Terminally optimistic

What wonderful words…

terminally optimistic

So much better than terminally ill. This is how Linnea Duff describes herself. Linnea was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2005, they discovered her ALK mutation in 2008, and she has been on a succession of clinical trials and targeted therapies since then. This year marks 10 years of living with cancer. So encouraging!

Posted in Journey with Cancer | Tagged | 1 Comment

Rejoicing in lament

Todd Stern’s review of Rejoicing in Lament by J. Todd Billings. This review first appeared on The Gospel Coalition website on 18 March 2015.

rejoicingWhen Christians are confronted with significant tragedy, we are often reminded of Paul’s words to the church at Philippi: “Do not be anxious about anything. . . . [There is] a peace that passes all understanding. . . . I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:6, 7, 13). While all this is wonderfully true, less often do we hear the line that immediately follows: “It was good of you to share in my troubles” (Phil. 4:14).

Dealing with our own troubles and sharing in those of others are among the most challenging aspects of the Christian life. It isn’t always easy to weep with those who weep (Rom. 12:15). Foolish and insensitive things get said by well-meaning folks. J. Todd Billings’s excellent new book, Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ, will go a long way in equipping us to endure and to minister to one another in more theologically grounded and helpful ways.

How does Billings, professor of Reformed theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan, accomplish this task?

Writing from the Cauldron

If you’ve ever heard the harrowing words, “You have cancer,” you will quickly realize that Billings has “street cred.” He isn’t writing from a position of dispassionate analysis but rather from the cauldron, speaking openly and honestly of his experience of being diagnosed at age 39 with Myeloma, a rare and incurable cancer. Throughout Rejoicing in Lament he references his CarePages, an online journal for sharing with others the progression in his own thinking as he moves from the immediate upheaval surrounding the initial diagnosis to dealing with the “new normal.”

It is instructive how well reasoned even his early entries are. Even though Billings may have been surprised by the diagnosis, he was already well versed in truth, which enabled him to find solace and comfort in the only place it can truly be found—at the foot of the cross and in the pages of the Bible. Don’t wait for a crisis to read this book—strengthen your faith now, even in a peaceful season, by building these truths into your soul.

Praying the Psalms

Billings provides excellent instruction on praying the Psalms—particularly the psalms of lament—with all the honesty, struggle, and emotion of the Spirit-breathed writers themselves. He deals with these in detail throughout the book, teaching us how to fight our fears with faith and the language of Scripture. This discipline frees us to be honest and calls us to reflect on God’s wonderful promises, even when we can’t fully understand all that’s happening to us.

Billings helpfully explains that, as with Job, God does not owe us an explanation for why he allows severe trials. There is mystery here, yet we can rely on the truth that only he fully understands our suffering. We waste precious energy when we seek answers that only reside in the secret places of the Most High (Deut. 29:29).

Helping the Church

Billings also offers practical instruction for the church in chapters 6 and 7, “Death in the Story of God and in the Church” and “Praying for Healing and Praying for the Kingdom.” These chapters are particularly accessible and illuminating. The church is the place to run to rather than avoid when experiencing suffering. Sometimes we want to “grieve in private” or don’t want others to “see our pain,” but that can be profoundly counterproductive.

I hadn’t considered Billings’s point that the church is the one place where we celebrate birth, baptism, marriage, and death—a point that reinforced to me the importance of faithful perseverance in the church from cradle to grave.

Two Small Cautions

Lay readers (like me) should know in advance that Billings is an accomplished theologian and academician. As a result, some of the book’s language may be less accessible to the typical person wrestling with a trial of this magnitude. I’d counsel readers to stick with it, however, because there’s much gold to be mined in these pages.

A challenge in writing a book so tightly interwoven with the author’s experience is that he can share what he experienced and how he handled it, yet the reader’s experience may differ. While there may be certain commonalities in all Christian suffering, changing just one variable in a trial can make a world of difference experientially. Therefore, there cannot be a “one size fits all” approach. Questions that surface for some won’t rise for others. New and different questions may demand fresh and distinct responses.

I, too, have been diagnosed with incurable cancer. Even as I write this review, my chemo regimen is changing after 34 rounds because the tumors are continuing to grow. Additionally, today is the six-month anniversary of my wife’s death from her incurable cancer. I don’t have exactly the same struggles or questions as Billings: the “why” question hasn’t bothered me as deeply; I haven’t really experienced anger at God; and I find peace in the certain knowledge that he’s promised to “never leave us or forsake us” (Deut. 31:6, 8; Heb. 13:5). Billings implies at times that this sort of response is dangerously close to blind stoicism—but it might just be how God has prepared me to endure this trial. We all experience and respond to affliction in slightly different ways, and that’s okay.

