Month: December 2016

2016 Rearview Review

The year being such as it was, I felt it would be almost remiss of me not to reflect upon what 2016 has meant for me.


I’ve already hijacked Dicken’s opening line from A Tale of Two Cities once this year, but for my wife Helen and I, a more apt phrase could scarcely be composed to summarise the last 12 months than the immortal “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

We began the year with the expectation that it might be the last full year we spent in Brisbane, before heading to Japan as missionaries in 2017. January was busy with training conference delegates in Systematic Theology and preaching on the theme of Godliness in 2 Peter (derived partially from my research thesis work). I was saddened to hear of the death of David Bowie (certainly the only artist to die this year from whom I have a dedicated Spotify playlist), with no prescient idea that the remaining 11 months of the year would not only bring a seeming deluge of celebrity deaths, but that the relevance of any given one of them would soon be eclipsed by death much closer to home.

From what little I remember of February and March, they were busy too. We had been excited to learn in these early months of the year that we would be expecting a child before the year was over and had plenty to do with visiting churches and building partnerships in the gospel in preparation to head for Japan. We spent Easter in Warwick at their annual convention, sharing about Japan and mission opportunities and meeting lots of brothers and sisters from the Darling Downs and beyond.

We returned to Brisbane on Monday 28th March. Helen’s mother passed away tragically and completely unexpectedly on the evening of Tuesday 29th and we learned of it late in the morning of Wednesday 30th. The shockwaves of this event have been felt throughout the rest of the year until now and would be the defining feature of our 2016, if not for the fact that we can attest to the goodness and grace of God sustaining us in the months since.

I am yet to make a serious attempt to recount what occurred after Easter and how it’s affected our lives: perhaps I will at a suitable point in the future. But suffice it to say that when the death of someone close to you comes out of nowhere, the shock and grief is immense, long-lasting and carries with it a complex array of unwanted side-effects. At the end of the year, I must thank God again for the way he moved the hearts of family and friends to care for us during this terrible time in our lives. Things would have been immeasurably worse if we did not have the support we received then and in subsequent months.

How does one “get on with life” when such a profoundly traumatic event has rocked your world? We certainly tried in the following months and I was able to slowly return to my research work, while together we resumed our church ministry involvement and continued to press on with preparations for Japan and church partnership visits. As our baby’s due date approached, I think we crammed as much as humanly possible into July and August in anticipation of a mandatory slow-down following her birth. I was quite badly affected emotionally by the death of my last living grandparent (“Poppa”), partly due to his rejection of the gospel over the years and partly because we had planned to visit him in New Zealand around this time or early next year to introduce him to his great-granddaughter.

When our little girl did arrive in September the joy of her birth, in no small way, salvaged 2016 from feeling like a year of devastation and desolation. She is a most precious gift from God that brings us great delight, even as we struggle to adjust to the challenges and demands of first-time parenting off the back of the difficulties that were already present in our lives during the past year. I cannot regard 2016 as a truly bad year – even though it has been an incredibly hard period, because I can never view the season my precious daughter entered the world in such a negative light.

I’ve reflected on some of the spiritual lessons of early parenthood here, and I could and possibly should add a considerable number more to another installment in the future. But having a child is not simply about reflecting and growing – it brings a unique kind of enjoyment that I relish amongst my daily struggles with sin, stress, selfishness and sadness. Thanks be to God for His wonderful blessing of a healthy, growing baby girl this year!

Four months on, we are grateful for her and for God’s grace to us, but exhausted in nearly every way imaginable. It was difficult to return to research again at a reasonable pace after yet another major life event within such a short space of time. And the adjustments we are trying to make to life with an infant have required probably more energy than we’ve had left. We have found it impossible to resume partnership building activities since our daughter’s birth and as a result have needed to put our preparations for Japan on hold while we try to refresh and recuperate over the next few months.

We have enjoyed recent opportunities to be with family and friends who know us well as the year closes and reflect on the great, eternal truths of Christ revealed in the Christmas story. 2016 was a year that stretched us at least to our personal limits and perhaps even past them – but we’re reminded as it slowly fades into history that there is no time like now to “Give thanks to YHWH, for He is good and His lovingkindness endures forever!”

