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Should Israel Folau Have Said What He Said? – Part 2

Screenshot taken from The Irish Times

 

About a year ago, Israel Folau made a post on his personal Instagram account that polarized the rugby world and the Australian public. In my thoughts on his words, I reflected on his response to a follower’s comment where he communicated that homosexuals would go to hell unless they repented and turned to God.

After the scandal broke out, star rugby playmaker Folau and the Australian Rugby union had negotiations behind closed doors, which led to a four-year extension of his contract, but with a AUD $200,000 decrease in his salary, and the understanding that he would not post more offensive material to his Instagram page.

Fast-forward to a post Folau made last Wednesday (Apr 10). In what appears to be a paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, Folau writes in the post’s caption that, “Those that are living in Sin will end up in Hell unless you repent. Jesus Christ loves you and is giving you time to turn away from your sin and come to him.”

 

Screenshot taken from Instagram

 

Because of last year’s scandal, the prominent spot that “Homosexuals” has on the list in Folau’s post has drawn the most scrutiny, tying into a popular narrative that Folau, and perhaps even Christians as a whole, are homophobic.

A number of public figures, including New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern have been quick to condemn Folau’s post. The Australian Rugby Union announced their intention to terminate Folau’s contract, just months before the Rugby World Cup where Folau would have played a key role in the Wallabies’ hopes of winning.

Folau’s actions may result in the end of his rugby career with the Australian rugby union. With that, he may lose an AUD $1 million a year income, as well as the opportunity to professionally play a sport he loves.

So here we are again, asking the same question we did a year ago. Should Israel Folau have said what he said?

 

What we can learn from this saga

In response to the scandal, Folau told the Sydney Morning Herald that “my faith in Jesus Christ is what comes first” and that he would stop playing rugby before revoking his words. Folau’s actions have drawn mixed reactions from within the church.

Although there are certainly elements to Folau’s stance that are admirable, such as his commitment to his faith over his sporting career, I wonder if we should lift him up as a “Christian hero” to emulate. Regardless of whether we agree with Folau’s actions, this latest episode is an opportunity for us to reflect on how we as Christians can communicate the gospel in a post-Christian culture, particularly on a public platform like social media.

With social media, anything we post has the incredible ability to reach millions of people in an instant. However, it is also a platform where our posts and comments can easily be taken out of context, misunderstood and can even come across as insensitive, regardless of our intentions. This is why it is so important for us to evaluate how we use it. Here are two questions that came to mind as I reflected on the scandal:

 

1. What approach should we take in addressing sin?

In the past, Folau has expressed that he has struggled with a number of the sins listed in the post, including drunkenness, adultery, lying, and fornication. But what captured my attention about his approach in his latest Instagram post was that it was more outward-focused rather than inward-focused in the way it addressed sin. The image he posted defined groups of people according to their “sin”, instead of looking at the root cause of these sins—what’s really on the inside of us.

Ultimately, this is the point that Paul is making in 1 Corinthians 6:11, that we are washed, sanctified, and justified of our sin in the name of Jesus. Perhaps if Folau had taken the opportunity to also share about his own past struggles with those sins, and how God’s grace and saving power has delivered him from them, that would’ve been a more effective and helpful approach in drawing people to Christ.

After all, Jesus has saved sinful people like Folau and I, and He can do the same for anyone who comes to Him.

 

2. Are we speaking up at the right time and place?

Although Christians are called to stand up for our faith, it doesn’t mean that we should do so whenever and however we want to. Folau’s social media saga highlights how important it is that we exercise wisdom and care in knowing exactly how and when to reach out to others with gospel truths.

Topics as serious as the consequences of sin, the reality of hell, and the incredible gift of God’s grace are probably better suited for a one-on-one conversation rather than a meme on an Instagram account. This way, we’ll also be able to interact with the individual on a personal level and address any questions he or she might have about the faith.

