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

Our 31st anniversary present

loveWe received a wonderful wedding anniversary present this morning—yesterday’s CT scan showed that I’m still NED! There is no evidence of cancer in my body. I don’t know why things have been going so well for me, especially when cancer destroys the lives of so many, but I’m very thankful to God. It is now over 18 months that I’ve been NED.

Do I have to continue with the chemo? Yes. Can I take a break? Yes. My oncologist was happy with the idea of me skipping two treatments over the summer. That could mean I get eight weeks in a row without the awful side effects of chemo. Awesome :) We’ll need to make a decision about exactly what to do, but I’m looking forward to a bit of a break.

It’s fair to say that I have a bit of a spring in my step today. I am so appreciative to God for his loving kindness.

Posted in Journey with Cancer | 4 Comments

Marking a milestone

threeToday marks a significant milestone for me. Three years ago I was admitted to hospital with cancer and, within days, a year seemed like an eternity. Now three years, two operations, 50 cycles of chemotherapy, God’s kindness, and a lot of love from a lot of people, and I’m still here—thank God!

And thank you! For your prayers, your visits, your emails, your phone calls, your messages, your meals, your financial help, our walks, the words with friends, the motorbikes, the holidays, your feedback, your encouragement, your wisdom, your nursing, your doctoring, your acupuncture, your physio, the rugby, the camping, the fishing, the reading, the playing…

I thank God for my life! And I thank him for the solid hope of life to come!

Posted in Journey with Cancer | 8 Comments

The value of a life

I’ve written recently about our desire to see Crizotnib on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) in Australia as soon as possible. This decision must be made by the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee (PBAC) who meet three times each year, in March, July, and November.

The PBAC is an independent expert body appointed by the Australian Government. Members include doctors, health professionals, health economists and consumer representatives. Its primary role is to recommend new medicines for listing on the PBS. No new medicine can be listed unless the committee makes a positive recommendation. When recommending a medicine for listing, the PBAC takes into account the medical conditions for which the medicine was registered for use in Australia, its clinical effectiveness, safety and cost-effectiveness (‘value for money’) compared with other treatments.

There are real difficulties knowing how to measure cost-effectiveness. The temptation is that a an expensive drug that helps a small number of patients, which is not guaranteed to be curative, will quickly be considered non-cost effective. However, when you factor in that the person or the government might be spending similar sums on other treatment; that the targeted therapy may have better medical outcomes; that it may introduce a much improved quality of life; that it may enable the patient to return to work and not experience the financial and personal costs of joblessness; and more… the equation is not simple.

And another important factor, and I do not know if this is considered by the PBAC or not—if a drug enables the person to live an extra six months, or six years, or whatever, with their family, friends, and community, isn’t this worth something. I know it is to me, and my wife, and my children, and my grandchild, and my friends, and my church, and a bunch of others.

I’ve recently met up with people from Rare Cancers Australia. They are doing a great work of helping to support people who cannot afford the treatments they need. This month they have launched a campaign called Sick or Treat. Please take a look and see if you might be able to help.

anitaPlease also watch this clip from the Today Show. Anita has the same cancer and mutation as me, and it is excellent that this is getting publicity. If you feel like lobbying the PBAC, please do. If you pray, please ask God that they will approve this drug and many others like it.

Posted in Journey with Cancer | 1 Comment

The morality of God in the Old Testament

Layout_GenesisHow are we to understand the Israelites being commanded to wipe out all the Canaanites in Deuteronomy and Joshua? What do we make of the various Psalms that call down curses on the enemies of the writers and God? Perhaps, like me you are troubled by these things (and others) in the Bible. Atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris, point to these things as evidence for the moral corruption of God (who they believe is really a fiction). Christians come under attack for their beliefs in a God, whom some describe as a moral monster. Some would say how can Christians criticise the recent actions of the IS in Iraq or Syria, when the Old Testament provides evidence of God’s people doing similar things, and at the behest of God?