Postscript: I had intended originally to make some passing remarks and reflections upon world and national events that coloured 2016, but have run out of time and space to do so. Obviously events such as the election of King Kong Donald Trump as U.S. President; the Brexit vote; and the election of a wafer-thin Turnbull government in Australia will all be events that continue to affect the unfolding of history and social issues in 2017 and beyond. They will no doubt appear in the pages of The Lion & Phoenix, should God permit me to continue writing in the coming year(s).

The parliamentary defeat of the proposed plebiscite on same-sex marriage will unfortunately not bury the issue in the coming years. And the re-ignition of abortion as a social issue in Queensland by the actions of Rob Pyne MP and others will need to be engaged with hard in the early months of the new year.

The terrorist attacks on Nice and Berlin will unfortunately become distant memories, replaced in the public consciousness by more recent attacks by Islamic extremists. And while I sincerely hopes that 2016 will be the last full year of the Syrian Civil Way, it would be foolish to hold one’s breath while waiting for its definitive conclusion. The one truth that must guide our perspective as this tumultuous year comes to an end and its unpredictable successor begins is that: “Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today and forever.”

“”You, Lord, laid the foundation of the earth in the beginning, and the heavens are the work of your hands; they will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment, like a robe you will roll them up, like a garment they will be changed. But you are the same, and your years will have no end.” (Hebrews 1:10-12)

[1] Alan O’Rourke Year_2016_Navy (CC BY 2.0)


Christmas Continued…(Just add 11 days)

I’ve always found the significance of Christmas too great to confine to celebration on December 25th. So for the past few years I’ve enjoyed celebrating the 12 days of Christmas (personally, with family & via Facebook), by continuing to contemplate some of the themes of Christ’s coming beyond Christmas Day (now Day 1) and into the New Year.


If you like the idea too and would like to join me (or would simply appreciate a template to adjust to suit your own way of celebrating), here are the themes I’ve designated for each day for reflection and as a launch-pad for Scripture reading and seasonal singing.

2nd Day of Christmas: Celebrating and reflecting upon the 2 natures of Jesus (divine & human)

3rd Day of Christmas: The three gifts brought to Jesus by the Magi and how they show He is worthy to be praised and worshipped by people from all nations.

4th Day of Christmas: Celebrating the divine testimonies we’ve received concerning Jesus, including: the four heavenly harbingers of Christ’s birth (i.e. angel of the Lord to Joseph; angel Gabriel to Mary; angel(s) to the shepherds; star to the Magi); the four enscriptured praises to God in anticipation of/response to His birth (Mary’s Magnificat; Zechariah’s blessing; the angelic Gloria in excelsis Deo & Simeon’s praise to God); and the four gospel accounts of Christ’s life (Matthew, Mark, Luke & John).

5th Day: “Fish Day” Celebrating the names and titles of the Messiah in the acronym ΙΧΘΥΣ (Greek for fish and thus the <>< symbol for Christians).
Ιησοῦς – Jesus (“YHWH saves”)
Χριστός – Christ (“The Anointed One” of God)
Θεοῦ – God’s
Υἱός – Son (with respect to His eternal relationship to the Father and His Davidic Kingship)
Σωτήρ – Saviour (one who rescues or delivers people)

6th Day: Remembering God made the world through Jesus in six days, with humanity being created on the sixth day. Marvelling at the Creator becoming part of His creation.

7th Day: Meditating on the perfect rest and perfect peace that comes through Jesus, because of God’s redemptive work through Him that had it’s beginnings at Xmas.

8th Day: Remembering Jesus was circumcised to mark Him out as a participant in God’s covenant with Abraham – and that He became the fulfiller of all that the covenant entailed.

9th Day: Thinking of Jesus’ role as the Christ – the King (over all Kings) who would fulfill God’s promise to David by sitting on his throne forever and ruling over an everlasting Kingdom. [9 is connected with long-lasting and the monarchy in Chinese culture so I happily adapted the idea].