In this regard, we can learn from the example of Paul in Acts 17, who took the opportunity provided to him at a specific time and place in the city of Athens to share the truth God had commissioned him to speak—the meeting of the Areopagus, which was a space specifically used to communicate new ideas and philosophies. Paul wisely spoke into the culture of the day, showing his understanding of the culture he was in, even quoting Greek philosophers. And lastly, he communicated the truth of the gospel effectively by sharing about the one true God, who cannot be contained in something physical like an altar. The Holy Spirit was obviously with Paul and his words as many believed in Christ that day (Acts 17:34).

As we seek opportunities to share about our faith, let’s take heed of the apostle Peter’s encouragement for us to “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have”, but to also do so with “gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15). Let’s seek the Holy Spirit for His guidance so that like Paul, we can know the best time and place to share the truths of God’s Word to those around us.

 

An opportunity for Part 3 to be different

I felt disappointed when Part 2 of Folau’s saga broke out—as it appeared that he had not learned the lessons from what had happened the first time round. But upon further reflection, I realized that, I too, often need to learn more than once the lessons God is trying to teach me. So, I will be rooting for Folau and the church as a whole to allow the Holy Spirit to guide us with wisdom and gentleness in our attempts to live lives worthy of His calling.

If Folau’s contract ends up being terminated, he might suffer many forms of losses, but it would also give him a unique opportunity to practice what he preaches. He can show the world that money, material things, and worldly success from a rugby career do not compare with what a relationship with God can give. He can be open about his own sins and struggles. And ultimately, he can show with his words and actions that no matter what sins a person has committed, Jesus’ death and saving grace covers them all.

I will be hoping and praying that if there is a part 3 to Folau’s social media saga, I can write about how Folau has allowed God to change, mold, and guide him to become a humble ambassador of Christ’s love.

3 Things I Learned From the Homeless

“Keep an eye out for watermelon boxes. They’re the thickest ones out there,” Fridge instructed as we headed for that night’s cardboard run.

It was only my second night sleeping on the streets, but I already knew exactly what Fridge—one of our guides for the weekend who has spent many years homeless—was talking about.

It was raining that late winter’s night in Melbourne, Australia and the temperature was expected to drop close to freezing. A thick piece of cardboard from a watermelon box would provide that extra few centimeters of distance from the cold, wet concrete sidewalk that I would try to sleep on as city trains, traffic, street lights, and noisy pedestrians did their best to keep me awake.

 

Waking up sore and tired, the way many rough sleepers have to do on a regular basis.

 

When I got the email a few weeks earlier inviting my wife and I to join a group becoming rough sleepers* for a weekend, I instantly felt nervous. I knew my wife would jump at the opportunity, since helping the disadvantaged and marginalized in society has a special place in her heart. But to be honest, I was a little scared.

We had both recently started leading a team from an organization called Many Rooms that provide meals and other services to the homeless and disadvantaged of Melbourne. Even though I was hesitant to give up the comforts of my home to sleep rough for two nights, I knew that the experience would give me a glimpse into what the homeless of my city and around the world face every day.

And so my wife and I joined a group of eight people associated with Many Rooms who would meet up with three men from Melbourne Rough Sleepers (MRS): Fridge, PJ, and John. These men have lived or still live as rough sleepers themselves, and they would act as our guides throughout the weekend.

 

Our first night rough sleeping. We would not get much sleep that cold, windy night.

 

Little did I know that the experience would be one that not only changed my perspective about the homeless community, but also made me realize things about myself that I had never known. Here are three lessons I learned that weekend:

 

1. Be Wary of Stereotypes

Whether consciously or subconsciously, we tend to generalize any group of society that we are not familiar with. When I started the weekend on the street, I realized that I had done the same with rough sleepers. The stereotype of those who are homeless being drunks, drug addicts, mentally ill, or just plain lazy, was not the reality of many that we met.

