


Continuing on the topic of pride, Tony writes about arrogance.

I think everyone has a mental picture of the arrogant person. You know what I mean, haughty, sneering, belittling everyone else as he (or she) ries to take control of every situation, supremely confident in their own unassailable superiority. Perhaps you can even think of a few characters who best illustrate arrogance: King Nebuchadnezzar (I love that name!) ruling with a rod of iron; Goliath sneering down his rather large nose at the frail little boy in front of him; George W Bush saving the world … the list could go on.

That is the obvious kind of arrogance. It is pretty easy to spot, well, in others at least. Perhaps it is much harder to spot in ourselves? But there is a much more subtle form of arrogance, a sort “humble arrogance” if that is not an oxymoron.This type is far harder to detect, and thus far harder to be rid of. This subtle arrogance whispers rather than roars and insinuates rather than storms.

I have found it sometimes (far more often than I like) lurking hungrily at the back of my thoughts, just waiting for its opportunity to pounce. Someone, Mr X, let us say, says something rather silly in front of me. Immediately, my Judgement Resistance Program kicks into action: Poor fellow – he didn’t notice what he was saying. I’m sure he didn’t mean it to come out that way. He’s really quite a nice guy deep down inside… But then, the trouble begins:

You noticed how stupid that was, didn’t you. Of course – that’s why you’re making excuses for him. Naturally, it is obvious that if you noticed and he didn’t, then you must be much smarter than him, eh? That’s nice to know. Very nice. Wish a few other people knew it to. Why can’t they see and appreciate my humility? Why don’t they listen to me more? Isn’t it so obvious that the person who can immediately see through such stupidity is worth listening to? What’s wrong with them? Am I the only one who can see this? HELLO!

I’d rather not try to write any more of that voice. I find it rather disturbing; perhaps because it is a little too close to home? We don’t need to be outwardly arrogant in order to be arrogant. In some ways, subtle arrogance is much worse than blatant arrogance. At least blatant arrogance is out there for everyone to see. There is no hypocrisy involved, and there is always the chance that one day, someone will point out my arrogance to me so clearly that I will wake up to myself and do something to fix it. But with subtle arrogance, what you see is most certainly not what you get. There is a humble modest facade covering a stinking tomb of pride. And so long as it remains hidden, it is very hard to repent from it. Sin is always most comfortable in the dark.

Yet even the subtle arrogance will sometimes manifest itself indirectly in public. Three years later, and we are standing around talking about an upcoming wedding. “Who do you think will give the speech at the reception?” someone asks. “It would have to be Mr X, wouldn’t it? He’s the best public speaker I know by far!” Before I know it, my tongue has taken on a life of its own and I find myself blurting out, “Mr X? That little twerp!?”

Oops. What was it that Jesus said? “A good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit”. Or what about, “For there is nothing that is hidden that shall not be made manifest.” With either one of them, I’m in trouble!

How much nicer instead to ba able to sincerely apply the words of St Paul to Titus: “To the pure, all things are pure”


Some thoughts on Humility

Someone once told me that that trying to knock over the sin of pride is like trying to knock over a ball. If you push it over from any direction, it is still standing. I think what that means is that pride is a very resistant sin indeed. So here are a few recent thoughts on the subject…

When we fall into other sins, it should make it easier to overcome the sin of pride. After all, what have I to be proud of when my weakness and disgrace is laid bare before my very eyes? Yet strangely, sometimes we don’t see it that way. Sometimes the pride is so resilient within us that we think something like: “Yeah, sure I messed up, but I’m still better than so-and-so! He messed up much worse than me!” Or perhaps: “Ok, so I made a mistake. I know I’m not absolutely perfect, but Im still pretty close!” Then of course, there’s the old favourite, Buck Passing: “It wasn’t my fault I messed up – it was him/her/them. They made me do it!”

The Desert Fathers often encourage us to always place our sins before our eyes. This is not meant, I am sure, in the morbid way it is sometimes understood. It is not meant to ‘beat us down’ and make us feel miserable about ourselves. The Desert Fathers actually had a pretty healthy sense of self-esteem that could bear with this burden of sin, but their self-esteem was built on different foundation to most of us. One of my favourite sayings is the Father who described his spiritual battle thus:

Whenever I become proud, I think of my sins and I say to myself, there, what have you to be proud of you awful sinner? And whenever I fall into despair because of my sins, I say to myself, yes, but God still still loves me!

