Fingers & Fingernails

I think cutting fingernails is OK. I think cutting fingers isn’t. As far as I know there isn’t a verse mandating the cutting of fingernails, nor a verse prohibiting the cutting of fingers. And yet, if there was a cult that refused to cut fingernails we would think it odd at best, and if we came across a cult that insisted on cutting fingers we would call it evil.

The point here is that you can’t do ethics without observation. You cannot do ethics with just Scripture. That is because you cannot say whether this or that is right or wrong if you do not know what this or that is. Are widgets good? I don’t know. It depends on what they are, and I can’t tell you what they are until I’ve had a look.

Which is not to say that Scripture is insignificant or peripheral to observing the world. In the first instance Scripture will tell us a lot of what we will find, and secondly, if by God’s grace we have been redeemed, then we will also have a regenerate heart which is willing to see what there is to be seen (I’m also wondering if Scripture, thirdly, gives us a way of looking, but I’ll leave it as a query for now).

But it is not enough to see the world, it must also be described, described in morally relevant ways. O’Donovan (in ‘Christian  Moral Reasoning’ in Dictionary of Christian Ethics & Pastoral Theology) suggests there are two steps to doing ethics. Firstly a reflective or descriptive step, where you describe the world (set of circumstances) in which you need to act, and then secondly deliberative thinking, where you think towards action.

Most bad ethics, and most ethical disagreements derive from poor and differing descriptions of what we see. In other words, often the most difficult task is not knowing what to do per se, but rather describing the circumstances in accurate and morally relevant ways. Let me give one example:

If two unbelievers are living together, and one of them is converted, should the Christian stay in the relationship. The resolution to this question turns on whether or not their relationship was a marriage. That is, even if they have not formally married, does their relationship resemble marriage or not. So the backpacking couple who share life for six months because it is fun and convenient but who have no intention of ongoing commitment because they live at least three hours from each other in the UK are in a very different situation to the couple who have had a child and bought a house together. In the former we would probably advise the young Christian to end the relationship, in the latter not. The point here isn’t so much the specific issue rather just to note the significance of description.

A large part of ethics, then, is to describe the world we see utilizing the morally relevant categories we discern in Scripture. Thus we can approach and describe situations and circumstances not covered or conceived in Scripture.


Caesar, lend me your ears!

When the US called its response to 9/11 ‘Infinite Justice’, it was that something was rotten in the state-church relationship. Either the state wasn’t listening to the church, or the church wasn’t speaking the truth to the state. This urgently needs to change.

The thought may trouble you. The very phrase ‘Infinite Justice’ has religious connotations and suggested that perhaps the state has been listening a little too much to the church. In the West we’ve grown up believing in ‘the separation of church and state’. Religion, we believe, is a private affair and no place in the government of a democratic nation. The church, we suspect, is lurking in the shadows, waiting to pounce and impose its dogma on an unsuspecting and unwilling nation. We might grudgingly concede the church’s right to speak (it’s a free country) but we can’t imagine actually encouraging the state to listen.

But this is just what I’m proposing: that the church speak truth to the state, and that the state listen.

Let me first clarify that by no means am I suggesting that the church should run the state – heaven forbid. But that the church is called to speak to the state, and it has two main things to declare.

The first is simple that the state is not God. This might strike you as odd, surely the Australian government isn’t about to confuse itself with God. But states haven’t always been so ready to concede this. This is a message the president of North Korea needs to hear.

Atheists should be especially appreciate of this of this role of the church: if there’s no God, it’s all the more tempting for the state to imagine itself in this role.

This doesn’t mean the only option available to the Australian government is to formally acknowledge God and declare itself Christian – to become what me might call a ‘confessing state’. It has two other options. It may be agnostic in its view (a ‘non-confessing state’), or it may be atheistic (a ‘secularist state’). In practice this difference is this: a non-confessing state will allow the airing of all kinds of views, including religious ones: the secularist state will insist that any religious discussion or expression be removed from the public square.

In this way, the secularist state is in fact very similar to one which imagines itself as God. It will neither recognize nor tolerate the possibility of any authority higher than itself. It will demand ever-increasing loyalty from its citizens. The French decision to ban women from wearing their headscarves seems to fit this pattern.

When a state suggests that it can deliver ‘infinite justice’, it may have similar pretensions to grandeur. Infinite Justice is the preserve of God alone; no state can claim to deliver it. If the US government had been listening to what the church should have been saying, they might instead have called their response ‘limited justice’ instead. It’s not particularly catchy, but it’s suitably humble.

Once the church has declared the negative message of what the state is not, it can also declare the positive message of what it is. The state’s primary role is the administration of justice – promoting good and restraining evil. This will include a concern for such things as fair and accessible courts, a stable currency, preventing exploitative monopolies, and the treatment of prisoners (even bad one’s).

In this respect, we wonder if the church might have something to say to the US government. In the US’s dealings with prisoners from the ‘War on Terror’, they’ve sometimes failed to administer even limited justice. They’ll claim that instances of mistreating prisoners are isolated events. But isolated events happen in isolated places.