Instead, we heard stories of rough sleepers fleeing domestic violence, and learned that the best place for them to hide was sleeping on the street. Another common story was of middle-aged men caught up in messy divorces who would lose their houses and their savings on legal fees trying to get their kids back. One person we met had grown up in foster homes his entire childhood and ran away at 16 to literally join the circus. Eventually, he found his way to the street and has been a part of the community ever since. Another memorable person we talked to said he had “concrete in his blood” due to the decades living on the street. He shared about the anger and violence issues he has dealt with stemming from his childhood when he was sexually abused.

I learned that everyone has a unique story and is dealing with their own issues. It is so important that we do not let our pre-conceived notions about a group in society prevent us from seeing others as God sees them—as people created in His image and loved by Him. The experience also made me reflect on what other hidden or subconscious stereotypes I have and how that may be preventing me from serving and loving others in society as Jesus would want me to.

As I reflected on the weekend, I kept going back to Genesis 1:27—the assurance that God created all of us in His image. May we look at all of our fellow human beings in the same light, regardless of the stereotypes we may have.

 

2. The Gift of Time and Respect

One of the toughest moments of the weekend started with a challenge given by our guides: to ask people for a dollar coin or a cigarette. Two successes were required for you to “pass” the challenge.

Being asked for spare change from people on the street is not an uncommon experience for many who live in a city. But being on “the other side” was an eye-opening experience. I suddenly became aware of how I appeared (and probably how I smelled) after a couple days on the street. I would search the faces of pedestrians passing by, wondering who would be the kind soul that would say yes to a stranger asking for money.

As I did so, I realized it wasn’t the rejections to my pleas that hurt the most. It was the shake of a head without even a word to acknowledge my existence. It was the quickening of their steps to walk away from me after they had said no. It was the way they paid more attention to their phone than they did to me.

On the flip side, when people said yes, it wasn’t the coin or cigarette that meant the most. It was the acknowledgement of me as a person and the time they took to help out a fellow human being.

While talking with other rough sleepers and trying to discern how I could serve them better in my role with Many Rooms, the common theme that came up was their desire to be respected and treated as any other person.

When I asked what were some ways people could show respect for them, the answer was time. Time going out of your way to share a meal with them. Time acknowledging them as human beings who are in a tough spot right now. Time spent sitting down and chatting about stuff, even if it’s about your favorite sports teams or debating the relevance of Jar Jar Binks in Star Wars.

Time and respect. Just like we all want.

This practice can also be applied to other aspects of our lives. Taking the time to chat with that elderly person even though we’re in a rush. Taking the time to patiently counsel a friend in need, even though we’d rather be bundled up on the couch watching Netflix. Taking the time to really learn about the needs and concerns of family members so we can serve and help them in a way that points them to the light of Jesus inside of us.

 

3. The Power of Light Over Darkness

When searching for a place to sleep each night, there were a few criteria that we were looking out for. One of the key ones was whether the area was well lit. We learned that there was less chances of danger in the light. And because of that, you could sleep with a bit more ease in the light.

At one point during the weekend, PJ, one of our guides, shared with me his favorite verse: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:5)

“I’ve been through a lot of low points in my life, a lot of dark times,” PJ shared. “This verse helped me a lot during those times. To head towards the light even in the darkness.”

During that weekend, I heard many stories of those who have lived through dark times. And just like every human on earth, there is a light that we are searching for, that we all need. My prayer is that just as we strive to fill the physical and practical needs of the homeless in our cities, that they would also come to know the light that shines in the darkness. And that no matter how dark their pasts have been or how low they feel right now, the darkness will not overcome the light we find in Jesus. Because even in the darkest of times when there seems to be no way out, Jesus has promised us that He will be there, that He came to “seek and to save the lost.”

 

*A more friendly term for those who are homeless and sleeping on the street.

 

The last day of our weekend experience. Despite being tired, dirty and cold, we grew close as a team with our shared experiences.

 

Searching: How Far Will You Go For Your Loved Ones?