What a beautifully balanced personality! His self-esteem does not come from the kinds of things we use for self-esteem, like our abilities or achievements, the kind of job we do, the size of our house, the gadgets we own or comparing ourselves to others. This happy man builds his self esteem on something that he can never lose – the love of God for him. But there is an added benefit to this way of thinking: that is that there can be no pride in this self-esteem. Think about it. Can he take any of the credit for being loved by God? God does not love him because he is saintly (God sees all his sins, hidden and manifest), nor will God be impressed by his achievements or talents (where did he get them in the first place?). God doesn’t care about the latest gadget, and He isn;t impressed that you are clever enough to get one. In fact, you can’t impress God no matter how you try. The only reason God will love you is because He is Love. And that makes all the difference.

It isn’t easy, learning to think like this. We find it so much more secure to cling to our little bag of self-admiration, and we constantly seek for new things to boost our ego. It makes us feel better about life: there is no doubt of that. But in the long run, it is fighting a losing battle. A human being and his/her abilities is just too fragile a base to support our self-esteem for long. Sooner or later, we will have to face up to the fact that we are faulty, mixed up and terribly fallible. And when that kind of self-esteem comes crashing down, it’s pretty ugly.

If you think about, it is a pretty wise investment in the future to start working on this now. Better to begin transferring all my self-esteem stocks to the Bank of God, before the Bank of Me comes crashing down to earth.


Things are moving! PART 2

I forgot to mention a very important thing in that last post.

This was not the first such event I took part in recently. A few weeks ago, our blessed youth enjoyed a bracing retreat near Wiseman’s Ferry (where the days are cold and the nights go way beyond cold). Somehow, they managed to thaw their brain out enough to go through a similar process over three days and develop, for the first time I know of, a detailed Vision and Mission for the Youth of Archangel Michael and St Bishoy Coptic Orthodox Church.

It seems that I am doomed to be continually surprised and highly impressed by the sheer quality of our youth! They did a brilliant job (may God protect them from the envy of the devil, and pride, and all that yucky stuff). The statements they came up with are absolutely marvellous: clear, comprehensive, inspiring, and very, very Christian. The Vision Statement says exactly what we want to be all about. Here is a sneak preview of it in its draft form (it still has to be run by the Fathers and the Church Committee):

To live a genuine Christ centered life, acquiring understanding and truth, while preserving the beauty of the Coptic Orthodox Church and its traditions

To welcome and to serve people of all backgrounds by providing a safe, tolerant and caring environment uniting all in the love of Christ.

To me, it sums up in a nutshell both the beauty of our past and the fastmoving changes of our future. You’ll gat a chance to see the full set of statements soon at Friday Night Youth Meeting, but again, a whole lot of nice things in words means nothing if it does not translate into actions. True enough, but in order to make sure we have the right actions, we need to first agree on what we are all working towards. And that is now happening.

At the retreat, they also came up with a six month Action Plan, just to keep us going until we have a chance to get a more formal plan of action in place. This includes the following goals for the next six months (ie by Christmas):

– Organise a committee to monitor and follow up on the attendance of youth at Church.
– Organise a summer camp and graduation ceremony for year 11 and 12 students.
– Raise funds for:
Agahpy TV
The English Church and
The Poor
– Utilise the fundraising BBQ option at Bunnings warehouse.
– Explore options into hosting a Coptic stall at the next Blacktown festival
– Organise sponsorship for our church sports teams to purchase much needed equipment
– Form a sports committee that will develop programs that will involve young kids and promote female sports
– Plan and organise fun and appealing outings for the youth.

Now of course, there are already a number of really good activities and services going on, and these are in addition, but it is so wonderful to see that things are not stagnating, but moving forward. It is even more wonderful to see people getting involved, coming forward to help and to do things, and achieving things that are so worthwhile. We have a special opportunity in Australia to do so much to help others, since we ourselves have been given so much. And we can achieve so much more when we pull together and work as a united team.

And the needs are so many! Going through all these exercises has certainly opened my eyes to see so many services we need desperately in our community, and so many services the community around us needs, that I had never thought of before. We need an army to even scratch the surface!