Caught Up into His Story

All Christians can agree with Billings when he writes:

Even when we feel left in the dark, even when suffering and death seem senseless, we are empowered by the Spirit to groan, lament, and yet rejoice. God’s promise is trustworthy, and this same Spirit has united us to Christ, through whom we are able to call out to the Father as adopted children. We rejoice, we lament. In all of this, our own stories are not preserved in a pristine way; we are displaced (“I am not my own”) and incorporated into a much larger story—God’s story in Christ. (p170)

That message of truth needs to be heard loud and clear throughout the church, and Billings brings it home in a brilliant and powerful way. Whether you are walking with someone who is suffering, you are suffering yourself, or you want to be prepared to suffer, Billings can lead and guide you to do so in a God-honoring way.

Posted in Books, Journey with Cancer | Leave a comment

Leaders eat last

leaderseatlastLeaders eat last: Why some teams pull together and others don’t by Simon Sinek is a thoughtful analysis of many of the problems created and experienced by leaders and organisations in today’s world. It contains case studies, research, and biological and anthropological explanations for why successful organisations are those that create strong and safe communities. While this book is longer than it needs to be, and possibly over reaches in its biological and evolutionary claims, there is much to learn and relearn in this analysis of human interaction. Leaders of all types, whether in families, business, churches, government or other organisations, will do well to review their leadership in the light of Leaders eat last. I’ve personally found many points for reflection as I’ve be pushed to evaluate my leadership and the organisation (church) that I lead.

While the title is a metaphor for selflessness, it resonates literally with me. In 2002, as I became the team chaplain for the Brumbies Super 12 Rugby Team, I met the assistant team manager, Garry Quinlivan. ‘Quinzo’ is a retired customs officer who devotes his time to serving the Brumbies players and staff. He works without pay, spending long hours preparing, cleaning, checking up on, and sacrificially caring for everyone. Many things stand out about Quinzo, but one thing has struck me over the entire time I have watched him at work—he always eats last! Whether it’s a social BBQ, a drinks break, team lunch, or celebrating after a win—Quinzo always eats last. He gives everything for the team. And, in turn, people love Quinzo—they would do anything for this man.

Leaders eat last has constructive advice to leaders who preside over toxic work places. Watch how you lead—you may be the problem! Though of course, many selfish leaders would never consider themselves at fault. They don’t pause to reflect on the climate they are creating. The push for profits, the obsession with numbers, and the focus on short-term results mask the damage many leaders are doing to people. And then they wonder why their outcomes and results are so poor.

Sinek makes much of the importance of creating a circle of safety in the organisation. This idea is taken from Aesop’s Fable:

A lion used to prowl about a field in which four oxen used to dwell. Many a time he tried to attack them; but whenever he came near they turned their tails to one another, so that whichever way he approached them he was met by the horns of one of them. At last, however, they fell a-quarrelling among themselves, and each went off to pasture alone in a separate corner of the field. Then the Lion attacked them one by one and soon made an end of all four. (p20)

When we are part of a strong circle of safety, we naturally share ideas, burdens, successes, and we build a culture of collaboration, trust, and innovation. Good relationships are key to people surviving, let alone flourishing. A healthy organisation will be built on good relationships between colleagues. People grow in their trust for one another and become willing to do more for each other and the organisation. By contrast, organisations characterised by suspicion, fear, and distrusting micromanagement, are destined for decline and failure.

Sinek suggests a number of strategies that leaders can adopt to build a healthy, positive, relational culture in their organisations:

Rule 1: Keep it real—bring people together. Efficiency doesn’t always equal effectiveness. Emails, intranets, and on-line people management systems won’t necessarily build deep, trusting relationships. Trust is not formed through a screen, it is formed across the table. It takes a handshake to bind humans … and no technology yet can replace that. There is no such thing as virtual trust. (p111)

Rule 2: Keep it manageable—obey Dunbar’s Number. Anthropologist Robin Dunbar has found that people are not able to maintain close relationships with more than 150 people at a time. Traditional societies around the world tend to be organized in groups of 100 to 150. Larger groups require clear lines of organisation and specialist care to encourage cooperation and healthy relationships to develop. I suspect it is no accident that many churches seem to get stuck, never growing much beyond 150 people.

Rule 3: Meet the people you help. Fund-raising workers who have personal contact with the people they help have far more success. We work harder and better when we can see our potential impact. If we are focused purely on names and numbers, then morale drops and the organisation suffers.

Rule 4: Give them time, not just money. Research has shown that we place a higher value on time than money. Giving time, attention, and energy builds relationship, fosters community, creates trust, and encourages loyalty.