10th Day: Jesus was born “under the law” (represented in the 10 Commandments) in order that He might redeem those who were under the law, so that they might receive adoption (Gal 4:4-5)

11th – Reconciliation (1&1 joined together) – Jesus was born as part of God’s grand plan to reconcile all things to Himself in Christ (Rom 5:9-1; 2 Cor 5:17-19; Eph 1:7-10; Col 1:19-20)

12th – The cosmic, eschatological significance of Christ’s birth, spoken of allegorically in Revelation 12 (the birth of the child that will shepherd and rule the nations) and leading to the culmination of salvation history in the New Jerusalem (which is represented in the Bible by many 12s cf. Revelation 21-22) – where God and Christ dwell with us in all their fullness as Emmanuel (God-with-us).

I’m sure my list can be improved upon – but I do kind of hope the 12 days of Christmas catches on as a celebration amongst Christians. Because the Incarnation of the Son of God is far better contemplated in a season than on an all-too-short day like today.

Jesus: Jacob’s Ladder or Something more? (John 1:51)

Was reading through Genesis 28 tonight with Helen and was struck by something I hadn’t considered before.

Then Jacob went out from Beersheba and went to Haran.
And he arrived at a certain place and spent the night there, because the sun had set. And he took one of the stones of the place and put it under his head and slept at that place. And he dreamed, and behold, a stairway was set on the earth, and its top touched the heavens. And behold, angels of God were going up and going down on it.
And behold, Yahweh was standing beside him, and he said, “I am Yahweh, the God of Abraham your father, and the God of Isaac. The ground on which you were sleeping I will give to you and to your descendants. Your descendants shall be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west, and to the east, and to the north and to the south. And all the families of the earth will be blessed through you and through your descendants. Now behold, I am with you, and I will keep you wherever you go. And I will bring you to this land, for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised to you.” Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely Yahweh is indeed in this place and I did not know!” Then he was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is nothing else than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven!
(Genesis 28:10-17, LEB) 

Jacob’s Ladder

This passage is clearly reference by Jesus at the climactic end of John’s Gospel chapter 1:

On the next day he wanted to depart for Galilee, and he found Philip. And Jesus said to him, “Follow me!” (Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the town of Andrew and Peter.)
Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found the one whom Moses wrote about in the law, and the prophets wrote about—Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth!” And Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see!”

Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said about him, “Look! A true Israelite in whom is no deceit!” Nathanael said to him, “From where do you know me?” Jesus answered and said to him, “Before Philip called you, when you[r] were under the fig tree, I saw you.” Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the king of Israel!” Jesus answered and said to him, “Because I said to you that I saw you under the fig tree, do you believe? You will see greater things than these!And he said to him, “Truly, truly I say to all of you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” (John 1:43-51, LEB) 

Typically when I’ve studied this passage or heard it preached, the link has been made between “Jacob’s ladder” (or “stairway”) and the role of Jesus. Jacob in his dream saw a connection between heaven and earth, divine and human, supernatural and natural, demonstrated by the ascending and descending angels. Jesus fulfills this by being the link between heaven and earth, as the divine/human God-man. That’s why figuratively (I say that because the Gospels never record it happening), the disciples will see angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man, as the nexus between the earthly and heavenly realms.

But it got me thinking that there could be more to it than that. What if the allusion to Genesis 28 doesn’t stop at the ladder, but includes Jacob’s theophany encounter with Yahweh? In Genesis, Jacob doesn’t just see the vision of the ladder, but immediately afterwards Yahweh Himself is standing beside Him. Could Jesus be saying that if the disciples continue to follow Him and watch Him closely, they won’t merely have a vision of angels, but an encounter with Yahweh themselves?

