Take a punt on Jesus

If you’re in Australia, chances are you will, along with the majority of the nation, “Stop” at around 3:00pm AEDST to watch the Melbourne Cup horse race. Whether you care for horse racing or not, you’ll probably watch it. Most of us will not be able to avoid it. Workers are given time off to gather in front of the television, students, if still in school, pause to do the same. In some parts of the country the entire day is a public holiday. You might even detest the idea and not give a toss 😉 about the race. But I bet 😉 you know it is on.

It is in many respects as much a public institution as some of the national religious and public holidays. Throughout workplaces and schools, sweeps are run, where, usually, by way of random allocation, entrants are given a horse for a small fee of maybe $2-$5. If your employer is particularly fortunate with their winnings, it is not unusual to be given the rest of the day off, to celebrate!

By the time you have read this you have probably already decided to enter one of those sweeps or even had a little flutter. Based on some reports the takings from punters in recent years has increased alarmingly. 2009 the Sydney Morning Herald estimated takings exceeded $143 million in Victoria and New South Wales. The 2011 estimates were $280 million plus another $100 million on the track. 2013 expectations were thought to exceed $800 million. These increases are occurring the same time our national household debt levels have grown to 180% of annual income. So, while the nation parties on, families are destroyed.

The premise of gambling is trying to get something large for a disproportionately small price. The idea is that you make a bet, and not have to work to earn the same amount. What might take several days, weeks or months to otherwise earn or cultivate, can be gained in a matter of seconds, simply by placing a well-timed bet on the right horse (in the case of the Melbourne Cup). It doesn’t take much to argue yourself from there into the place that by increasing the bet, you could increase your winnings, and if you win enough, you might never have to work again. Obviously, not everyone is consumed with, or tempted by, an addiction to gambling. But for those that are, even a sweepstake entry can prove to be a deadly distraction. So, in wisdom, we must be careful how we represent and take part in the good fun of our nation’s (arguably) favourite past-time.

Speaking to Christians for a moment, if, by entering a sweep, you communicate that your sustenance and hope for provision is elsewhere than in what God has provided, you may find it difficult to convincingly discuss your faith in Jesus and why he is exclusively enough for spiritual salvation. What would you truly prefer? That God dealt with you randomly by way of spinning a wheel, drawing lots, or let the roll of a dice determine our eternal fate or via his deliberate intention to set his love upon us and show his grace to us via Jesus Christ’s life, death and resurrection?

Gambling is emotionally charged controversy that provokes passionate advocates both for abolition and enjoyment in moderation. I hope you consider carefully how you will “profit” from your little flutter compared to finding your passion in Christ. How about you take the money you were going to put into the office sweep or on the race via a betting agency and give it a charity organisation that provides debt relief for struggling families. Invest in your community and not try to rob from it.

Don’t throw away your money. More than a horse race is at stake. Pray to God with the Psalmist:

Sustain me according to your promise, and I will live; do not let my hopes be dashed. Psalm 119:116 NIV

If you’re struggling with gambling addiction or need help with debt counselling consider contacting some of the below organisations.

Gambling Help http://gamblinghelp.nsw.gov.au or phone 1800 858 858
You can also talk with Hope Street Inner City Counselling call  02 9332 3506 you don’t need a referral, just call.

Gamblers Anonymous http://www.gansw.org.au/  or phone: 02 9726 6625

Salvation Army – Moneycare (Parramatta) phone 02 9633 5011

Other Related Articles (Inserted by Author):

Failing by Faith

The concluding article in the Psalm 119 series …

It took me 8 attempts to get my driver’s license.  My Learner permit expired many times, and I had to go back and re-do the test. I failed once because I just didn’t bother reading the handbook and thought it would be a simple multiple choice. I failed the practical driving test at least twice (that I can remember) – both times I committed “immediate fail” violations. I ran the Stop sign outside the RTA car park and on another I sped through a School Zone – Each time the instructor told me even if I hadn’t committed the violations, my score was too low to have passed anyway. The end result: I was over 30 years old and did not have a full drivers license. I was a failure.