Rule 5: Be patient—obey the rule of seven days and seven years. Building relationships of trust takes time. Gauging someone’s fit in an organisation or in a relationship takes longer than the time that we typically give it: ‘more than seven days, but less than seven years’.

Sinek teaches that becoming a leader involves the key ingredients of love and trust. Leaders must model and grow organisations shaped and characterised by care and strong relationships. They should work to provide safe environments for their workers to enjoy being productive.

It’s not hard to see the relevance of this book to many workplaces and community organisations. Many of us have experienced difficult work environments where the CEO or the boss is a large part of the problem. The drive for profits often leaves a wake of departures and problems for the organisation.

As a pastor, I see a number of lessons for myself and my colleagues. If churches focus on growing numbers, budgets, buildings and the like, then we can forget that we should be primarily about the love of God and a love for people. I’m called to put others before myself—to be a leader who eats last. Jesus is the great example of the one who did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). In a sense, I don’t need the wisdom of Sinek—I need the vision and example of Jesus. However, it doesn’t hurt to be reminded by whatever means. If God can teach people through an ass, then he can certainly challenge me through a popular leadership book!

The sad reality is that there are too many people who’ve been hurt by their churches. I regularly meet people who feel they have been neglected, rejected, abused, or betrayed by their church or their leaders. This many be a one-sided analysis (it’s much easier to see how we’ve been hurt, than how we might have hurt others) but it’s a reminder to stay in touch with what the church is intended to be—the body of Christ, shaped by his love.

Leaders eat last has encouraged me to do some self-reflection. Is my leadership offering care and protection to those entrusted to me? Are we building a church community where it is safe to be weak and vulnerable? Are people more important than processes? Is maturity more valued than money? Where are my blind spots as a leader? What do I need to change or work at?

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Christians get depressed too

depressedtooLast week I attended a half day seminar on mental illness. It was aimed especially at Christian workers, offering an introduction to the prevalence and complexity of depression in particular. It sparked my interest to refresh my understanding and delve a little deeper into this troubling matter. ‘Depression’ can be a polarising issue among people in general, and there are particular dividing lines among Christians. There are different schools of thought about what it looks like, how and why people become depressed, and what should be done to help people with depression. Christians get depressed too by David Murray is a short book (112 pages) that is well worth reading. It shows a good understanding of the complexity of this issue and argues for a decrease in dogmatism and an increase in humility.

Murray urges us to avoid simplistic extremes when considering the cause of depression. He demonstrates how Christian analysis has fallen into three camps: the cause is all physical; the cause is all psychological; or the cause is all spiritual. The problem with these positions is the word ‘all’. We are complex beings and it is unlikely that one factor alone can be found that explains the cause of depression. In the case of spiritual factors, Murray argues that spiritual problems are more likely to be the result rather than the cause of depression. This is not to rule out spiritual factors sometimes being the cause of depression. But we are urged not to jump to this conclusion any more than we would assume spiritual factors to have caused headaches, cancer or asthma. The second chapter of this book offers some helpful analysis of the approach and writings of Jay Adams and also the modern Biblical Counselling Movement.

This book seems especially aimed at helping the person who believes that having depression is incompatible with being a Christian. Murray shows how this is not the case, and provides biblical evidence for depression and faith in God coexisting in the one person. The book of Psalms illustrates this, with approximately one third of the Psalms demonstrating depressed thoughts and feelings.

Many factors can be involved in depression: life circumstances; unhelpful thought patterns; negative emotions and feelings; bodily symptoms; and changes to behaviour and activity. Acknowledging the complexity of causes and the variety of symptoms, alerts us to the benefits of a multifaceted approach to helping a depressed person. Murray suggests making helpful adjustments to our lifestyles in the areas of routine, relaxation, recreation, sleep, diet, and the like. He recommends addressing our thought processes and assessing our feelings. If making these adjustments doesn’t fix things, then he recommends seeking out trained medical help and possible medication. He also urges us to correct spiritual consequences and, where appropriate, spiritual causes of the depression.

The last chapter gives some good advice to non-professional caregivers. We are urged to learn more about the nature of depression, and there are some useful recommendations for further reading. Murray calls for sympathy for the person suffering depression. However , in my opinion, what he describes might be better described as empathy. We don’t all need to experience depression ourselves to be able to help those who do. Secrecy and stigma are among the problems to overcome in caring for a depressed person. There’s helpful list of things not to say to someone who is depressed. And there is an important section on helping someone who may become suicidal.