It certainly matches well with Jesus’ later exchange with Philip:
If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you know him and have seen him.” Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” Jesus said to him, “Am I with you so long a time and you have not known me, Philip? The one who has seen me has seen the Father! How can you say, ‘Show us the Father?’ (John 14:7-9, LEB) 

I don’t want to get too excited, because I recognise that if we get the takeaway point that Jesus is the connector between heaven and earth – it already implies His divinity. But it interested me that there were parallels like Jacob being filled with awe that He had been in Yahweh’s presence and Nathaniel’s astonishment that He had met the “Son of God”; and Jesus calling Nathaniel a “true Israelite” (or we might say “Jacobite”?). It made me wonder whether the disciples had any inkling that Jesus was promising them their own personal divine encounter and if it prolonged their sense of awe and amazement.

If my little theory is correct, we have powerful statements of Jesus’ divinity in the beginning and end of the first chapter of John’s Gospel. Could it be that the Gospel which begins with: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1), finishes with a promise that followers of Jesus will indeed behold God in and through Him?

English lessons

The federal Liberal-National Coalition government and the QLD LNP could do with some English lessons. No I don’t mean they can’t “speak proper”. But rather, while many conservative parties around the world are trying to learn lessons from Donald Trump’s “upset” election victory, I think it’s time ours learned a few things from a man and a people who share the name English.


Bill English became the 39th Prime Minister of New Zealand today. With the transition from the now former NZPM John Key to the new PM, New Zealand goes from having an incredibly popular and politically savvy leader of a conservative government, to a less glamorous but far more genuinely conservative Prime Minister leading the National Party and the country.

While Key had electoral appeal with a significant segment of the population and led National out of the political wilderness it had languished in for years courtesy of the seemingly indomitable Helen Clark, he was significantly lacking in commitment to conservative stances on key (n pun intended) social issues. Key backed same-sex marriage when it came before the Parliament as a result of a private member’s bill; supported the status quo on abortion (saying he believed in women’s “right to choose”); was open to the possibility of supporting euthanasia and listed his main regret from his time in office as failing to change the nation’s flag.

Bill English is a solid conservative when it comes to issues of life and sexuality and has the strong economic management credentials that are necessary to persuade voters to let his party keep control of the Treasury benches for another term. English also has the reputation amongst some as being a “compassionate conservative” – a welcome change from the often harsh economic rationalism Australia and Queensland have seen from recent Liberal treasurers including Joe Hockey, Scott Morrison and Tim Nicholls.

Former President of the Business Council of Australia, Tony Shepherd made this kind endorsement of English in The Australian today:

He is down to earth, humble, intelligent and with an underlying toughness. He is immensely practical and has no airs and graces. English believes there is no such thing as a fair society without a strong economy. [2]

Simply put, if you’re a social conservative that values responsible but fair economic management (that doesn’t indiscriminately wound the poor in a zealous dedication to the budget bottom line), Bill English is a stellar political leader and would be a pleasure to find yourself able to back. I’d gladly trade Malcolm Turnbull or Tim Nicholls for a carbon copy of Bill English in a moment.

The other English

The other English our Australian conservatives could learn some lessons from is the English people. The discontent of the British public over the UK’s place in Europe and the world, expressed in the seismic shock of the Brexit referendum has led to the rise of another “compassionate conservative.”


While Theresa May is not as socially conservative as Bill English (for instance, she very openly supported changes to the definition of Marriage in the UK, which ultimately led to the law being changed), she too would seem to be an improvement on her predecessor when it comes to a range of issues.

A couple of things of particular note. 1) There have been hopeful signals that May’s well known religious background (her father is an Anglican vicar) and open identification with Christianity will provide some respite in the face of concerning trends in religious liberty in the UK in recent years. In commending a recent report by the Evangelical Alliance and the Lawyers Christian Fellowship, Ms May said:

“…we have a very strong tradition in this country of religious tolerance and freedom of speech and our Christian heritage is something we can all be proud of.” [4]

2) May’s identification with “One Nation Conservatism” [NOT to be confused with the Pauline Hanson approach to politics in Australia!!!] is a welcome shift in the direction of the British Conservative Party. It signals that May will not settle for a nation divided into the rich and the poor, but will consciously work to make the country she governs a better place for all its citizens. This style of conservatism has potential to better reflect certain Christian social values and takes seriously the old concept of noblisse oblige – the idea that the rich, privileged and educated members of society have a duty to use their position and resources to advance the less fortunate. This is potentially a happy medium between forcing the rich and powerful to part with their resources to be distributed amongst the less wealthy (as in communism and hard socialism) and pursuing policies that benefit those who already have massive resource advantage at the expense of those who fall behind (as is the case with much neo-liberal capitalism, shamelessly peddled by professing conservatives).