Most of my high school peers had their Learners in Year 12 and many had their Provisional license by the end of the year. I never even bothered taking my Learners exam until my second year of tertiary. I was heading to Sydney to live and couldn’t afford a car anyway so it wasn’t important to me… until I met a young lady to whom I later became engaged, who coincidently had a full license AND her own car! But even that didn’t motivate me. I drove away from our wedding reception in a car covered in cream, confetti, streamers and “L” plates. FAIL!

After considerable trial and much error, I managed to pass all the requisite exams and tests and was provided a driver’s license. Clearly this experience does not illustrate the  success of victorious Christian living. Does it? After all, if I had prayed before doing the tests, I would have passed. Wouldn’t I? God certainly wouldn’t want a junior pastor traveling around Sydney without his own car or a driver’s license. Would he? If your measurement or definition of spirituality or holiness involves, achievement, success and possessions than I was the most vile of all sinners. For that matter, so were several other prominent characters of scripture and history.

The Apostle Paul struggled with sin, was beaten up and lost at sea and then died in prison. John the Baptist, lost all of his disciples, was thrown into gaol and Jesus didn’t help him, then he was killed. Jesus, didn’t own a house, didn’t have an income during his ministry and had every single disciple forsake him before his crucifixion.

A Christian is not dependent on trial and error. Receiving God’s forgiveness is not subject to determination of an assessor who awards my merit or penalises my violations. Salvation in Christ is completely apart from my own efforts and abilities. We become presumptuous about our abilities, achievements, material success, wealth, possessions and health that as soon as any of these are threatened or shown to be uncertain, our theology crumbles. We reason that loss of these things must be God’s punishment. This is precisely how Job’s friends saw his predicament. They didn’t realise that God was proving the extent of his grace through the temporary suffering of his servant. They missed the chance to bless him and lift him up. Instead of seeing Job’s loss as an opportunity for them to be generous they saw it as an occasion to boast, attack and criticise.

Job friends, and many like them, don’t fully appreciate that Salvation now, is from the guilt of sin. Salvation later, is from the final penalty, power and presence of sin. Until then – expect to fall flat on your face to glory of God! This is what the Psalmist is concluding in his tome on the Word of God. Without the continual grace of God at work in my life, by the ministry of the Holy Spirit through the scriptures, I will always fail. Everything I do, that is good, comes from God not me. Everything I have, that is good, comes from God not my abilities or effort, and God is good, all the time!

I have strayed like a lost sheep. Seek your servant, for I have not forgotten your commands. Psalm 119:176 (NIV)

As Giddy as

Continuing my series of articles from Psalm 119

We all have heroes. People that inspire us. Individuals, who, through performance or personality capture our attention, enthrall, entertain, and enthuse us. In an age when celebrity is more about an ability to generate commercial gain for corporate sponsors than achievement or contribution to society, heroes are usually actors, comedians or stage performers of some kind or another. In Australia, sport is the national religion, so sporting prowess is regarded more highly than statesmanship, more valuable than scientific discovery, and more respected than sacrificial service of the armed services, police, ambulance and fire fighters. That, as a nation, we vest disproportionate honour in boys and girls who make a fortune chasing a ball around on a piece of grass is evident in the public shame, horror and disgust felt towards several rugby league players that fell from grace in the last year due to a combination of charges and allegations of violence, drug use and public misbehavior. More recently the news of Tiger Woods’ infidelity has caused many to cry in angst and disappointment as another hero is revealed to be a less than perfect role model.

As a teenage boy growing up in Queensland I was no less enraptured in this mindset. In year 11 when Wally Lewis came to my High School to promote Rugby League he gave a talk about the sport during lunch time to an assembly hall full to the brim of teenage boys, me included, giggling like giddy school girls about getting the chance to see one of our heroes in the flesh. A couple of years later, whilst in Sydney one night serving in a City outreach street mission I saw Wally near the George Street cinemas and got to shake his hand. I was still the giddy school boy 🙂

My dad was a Labor man. He actually “whooped” when Bob Hawke became Prime Minister in 1983. So when I was working in an executive Security job in 1993 and noticed a “Mr Robert Hawke” on the list of guests to visit the CEO one day I was a little curious. Then, in walked former Prime Minister Bob Hawke. I was so excited I rang my wife and tried to whisper down the phone that I had just met Bob Hawke (hoping he wouldn’t hear me, because he was sitting about 2 or 3 meters away in the reception lounge). I was, once again, unwittingly overcome by the giddiness and excitement of celebrity fever.