There are no easy answers and no quick fixes when it comes to depression. Ongoing support and understanding are required to be helpful and this book is a useful tool for becoming better equipped at both.

Posted in Books | 3 Comments


10-10-1010-10-10 by Suzy Welsh is a very simple and very practical decision making tool. It revolves around asking three simple questions: When faced with a dilemma, stop and ask, “What will the consequences of my options be in 10 minutes, 10 months, and 10 years?”

This approach helps broaden the variables in complex decision making. It enables us to tap into our values and focus on our goals as we face the immediate crisis of making a decision. Some choices have long ranging consequences and other do not. 10-10-10 helps us weigh the different consequences of our decisions.

10-10-10’s applicability is wide ranging. “From college students to busy mothers to senior business executives, from artists to government administrators to entrepreneurs, 10-10-10 has shown its effectiveness in decisions large and small, routine and radical, changing lives for the better at home, in love, at work, and in friendship.”

While I appreciate the power of this decision making tool and recommend it to others, it doesn’t go far enough. And I mean more than extending it to 50-50-50, to enable decisions to be made with ‘whole of life’ implications considered.

As a Christian, I believe that we all make decisions with eternal consequences. Choices made today and tomorrow will have implications for more than this life alone. If I choose to shut God out of my life for the next 10 minutes, and the next 10 months, and the next 10 years, then I run the risk of distancing myself from God for all eternity. My choice is to trust God with the complexity of day to day, month to month, year to year decisions. I believe that God has secured my eternity through Jesus Christ and that every decision I make should reflect this reality.

The words of John Newton, in his famous song Amazing Grace, come to mind:

When we’ve been there 10,000 years
Bright shining as the sun
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we first begun

Let’s make our decisions by weighing up the consequences for 10 minutes time, 10 months time, 10 years time, and 10 thousand years into eternity. I’d love to cooperate with Suzy Welch in a Revised Edition called 10-10-10-10!

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Comms are back

My computer just gave me a message…

Welcome back Macarisms!

Obviously a smart aleck Macbook Pro making the comment. But the truth is, I’ve written just three posts on this site since October 2014. So here comes a change.

My plan, God-willing, is to return to spending a bit more time reading, reflecting, and writing. Much of my bookwork in 2015 has been focused around planning, preparing, and preaching at Stromlo where I’m a pastor. Meanwhile, the pile of ‘unread good stuff’ gets higher and higher, and the space where I cram all the ‘I must write something about thats’ gets messier and messier.

My plan is also to repent of a personal pride—the pride of only allowing Macca’s stuff on macarisms.com. To be honest, I’ve found much value in the links, posts, and tweets of others. And much of the best stuff I’ve found gets passed on by a friend of a friend of a friend. So I plan to relax and pass on a few gems from time to time.

A picture seeing as it’s Seniors Week!


Posted in Personal | 3 Comments

Ministry on holidays

I know I’m on holidays, and I didn’t plan it this way, but the beginning of 2015 has offered a number of opportunities for ministry. On Sunday 4th January I had the opportunity to preach on Hebrews 10:19-25 at South Coast Presbyterian Church and warn people of the dangers of making new year’s resolutions that focus on personal achievement. Typically on new year’s eve we decide how we’re going to work harder, but God is calling us instead to rely deeply and continuously on the completed work of Jesus. That night I was also interviewed on 2CH about Hope Beyond Cure.

During the following week I was interviewed by a leader of the Next Gen conference who drove down to the South Coast to ask me questions about suffering and hope in the gospel. I sat in front of my tent and answered questions for about an hour, so that he could edit the material into three 5 minute segments to use at the conference this week. Someone sent me a tweet saying they were at the conference and were encouraged by the interviews.

On Saturday we travelled to the Central Coast to celebrate my mother’s 80th birthday. It was a joyous occasion and good to see family again and meet my new niece, Annabelle. We stayed with Jim and Lesley Ramsay and as usual found them a great encouragement. On the return trip we dropped Marcus at the airport so that he could head to the Gold Coast to catch up with friends he made at the CMS MMM camp this year. He’s been preparing Bible studies to do with his friends during this time.

moretolifeOn the Sunday I spoke at the first of the Church@theBeach events for Austi Anglican. I had the opportunity to share something of my journey with cancer and to speak of my hope in the resurrection to come. Afterwards I met a woman who had just discovered she had metastatic cancer and had recognised her need to work out the big issues of life, death, God, and the life to come. I will be praying for her.

Next weekend we are looking forward to our son, Marcus, getting baptised here at Burrill. If you are down near Burrill at 3pm on Sunday you’d be very welcome to join us.

Posted in Pastoral ministry, Preaching | 2 Comments