This is reflected in May’s commitment to the British public upon taking the office of Prime Minister:

“The government I lead will be driven not by the interests of the privileged few but by yours. We will do everything we can to give you more control over your lives. … When we take the big calls, we’ll think not of the powerful, but you. When we pass new laws we’ll listen not to the mighty, but to you. When it comes to taxes we’ll prioritise not the wealthy but you.” [5]

An English-style improvement

What Australia and Queensland need then is an “English-style improvement.”
Leaders like Malcolm Turnbull and Tim Nicholls who are economic liberals with weak conservative credentials may have just enough political ability to  scrape into office, but the parties they lead must realise that they are not leaders that conservative voters can wholeheartedly support.

It remains to be seen who could take up the mantle of a better conservative leader in the Federal political arena. Tony Abbott obviously has superior conservative credentials compared to Turnbull and there remains a distinct possibility that conservatives will return to supporting him. But Abbott will not likely be successful electorally and his 2014 budget showed he is by no means a “compassionate conservative.”

Scott Morrison would be a kind of reverse of Theresa May. He is a fairly solid social conservative, but shares Abbott’s capacity for ruthlessness in economic policy. While Julie Bishop could emerge as a compromise candidate between Coalition conservatives, moderates and progressives she offers no significant improvement to Turnbull from a conservative policy perspective. The most senior cabinet minister – after Morrison – who has a reasonably solid conservative approach to politics is Finance Minister Mathias Cormann. He would probably make a great Liberal Prime Minister, but as a foreign-born, Schwarzenegger-sound-alike, Senator (PMs always sit in the Lower House) he has some political hurdles to clear if he plans on becoming party leader (on the downside, I fear he is probably also an economic rationalist, rather than a compassionate conservative).

Tragically, there is very little, if any fresh blood in the Liberal ranks that could be a Bill English and little sign of even getting a Theresa May. When Turnbull is turfed, it will likely be Abbott, Morrison or Bishop replacing him: the future looks bleak.

In Queensland there is fortunately more choice. Tim Nicholls will probably be the next Premier of Queensland (perhaps with the parliamentary support of One Nation MPs **shudder**), but conservatives would be better served by his unsuccessful rival to replace Lawrence Springborg – Tim Mander.
While the LNP will be hoping the public can’t smell the stench coming from Nicholls’ role as the Newman government’s razor-blade Treasurer, Mander is a clean-skin that would bring fresh blood to the leadership. His background as a top NRL referee could endear him to the public, while his previous role as the head of Scripture Union QLD gives me confidence that he could be the kind of compassionate conservative with solid social values we’re looking for. Queenslanders are fortunate enough that he likely has a long enough political career ahead of him to have another shot at the job…

[1] New Zealand Tertiary Education Union “Bill English” CC BY-SA 2.0
[3] CC BY 2.0

How do you smell? (2 Corinthians 2:14-16)

Let’s face it – no one wants to smell bad. An unpleasant odour makes it hard enough for people who are already your friends to endure your presence, but it’s even worse when you’re trying to make a first impression. Perfume, cologne and deodorant companies make a fortune out of humanity’s widespread desire to replace our unappealing, natural body odour with sweeter, synthetic fragrances.


But how do you smell? I’m not talking about physically, but spiritually…

In reading 2 Corinthians this week, I was reminded that Christians simultaneously manage to smell sweeter than anyone else in the world and stink with an overpowering stench. How can this be?