Screenshot taken from Official Trailer

 

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Searching, the first film from 27-year-old director Aneesh Chaganty, is a crime thriller starring John Cho who plays David, a father in a desperate search for his missing daughter.

After his daughter, Margot, goes missing, David is not allowed to take an active role in the police investigation, so the only way he can help is by combing through her digital persona in search for clues to her disappearance. Filmed from the unique perspective of smartphone and laptop screens, the movie explores the different masks that we put on to hide what is going on inside. Through the twists and turns of the investigation, David learns how little he knew of his own daughter and also what lengths he would go to find her.

Searching isn’t the first film shot from the exclusive point-of-view of a laptop screen, but it is by far the most engaging one, nearly perfectly capturing the millennial generation’s online experience. From its opening shot of booting up Windows XP, the film begins by playing on nostalgia with footages of the MSN messenger, the original YouTube interface and even the early versions of Facebook as we view memories from Margot’s childhood. I haven’t seen such an emotional first five minutes to a film since that heartbreaking opening sequence from Pixar’s Up.

The film proceeds to utilize present day communication apps like Facetime and iMessage as well as popular social media platforms like Instagram, Facebook, and even Tumblr to reveal the story of Margot’s disappearance. David even uses Google Sheets and Google Maps to help in his own private investigation. The little details from director Chaganty of the dropped frame rate during a video call or a typo while messaging or deciding to delete a 200-word rant and replace it with a short, passive aggressive sentence all added to the realism of the online experience.

Although the film-making techniques used to craft the story of Searching certainly make the movie unique, it is the emotional pull of David and Margot’s characters that makes the film a great one. Some of the buzz around Searching is that it is the first mainstream Hollywood thriller with an Asian actor as the lead. Interestingly though, John Cho being of Korean descent had very little to do with David’s character arc. The film instead focused on universal themes of complicated family dynamics, of grief and loss, and—most powerfully—of a father’s love.

This theme of a father’s love was the one that spoke to me the most when reflecting on the film. I was reminded of Jesus’ Parable of the Lost Sheep (Luke 15:1-7) where he tells us of the Shepherd who will “leave the ninety-nine” sheep and “go after the lost sheep until he finds it” (Luke 15:4).

In Searching, David discovers things about his daughter that he couldn’t have imagined were possible. He finds out how Margot has been deceiving him and doing things that he couldn’t believe she would do. At one point in the film, David laments to the lead investigator, “I did not know her. I did not know my daughter.” Despite those discoveries, David’s ultimate goal of finding his daughter never wavers.

In the same way, God’s love for us is constant and unwavering. But in contrast to David, our Heavenly Father knows His children intimately. He knows about the masks that we put on and the lies we tell people in order to fit in or seek approval. He knows about the sneaking around and our sinful behavior. He knows that we will disappoint and disobey Him and go our own way. And yet despite that, he will “leave the ninety-nine” and chase after us with an even greater fervency than David does in the film. In fact, our Heavenly Father has made the ultimate sacrifice for us, not because of anything good in us, but because of the intense love He has for His children.

Although we will hopefully never have to experience what David and Margot went through in the film, my prayer is that we all experience the love of our Heavenly Father and allow ourselves to be found in Him even if we lose our way.

Should Israel Folau Have Said What He Said?

Photo by Tremain Focused on Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

 

Words can build up or destroy. For Australia rugby star Israel Folau, it was a lesson he had to learn the hard way after his response to a comment on his Instagram post went viral—and awry.

The Instagram post itself was a pretty standard one from the sporting celebrity with over 300K followers. Widely known to be an outspoken Christian, there was nothing out of the ordinary in the image he had posted earlier this month which quoted James 1:2-4, along with a diagram that showed the difference between our plans and God’s plan.

But amid the thousands of comments that streamed in, Folau’s response to one comment in particular would completely affect his life, put him in the headlines of multiple media outlets, and potentially ruin his rugby career.*

The comment: “what was gods plan for gay people??”