We have good cause to be concerned for the prisoners help in Cuba. The US may claim that they are doing nothing illegal in the matter, but this is irrelevant. Laws don’t create justice, they seek to acknowledge and express it. It’s this fact which enables us from time to time to cry out that this or that law is in fact unjust.

The US has admitted that the War on Terror is a new situation requiring new rules. Might these new rules include how to deal justly with those accused of terrorism?

If the church’s messages isn’t heard, we should expect more of the same.


Can $84 beat the Holy Spirit?

(Originally published in Eternity in 2009/10)

I don’t think anyone like parking police. We love the feeling of beating them.

And perhaps with good reason.

As I was leaving work the other day, I noticed the parking police marking the cars around me. I thought this might create the opportunity to beat the police. Whoever parked there after me wouldn’t get marked and could stay there for the rest of the day. I rang my colleague, who was still at work, to let him know his good fortune. He hurried down and parked in my spot.

However, when the parking police returned, the fined him $84 for staying more than an hour. They’d cheated: the ticket indicated that the infringing hour had started before my phone call.

This sort of behaviour seems to justify our ongoing dislike of parking police: it fuels our suspicion that it really is all about revenue-raising.

But this dislike and anger – even when justified – obscure the good that parking police do.

Consider this, If I find a park, I take it. I check after an hour, and if the tyres aren’t marked, I stay. If I happen upon an all-day parking spot, I snap it up. And after a few hours – as regenerate as I am, as transformed by the Holy Spirit, as redeemed by the blood of Christ – I don’t start thinking about whether it might be kind to give someone else a turn. My car stays put.

But the sight of chalk or a uniform will succeed where inner motivation failed. The parking police are there to help me share.



(Originally published in Eternity in 2009/10)


Do job titles matter?

A friend of mine – I’ll call him Steve – recently started a new job. This was good news, he had been retrenched, and it was great to have any job, but more than this, he had by God’s grace landed a job with increased responsibility – Steve had a team of five to lead.

A good job, with some lead lining – two of the team had wanted his job, as had another older man in the organization.

For the two in the team there was no shortcut, just consistent good leadership and communication, hoping over time to win them.

But for the older man – let’s call him Bruce – Steve was able to do something more immediate. He realized that the Bruce didn’t really want the job of Team Leader. That is, he wasn’t particularly interested in leading people and it wasn’t a matter of money – he was already getting paid more than Steve as the team leader. Rather Bruce wanted role because he wanted the respect that came with the role.

So Steve negotiated with his manager to give Bruce a new title. At first Bruce was coy about the change – there is no respect  in admitting you would like respect – but this was soon replaced with appreciation.

Of course if the title change had been an attempt to create an appearance where there was no reality, it would had been received as a fraud. But Bruce was older the team Steve led, he was more experienced, more skilled and was certainly paid a lot more – yet he shared the same title with them. The new title gave everyone a way to say what they already knew to be true. The new title gave respect.

Steve had tapped into two great truths: the sheer goodness of respecting those who are older; and the power of words – to at once express and reinforce reality.


Who is my neighbour?

(Originally published in ACR, Sept 2005)

Who is neighbour?

The last person to ask this question ended up on the wrong end of a stinging rebuke from Jesus. So it is with caution that I reopen this question. After all, what Jesus said was clear enough; anybody might be our neighbour.

Which is where things start to go wrong for us; this anybody, it seems, is actually quite hard to find. By this I don’t mean we can no longer find people to love, rather the opposite. We meet more people than we can ever hope to remember the name of, let alone pray for, let alone love. Anybody is Everywhere.

And so we seek not so much to love our neighbour, but to love the world. We set out to love everyone, and so we go about implementing programs that are good for people in general, perhaps not realizing that to love everyone in general is to love no-one in particular.

And it is the particular person who misses out. We leave the one before us, in search of the 99 out there.

We have missed that our neighbour is someone. A person with a name and (probably) an address, and they might not need what we customarily offer, but they will need, and you can love them, even if you can’t love all of them. It is at once both liberating and challenging. It is liberating because we are free to respond to the call of Jesus and give ourselves over to loving some people and not others. It is challenging because we will have to give ourselves over to loving some people.

Remember God so loved the world. We are called to love our neighbour. It might be anyone, it can’t be everyone, it must be someone.



(Originally published in Eternity in 2009/10)


‘One of my employees cost me $11,000 this morning’. We were catching up for an 8am social coffee, and Mike was experiencing the privilege of being the half owner of a business. It has been a simple error, and fortunately he had done something similar for a greater sum for a previous employer just a few years earlier. And he was keen to honour Christ in the way he treated his staff. So yes he was going to be gracious, yes he was going to treat it as a ‘training’ experience, sure he was still going to make good money, but yes it still hurt.

It is the side of owning a business we don’t often acknowledge. Most of us are very pro work, we would like to use the gifts God has given us to make a difference to the world – and we would like to be well paid for doing so. Strangely, though, we can be quite against the people who create the opportunity for other people to work – the boss. We are generally very keen to be rewarded for our effort, but sometimes resentful when they are rewarded for theirs. Perhaps we forget that in world where the ground is cursed by God, where everything tends to disorder and decay, that it is quite an achievement to get something done that someone else finds valuable enough to pay money for, let alone enough to cover costs and make a profit.