Paul’s words explain:

But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ, and who reveals the fragrance of the knowledge of him through us in every place.
For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to those on the one hand an odour from death to death, and to those on the other hand a fragrance from life to life. 
(2 Cor 2:14-16, LEB)

When Christians live as Christ’s ambassadors on mission in the world – like Paul and his gospel-partners did – we carry a very distinctive spiritual scent with us wherever we go. “The fragrance of the knowledge of Christ” accompanies us as we proclaim the gospel and the truth concerning Christ is revealed through our testimony.



But this fragrance is a bit like the scent of jasmine flowers – regarded by many as an incredibly pleasant aromatic perfume – and yet nonetheless having detractors who find it overwhelming and repugnant. Or the smell of what many South-east Asians call the “King of Fruits”, the durian: which is so potent that many who catch a whiff of it can’t bear to be in the same suburb as the offensive odour – while some of the fruit’s loyal devotees find the smell drawing them irresistably to its source.


Christians who live and proclaim the truth of Jesus – the gospel – emit such a scent. It’s a potent, powerful and even inescapable spiritual force.

For one set of people, it is the worst kind of smell possible an “odour from death to death.” These people hate God – as all with sin within them do in some respect – and are already spiritually dead in one sense (Eph 2:1-2) and yet they are perishing: continually falling away from the life-giving grace of their Creator towards a terrible, final state of everlasting destruction. When they encounter the knowledge of Christ (or to use Paul’s metaphor, smell it emitting from Christians), they condemn themselves by further hating God as He reveals Himself to them in His Son. The gospel and those who share it don’t smell sweet to these people – because the odour they smell spells death for them. Many will therefore naturally express their disdain for such an odour and be so repelled that they distance themselves from it as much as possible.

But for the other group of people, the same fragrance is received very differently. It is a sweet-smelling aroma and signifies their wonderful spiritual journey from life to life. Though these people also hated God in one form or another, they have smelt His sweetness revealed to them in His Son Jesus. They have come to love Him and He has granted them an abundant, spiritual vitality – which begins now with an amazing renewing of their souls and continues to blossom and bloom into a more and more glorious and enjoyable life throughout eternity. Like the durian-devotee who is not put off loving a smell that so many find repulsive, because she is convinced it spells good news for her: something glorious awaits her if she follows that aroma!

But anyone in this second category received the fragrance and its accompanying life through the faithful ministry of the gospel. But this isn’t merely a message to say Christians think other Christians smell sweet. Or that church members should regularly compliment their ministers on their pleasant, spiritual aroma.

As Paul engages in gospel ministry he seeks to put himself and the Corinthian Christians in the right frame of mind concerning the mixed response that the apostles and other agents of the gospel will receive from people. If some are turned off by the revelation of who Jesus is and reject Christians for smelling too much like their Master, it’s because God has not granted them life in Christ. The gospel is bad news to those who love their sin and refuse to turn from it under any circumstances. The more they see (or smell) of Jesus and His people, the more agitated they are by the claims the gospel makes over their lives and the more condemned they will stand before God if they continue to spurn the message and Saviour that could have brought them forgiveness and eternal life.

But Paul’s readers are to take encouragement from the fact that although we may meet many people like this in the course of seeking to live for Jesus – there will be people who are attracted to God and Christianity as the fragrance of Christ reaches them through us. Paul knew he would be rejected and despised by many and seemingly get nowhere with a significant number of people he ministered to. Yet he leaves that reality in the hands of God, while taking heart in the fact that many will be drawn by the sweetest aroma in the universe and embrace its source: the Lord Jesus.

If you’re a Christian, those around you should be able to smell the fragrance of the knowledge of Christ in your life – especially if you faithfully seek opportunities to share the gospel. But how good or bad you smell doesn’t depend on whether you discovered a secret spiritual equivalent of the perfume or cologne you might use to make a good impression on a date. If you’re growing in Christ-likeness, some people you meet will find you refreshing, while others will think you’re putrid.

It’s up to God and the people in question as to how they respond to this fragrance. The most important thing we can do is carry the scent of Christ and look forward to seeing God bring people to life through it.

[1] ginoup Lee “Perfume” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
[2] Martin Snopek “Jasmine flower” (CC BY-SA 2.0)
[3] B10m “Durian” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)