Folau’s response: “HELL..Unless they repent of their sins and turn to God.”

 

 

As soon as his response was published, battle lines were drawn across the internet. Some praised his bravery to speak up for his beliefs and supported his right to free speech. But the vast majority pummeled Folau for what they perceived as an anti-gay and homophobic comment.

The topic “Israel Folau says gay people will go to hell unless they repent” began to trend online. Many people across the country and the sporting world weighed in with their opinions. One of Australian rugby’s biggest sponsors, whose CEO is openly homosexual, threatened to pull their support. Several intense meetings between Folau and the Australian Rugby Union were held behind closed doors, discussing his future in the sport.

Over the last three weeks, I have followed the developing story with much interest and have learned much about the incredible power that words can have, particularly on social media.

 

To Communicate Truth Effectively

From a Biblical standpoint, Folau’s words seem to echo what the Bible has stated plainly. Romans 3:23 tells us that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” and a few chapters later, that “the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus.” (Romans 6:23). What this means is that all of us are destined for hell because of sin—regardless of whether our struggle is with homosexuality, selfishness, greed, pornography, lying, gossiping etc. But it doesn’t end there, as the second half of Romans 6:23 tells us that there is a way of escape in the free gift of eternal life, made possible through the unconditional, sacrificial love of Jesus who died for us.

Unfortunately, not all of that was communicated in the 11-word reply by Israel Folau. He did however, write a 2000+ word article two weeks later entitled “I’m a Sinner Too” to communicate those truths and his intent. In his response, he shared about the struggles he went through in his sporting career—letting fame get to his head early on, sinning with other women and battling alcohol addiction. Coming from a place of humility, he then shared how he personally experienced Jesus’ love and the peace he received when he opened his heart to God.

But it seemed as though his response may have come a bit too late—damage had already been done.

Words obviously have an incredible power, and as we have seen in the backlash to Folau’s Instagram comment, even a few words have the potential to hurt an entire community of people and possibly push them away from learning more about God. In a world hostile to the faith, it is ever so pertinent that we as believers in Christ speak truthfully, but also wisely and lovingly.

 

Would We Lay Down Our Rights?

The other major debate surrounding this episode was on the right of free speech. Was it Folau’s right to express his religious beliefs unreservedly? This seemed to be how Folau also felt, based on his tweet which quoted Matthew 5:11-12, suggesting that he felt persecuted for his comments.

Although I respect Folau for standing up for the Christian faith, particularly in the face of immense backlash from the world and at the risk of his own career, I wonder if the shift in conversation to the rights that Christians should have to defend our faith, rather than towards the truth about a loving Savior who wishes for us all to have relationship with Him, including those in LGBT community, is helpful.

I think of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 9. Referring to a culturally accepted right that he had to request financial support from the Corinthian church, Paul says in verse 12 that he and Barnabas “did not use this right. On the contrary, we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ.”

In the realm of online debates and “keyboard warriors”, believers can be caught up in our right to express our beliefs. No doubt there are many times when we should stand up for our faith in the face of evil and adversity, but we must be cautious about our intentions behind our actions. Are we speaking out just so we can prove to ourselves and others that we are “right”? Do the words we say and the actions we make actively lead others toward Christ?

Paul continues in verse 19 that “though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.” Admittedly, I find that incredibly tough to live out. As human beings, there is a strong yearning in us to want to show and prove that our beliefs and ideas are correct and right. But Paul challenges us to flip that human desire on its head and instead make ourselves slaves, give up the rights we have to prove ourselves correct in order that the gospel can be shared freely and effectively to the world around us.

If there is one takeaway for all of us from this episode, it is this: To come before God and plead with the Holy Spirit to guide us daily, to speak through us, and to help us act wisely. May all that we do with our lives point others towards God and lead others to relationship with a Savior who desires more than we can ever imagine to save us from HELL. (2 Peter 3:9)

 

*At the time of this writing, Folau’s future in Australian rugby is still uncertain.