In 1996, while in the city to see a movie one afternoon, my wife and I accidently got involved as spectators to the Grand Opening of the Planet Hollywood Restaurant (now called The Star Bar). We stood against the barriers of the red carpet for endless hours cheering madly while the likes of Bruce Willis, Jackie Chan, Jean-Claude van Damme, Charlie Sheen, Danny Glover, Bill Paxton, Sylvester Stallone and a swag of Australian TV personalities swaggered  down the aisle.

How is it that we get so easily caught up in the excitement of just seeing people who have little to do with our daily lives and have next to no regard for us personally – aside from the income we generate for them by purchasing their books, movies, DVD’s and CD’s or attending their concerts (where they don’t even pay us the respect of singing live!)? It is not wrong to revere our heroes if they, through their influence, teaching or example lead us to grow and develop the gifts we have for the glory of God and extension of the gospel. But when we literally quake to the point of having our knees knock together and our stomach do weird nausea causing gyrations, we reveal our regard and respect for scripture, God’s very Word, is less than what we have for complete strangers – who do little more than prance on a stage or chase balls around on the grass. We need to repent and tremble before Him who is able to cast our body and soul into hell. His opinion counts!

Rulers persecute me without cause, but my heart trembles at your word. Psalm 119:161 (NIV)

Totally Wicked!

Continuing my series of articles from Psalm 119

Recently a few American blog sites had some chatter about a fascination with the Australian use of the word “tragic”. e.g. “I’m a cricket tragic” means the speaker is someone who has an excessive interest in cricket. Apparently, that use of the word is not found outside Australia. Grammaticians, Etymologists, Linguistic purists and the like refer to this as some sort of reverse semantic shift. One of the most well known, more recent examples of this is how the word, “wicked” is used by English speakers. e.g. In the closing scene of the animated feature, The Incredibles, when the antagonist is defeated in an huge explosion, a boy on a tricycle exclaims:

Oh man… That was totally wicked!

meaning that the event was amazing, impressive, astounding and entertaining all at once.

Another popular, highly entertaining and clever use of this linguistic ambiguity is the stage play “Wicked”. Here the term is descriptive of the “Wicked Witch of the West” character of Frank Baum’s “Wonderful Wizard of Oz”. “Wicked” is a recounting of the life of the “Wicked Witch” after her death at the hands of Dorothy – a story that many are familiar with, most likely through Mervyn LeRoy’s 1939 Film Musical starring Judy Garland. Without spoiling the plot, “Wicked” explores the question, raised in the opening number, of:

“Are people born Wicked? Or do they have Wickedness thrust upon them?”

The clear message is, she was misunderstood, maligned and wrongly persecuted by the authoritarian establishment. (There’s actually a strong sub text of objective presuppositional morality in the play, contrary to popular post-modern relativism, worth discussing in another article.)

In any case, the use of the term “wicked” does not align with how the Bible employs it nor with the fate of those who are, in the eyes of God, considered “wicked”. Mostly, it is used in contrast to “righteousness”. The difference between the wicked and the righteous is not a social or cultural determination of acceptable conduct, rather, the wicked are those committed to contradiction of the laws, character and person of God. (Psalm 5) Such a commitment is not irreversible; it can be changed, via repentance and faith. (2nd Chronicles 6:37; Psalm 106:6; Daniel 9:5).

The Bible’s response to the stage play question is; not that which is unpopular; or not nice or otherwise deemed by majority opinion to be bad; rather, “wicked” is choosing anything other than God’s righteousness as a means of justification, redemption, forgiveness, restoration, establishment of identity, satisfaction and authenticity. Why? Because anything other than the perfect goodness and life found in God’s person will inevitably disappoint.

