Smoke and mirrors

Smoke and mirrors


On the left-hand side of the aisle, smoking was permitted. Non-smokers sat on the right side. Commonly one third of the passengers smoked. After a flight, the stewardess’s hair and uniforms smelt of smoke. Believe it or not and that wasn’t so long ago.

In those days of inflight smoking, 1978 onwards, I flew a lot. It was my choice of airline that landed me in trouble with my colleages. I was working for the Australian Council of Christian Education and I worked with the Australian Council of Churches. My colleages were politically-aware, left-leaning Protestant ministers. For instance, one of them would rise at 6am every morning to listen to Radio Moscow. “The only news cast I can trust”.

On arrival in Sydney I would be met at the airport by a minister colleague. There was at that time the choice of two airlines – TAA the Australian government airline, and Ansett a privately-owned airline. I always flew Ansett. On one occasion, the minister who picked me up asked, “Why did you fly Ansett? Was TAA booked out?” “No”, I said. “I support free enterprise. I don’t want our airlines to run like the government operated, Victorian Railways.” At the time, this service strike ridden and unreliable. News of my answer quickly spread through the Sydney office and I found myself with no one to talk to during the lunch break.

On one occasion in Sydney, I had to have some papers copied. I went to the office manager, a woman minister, and asked for assistance. It was eventually given but only with bad grace. After asking around as to why she was so touchy, the answer I was given was, “Oh she’s a lesbian”. Actually, at that time I wasn’t sure what a lesbian was. Only the year before I came across the word ‘lesbian’ for the first time and I had to look up the meaning in a dictionary.

I came from an evangelical conservative background. Along with my family and friends I did not oppose the Vietnam war. I did perceive communism as a threat and I believed in the ‘domino theory’ – that is, one country after another being overtaken by communist forces. But, the people I worked with saw communism as secular form of Christianity. Some even muttered darkly that numbers of Australia’s wealthy and powerful would have to be strung up on lamp poles, before this new age came in. This new age, in their view would be completely compatible with New Testament Christianity.

I used to subscribe to the Reader’s Digest and send subscriptions to this magazine as Christmas presents. Before the tech revolution, for people who worked from home like me, a walk to the letter box could be the most exciting thing of the day. But finding the letter box empty could be deflating. A subscription to the Reader’s Digest fixed that. Every other day the Digest would write to you with special offers. What is more they often used a handwriting font and address you warmly by name. Clever marketing! 

In debates with my politically aware colleagues I sometimes would quote articles from the Reader’s Digest.  The Digest regularly ran stories about life in the communist-bloc countries and it was from the digest that I first heard of Stalin’s Gulags. ‘All lies and propaganda’ I was told.

In the years that followed, most of my colleagues left the church and struck out to make their fortunes in free-enterprise Australia. In time, the world learnt the truth about the Gulags and suffering within communist countries. It many cases, in respect of the Gulags, the reality was worse than the accounts I had read in the Digest.

On the other side of things, bit by bit I came to know the story of the Vietnam war. It never was the goodies fighting the baddies. The horrors or carpet bombing, the indiscriminate destruction of agent orange and napalm were secrets no longer. It became clear to me that military hardware and corrupt officials stood no chance against guerrilla soldiers with do-or-die commitment.  And now, the smoke has cleared, and as with most of the previously communist world, a kind of capitalism rules. In Vietnam tourism flourishes and smiles await us. 

I am a slow learner but life has taught me a few things. The fashion of the day can quickly change. Why ever did we accept and encourage, smoking on flights. And as for dogmatic opinions, I simply don’t believe them. Opinions are fine and necessary, but saying this is the whole truth and only truth cuts no ice with me.

This applies in politics, in science and in my field, religion. 

In my early life as a Christian I was taught to be dogmatic. There was one truth about heaven and hell, salvation and damnation etc.. Anyone who disagreed was wrong and had to be put right or they would suffer in this world and the next for their errors. I am thankful for my teachers in theological school who pricked the balloon of my ego and suggested to us students that there are many different ways of reading the Bible. At first, we thought they were destroying the fabric of our faith. Then we gradually came to understand that ‘the love of God is broader than the measure of man’s mind and the heart of the eternal is most wonderfully kind” (from Frederick Faber’s hymn, Souls of men).  I am still working at understanding this and I think I am only just beginning.

2017 has been the year when the term ‘Fake News’ has come into common use. It now is widely accepted that all news as reported has an editorial slant which distorts the truth. Its all smoke and mirrors. It used to be so simple for me. If it was in the Melbourne Age of course it was the truth. In recent years, I have always believed the BBC. Now everything on the left, the right and the centre has been branded as ‘fake news’. I hear my friends and family saying, “Who can we believe?” Most of them have given up on mainstream mediums of reporting, papers, TV news etc. and have found their own sources. They tell me of gurus, academics or organisations that have their own news feeds on the internet.  They seem to believe them implicitly. They tell me that these news sources are not biased and their reporting on events is accurate and not coloured by personal agendas, definitely no smoke and mirrors. Really!

Sometimes my computer goes crazy. It freezes or does not follow the commands as it normally would. If the computer was a person, I would say it has a migraine. When this happens I simply shut down the computer and then restart. Almost always this works. When a few minutes later the screen reappears, all is back to normal. We (the computer and I) can begin to function again. Somehow, this action of disconnecting from all the confusion and nonsense that had overtaken it, allowed the device to reset back to its normal productive self.

Now that’s why I go to church. To me it’s like hitting the ‘reset’ button. It helps me see beyond my personal smoke and mirrors. The Christian Gospel and Christian worship confronts me with a reality that cuts through the confusion and conflicts of my life. It doesn’t do this always because sometimes the message is not clear or I am not receptive. That is, it is easy for me to be in church, in a fellowship setting, home group etc and for me to block the good news and avoid the reset. But when I am open to receive it, here is part of my reset which I experience in church. 

In a troubled world, I am part of the trouble.

I am not in arena watching others make history, I am on the field making history in the only universe that exists for me, the circle of my life.

My job in life is not fixing others up, but allowing God’s love to fix me up.

That my selfishness and stupidity has broken the heart of God, (Jesus death on the cross) but I am still loved and still needed. 

Now that is not ‘fake news’. That’s the truth and this truth helps me see beyond the smoke and mirrors to reality. Easy to write. Hard to do.  But, the direction is right and on this path we are not alone.

Stan Stewart

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