The Church is the House of God and it belongs to Him, but He, in His love, shares the onwership with us. It is also OUR Church, and it will always be what we make it. As much as you put in, that much you will get out.


Things are moving!

Yesterday I took part in a wonderful exercise. Led by a professional “facilitator” (Foad) Our Sunday School Servants took part in a wonderful workshop to develop an action plan for Sunday School. It’s been a long journey.

It began about three months ago when Foad wa commissioned to take on the job by our far seeing Sunday School Superintendent, Ibrahim. Foad proceeded to invest a mammoth amount of time and effort into surveying the Fathers, the servants, the SS kida and their parents. Oulling together all this data, he summarised it in a beautiful set of objectives that very clearly and succinctly spell out what Sunday School is all about. We now have, in black and white (or lots of other lovely colours on Powerpoint) a clear description of the kind of people we want our servants to be and our children to become. All the servants (great turnout, by the way – about 70 is pretty good for a Sunday afternoon!) took part in formulating this vision, and thus we hope, all feel that they own it and are committed to bringing it to reality.

But that wasn’t the best part…

Then came the painful experience of teasing out what needs to be improved about Sunday School. Once again our servants were not backward about coming forward, and the survey, together with yesterday’s discussions, accumulated a pretty comprehensive list of things to improve. Comprehensive and daunting? No way.

The best was yet to come…

Next, we moved on to the business end of things: The Action Plans. Yep, it was as exciting as it sounds. Breaking up into five groups, we attacked the areas that need improving to come up with practical but innovative ways to improve them. The results were awesome. For each area, I think everyone felt as I did, that the problem wasn’t so invincible as we had feared. Putting all those creative and experienced heads together really sparked and the sum of their work was far greater than its parts!

It remains now for the longsuffering Foad to take all the stuff we came up with yesterday away and to put it into plain and simple Action Plans, with timescales and responsibilities and phasing, and all those other things facilitators love so dearly.

Then it will be time to go ahead and DO IT.

But I think that all the servants felt much better about doing it after yesterday, for a number of reasons:

a. they are no longer isolated. Every servant who experienced a problem realised that other experienced it too and rejoiced that they were going to go about solving it as a team, not on their own.

b. knowing your enemy makes it that much easier to fight him. Having our issues so clearly identified stops us feeling we are just beating the air and getting no where.

c. the support of our Fathers was truly inspiring! Fr Botros, Fr Gabriel and Fr Bishoy have always supported Sunday School above and beyond the call of duty, and their presence, input and wisdom yesterday gave everyone, I think, a big boost, and pulled us all together. It said, “This is really important. This is what we are here for. We have to get this right.”

d. as always, there were some controversial issues (eg. should we emphasise the fear of God?), but as always, differences of opinion were discussed with genuine respect and love, and the discussions enriched us all.

e. by discussing the problems in a constructive atmosphere, servants started to get ideas about how to go about solving them. And when you get an idea, and you think it might work, you are motivated to put your idea into practice. Which means, servants who otherwise sat back and watched others do the work are now really keen to get their hands dirty and do something. That’s gotta be good!

Fr Botros, with his usual reflective wisdom, said to me at the end, “You know, if we anoly acheive 10% of what we’ve planned here today, it will be a revolution!” (or words to that effect). I think he is both right and wrong. Right, because 10% of what we planned yesterday would indeed be a revolutionary improvement in our Sunday School Service. But wrong, because after yesterday, and the wonderful mood that was flying about, I think we will end up achieving significantly more than 10%.

Watch this space…



So, this is a blog?

I’ve never done this before, so I hope the gentle reader will be patient with me, and forgive me if half a post ends up in Khazakstan by accident.

Thankyou Shenouda for suggesting and setting up this wonderful opportunity to share our thoughts and contemplations together. I look forward to getting the gentle readers’ responses, whether in agreement or disagreement, or perhaps your own experiences or things you have read. I really enjoy discussion as a means to understanding this life we all inhabit under the loving care of God. I enjoy reading ideas I’ve never thought of before. I enjoying seeing God through another person’s eyes every now and then.

If you enjoy the same sort of journey of exploration and spiritual adventure, I think we will enjoy each other’s blog-company!

God bless.

Fr Ant