Hosea 10:13 But you have planted wickedness, you have reaped evil, you have eaten the fruit of deception. Because you have depended on your own strength and on your many warriors. (NIV)

The remedy for “wickedness” is not, “Stop being wicked”, instead, forsake your imperfect, incomplete, inadequate wisdom and cling to God’s grace and mercy.

Isaiah 55:7 Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon. (NIV)

Thus the proclamation of the psalmist is not just God’s sovereign determination, but a statement of resultant condition of all who reject the Lord: “Salvation is far from the wicked, for they do not seek out your decrees.” Psalm 119:155 (NIV)

What a Bargain

This is the next in a series of articles from Psalm 119

Haggling for a better price if you pay cash, or even if you don’t, is one of the more enjoyable aspects of purchasing. In Australia a token gesture to haggling is given by a couple of well known retailers. “Everything is negotiable” or “pay cash and we’ll slash the price” are enticing catch phrases that have helped reap considerable profit for the retailers. Though you might get a lower price, you can be certain that neither retailer is jeopardizing their margins by giving you a hard deal. The same applies in poorer economies. Fox News Travel Advice tells us that it is a “sin” if you “haggle until a chosen trader turns to tears”. However, you can sleep well knowing that this is merely a technique to stop you further eroding their margin. Living in Kenya, we learnt that there are usually multiple price brackets for different customer types:

  • The tourist price: if you pay the ticket, you are probably giving the vendor anywhere from 500-1000% profit.
  • The tourist discount: around half the ticket, although if persistent you might get it a little lower, watch for the tears 🙂 that’s an indication that you’ve hit the mark.
  • The local price: much lower than what a tourist will pay, still provides the vendor with a profitable gain on their merchandise.

    NB: I don’t begrudge them their ingenuity! It’s not like I couldn’t afford the “full” tourist version – it’s fun to haggle anyway 🙂

After being Africa for more than 6 months, speaking the language and being known to the retailers, I know I never paid less than a low tourist discount for anything I bought. The only way I could get a lower price was to stay completely out sight and send in a friend to make the purchase for me, but even then, it was customary to pay a commission to my purchaser 🙂

We had a similar experience in the Chinese community where we live at the moment. When getting prices for removalists, we were hit pretty hard with what the typical commercial carriers were going to charge. Two of the Deacon’s at our new Church, suggested that they contact some movers listed in the local Chinese newspapers. They were charging less than a quarter of the cheaper commercial movers – BUT not for Aussies, only for fellow Chinese residents! (Their words, not mine!) So, we stayed out of sight while a deal with a mover was negotiated via SMS. The movers were quite shocked to see me at the house when they arrived, however soon softened and relaxed when they found out I was the new pastor at a Chinese Church, and agreed to give me the Chinese rates.

When you are not a resident of God’s community of grace, and sometimes even though you are, you probably have found yourself trying to bargain and haggle with God in prayer.

“If you do this for me God, I will _____ (go to Church, give more money, say something nice to the Pastor after his really long sermon etc)”.

Alternately, we try to sacrifice ourselves up front and then expect God to act in obligation to our exorbitant generosity. We pray something like,

Now God I fast twice a week and give 10% of everything I earn … therefore you need to do this for me”.

As though God is in any way indebted to us by our proud, arrogant, infantile, wicked, miniscule attempts to affront his holiness and majesty. Then, when God doesn’t come through with the “goods”, we react as though to punish Him – we abandon our faith, we stop attending Church, stop praying, stop reading our Bible, start attacking and criticising Christians or we plummet into a deep and sometimes unrecoverable spiritual depression. As Christopher Ash points out in ‘Bible Delight’ (p176-8) we don’t focus on the promises God has declared in scripture, instead, we claim to rest in things that God has never said or promised – but rely on sanitised or pious reflections of our own desires. We persuade ourselves that God has promised a job (or a better paid one) or a marriage or a child (or a better behaved one). When it doesn’t happen, we think God has let us down and failed to keep his side of our bargain. Our prayer must be shaped by scripture. We pray, (because we get to, not because we have to, or because it will in-debit God to us), with a longing to experience his grace and, as a result of that grace, be transformed into his likeness with a new desire to please and honour him for his own sake.

I call out to you; save me and I will keep your statutes. Psalm 119:146 (NIV)