If you create and manage opportunities for others to work you do a good thing. Maybe the product or service you offer is also a good thing, maybe the way you use the money you make is a good thing, but the work you create is certainly one. You give people the means to provide and raise families and you give people the opportunity to bless others with the gifts God has given them – and perhaps you even create a mission field. No, not all employers are good, but this shouldn’t prevent us from noticing it when they are. They are a few good men and women and we could simply say thank you.


Are you about to buy a puppy? Or when to say No

Some project are projects, and some projects are puppies.

Let’s suppose I want to sign up to study a subject at University. I know roughly what I am getting into: the government legislates a subject to be 150 hours work over 15 weeks, and universities do a reasonable job of complying. Yes, there are spikes (some weeks requiring more than the average 10 hours); yes, there will be disorganisation; and yes, I don’t yet know the date of the final exam, but all these changes happen within a range.

And then there are puppies.

Once we have bought a puppy we cannot anymore think about whether the cost or inconvenience is worth it. We will feed it, train it, vaccinate it, walk it, clean it, clean up after it. We’ll find it a home during holidays, and to reciprocate, be a ‘home for other puppies’. When it gets sick we will stay up at night, and when the vet bill is due we will pay. Our insurance won’t bring peace and we’ll wonder whether a trip to Disneyland might have been cheaper. And in our darkest moments we’ll start comparing our kids’ promises to politicians’.

And so to, some projects. We enter with clear intentions to commit to a specific scope, to know our boundaries, and to stand firm to additional encroachments. But we find ourselves shouting at the surf; the cost of not complying is too high – we’ll lose friendships; or our kids will, or a career, or a business, or someone will die, or some other calamity. In the end, we will catch the wave and do what is needed to be done.

For the most, this is a good thing. It is a good thing that people who own puppies look after them. It is good that some doctors and nurses work on Christmas Day. It is good that Prime Ministers visit disaster zones. It is a good thing to care for your dying mother (as one Uber driver I met had been before he started driving). It is good that the show goes on.

Of course, even if a project is a puppy, there are occasions when it’s appropriate and possible to say no. But when a project that we don’t yet own stares up at us with those eyes, the time to say no is now.


A Modest Curriculum

Much like the essay marker who suggests 10 things you should have included, but offers no suggestions for what to exclude, so most of us approach school curriculums. We have ideas about what to add but not about what to cut.

So here is my suggestion for a modest curriculum.

  1. Reading
  2. Writing
  3. Maths
  4. Learning a marketable skill (e.g. web design, painting a house, bookkeeping etc)
  5. Opportunities to learn other non-compulsory non-curriculum things (with the hope that students will learn to learn, learn to love learning for its own sake and perhaps develop deep knowledge and skills in one or two areas that interest them).

To believe this you will need to believe other things: that most children like to learn but compulsory learning with standardised tests kills most learning; that conformity is overrated and different students need to learn different things; and that our curriculum and the bureaucracy that grows around it is slowly suffocating our schools, students and teachers.

But change is unlikely, a modest curriculum is too ambitious.


I Will Crush Your Dreams

Dream crushing has a bad name. We modern parents know we are supposed to foster, promote, enable and support ‘All The Dreams’.

But crushing dreams has its place.

I’m reluctant to recount specific stories – so let me just say we have had ‘the dance conversation’ more than once. We have four daughters, many daughters like to dance, ‘making it’ in dance is rare enough, but if you are “tallest in your class” (or thereabouts) it is impossible.

Now I can hear some of you proclaiming that I am discouraging my children from pursuing difficult or risky paths, but I think the opposite is true.

The distinction I hope they learn is between the impossible and the merely very difficult. If I hope they never take a risk, never fail, or never undertake something difficult, then I have no need of dream crushing; they will never stand on the lookout of very difficult to be close enough to risk falling down the cliff of impossible. But if I hope they go out onto lookouts then it matters that they know about cliffs.

I do not want them, as ethicist Oliver O’Donovan puts it, to become “enchanted by unrealised possibilities [they] cannot bring about”, to “fall in love with what is not the case: a world free of misunderstanding and suspicion, a world free of strife and conflict, a world where nobody goes to bed hungry, marvellous worlds which [they] are incapable of bringing to pass.”

I would rather they pursued some concrete achievable good, even one with a high chance of failure.

Put differently, I do not want my children to pursue world peace, but to pursue some peace in the world – that would be good, and difficult enough.


‘Adequate Skills’

One of my daughters recently set out to paint a small bedside table she had bought from an op shop. She loved the shape but not the colour. Nothing remarkable here, except she is the daughter least likely to undertake anything related to craft or manual labour.

Once the task was completed the table looked ‘really good’. My daughter announced she had adequate skills at painting. Since then we have used ‘adequate skills’ to describe what’s required in all kinds of domains. We even turned it into a jingle:

Adequate skills, adequate skills, [Name] has adequate skills at [Domain]

Yes, in life we will need to develop superior skills in one or two areas, and we’ll hope to help our children do the same, but for everything else there’s ‘adequate skills.’