Let me say that this isn’t really the atheist’s problem—this is a problem that the Jews and the Christians need to deal with. For the atheist, the problem is not with God, for he/she/it doesn’t actually exist, but with the people who claim to believe in God. Their criticism is fundamentally toward religious people justifying their immoral behaviours in the name of an imaginary divine being. However, for the Christian who believes that God is real, that he has revealed himself to people, and that he is involved in human history—there are real issues to consider when it comes to trusting that God is morally pure. This is an issue that I’m keen to explore further.

In considering this matter, I’ve recently read a brief book by G.K. Beale, called The morality of God in the Old Testament. The book focuses on the commands of God to destroy every man, woman and child of the Canaanites (e.g.. Deuteronomy 20:10-18) and also on the imprecatory Psalms (e.g.. Psalms 7; 35; 55; 58; 68; 79; 109; 137) which call upon God to judge and destroy his enemies.

Beale explores various proposed solutions to deal with the difficulties raised by these passages. First, he describes how people argue that wartime ethics differ from peacetime ethics. While this may be true, it doesn’t account for the commands to kill non-combatants. Secondly, he explores the suggestion that the command to kill women and children is not meant to be taken literally, but is a metaphoric way of describing a total victory over the Canaanites. Beale demonstrates that while there may be something in both these suggestions, neither adequately explain the texts.

Instead Beale offers a fivefold approach to engaging with these issues. His approach gives important nuance and perspective to interacting with the difficult moral issues of the Old Testament.

  1. God’s wiping out the wicked Canaanites as a demonstration of his justice;
  2. God’s extermination of the Canaanites as a purifying of uncleanness of the Promised Land as an Edenic sanctuary;
  3. God’s self-sufficiency and independence from creation;
  4. suspension of ethical obligation by typology and intrusion of final judgment;
  5. suspension of the law of neighbour love. (p33)

Beale argues that we need to recognise the uniqueness of the Canaan episode. It does not offer a paradigm for continued activity in the Old Testament, let alone the New Testament. Instead, it should be seen as a once-only, historic actioning of God’s redemption of Israel, as the nation enters into the land of promise. This salvation/judgment event is also to be understood as a type of what is to happen through Christ’s first and second coming.

There is more to his argument than this, but he demonstrates how it is important to allow Scripture to be understood in it’s full biblical context. The critiques of Dawkins and others show absolutely no understanding of the overall shape of the Bible or the saving purposes of God in the Old and New Testaments.

I still find the matters being described troubling, but no more so than the reality of death and the promise of eternal judgment for all who dismiss God. As a Christian I need to grapple with why God allows any suffering, evil or death, and especially with the moral rightness of God judging people for eternity. It’s sobering to remember how much my own moral failings corrupt my ability to recognise what is right and true and perfect. It’s totally presumptuous (and deluded) to think that I can stand morally superior to God, and judge him for his actions. This becomes clearest to me when I am reminded that God loved the world so much, that he sent his only Son, Jesus, to die in our place, so that all who trust in him will not perish but have everlasting life. Such is the moral character of God.

Posted in Books, Christian living | 2 Comments

How can I be sure?

sureJohn Stevens’ little book, How can I be sure? And other questions about doubt, assurance and the Bible is definitely one that I will be recommending to others. It’s clear and simple, without being simplistic; it’s empathic and it uses the Bible well. The author understands that doubt is a complex beast, displayed in a variety of forms, and arising from many different causes. I personally found the book to be inspiring and reassuring. It resonated at times with my experiences of doubt, and some of the causes; and it took me to the places where I’ve found reassurance. While recognising that everyone’s circumstances are different, my prayer is that it will do the same for others. All in all, this compact book is one of the better books on doubt and assurance I’ve read.

If I’m going to engage with a book dealing with these topics, I want to know that the author has a firsthand personal understanding of the matter—and Stevens does. He writes about the impact that his father dying of lung cancer had on his faith. It rocked his world, not simply as an intellectual challenge to the goodness and sovereignty of God, but with personal pain and experience. He took some years to recover from the anguish of this time. Stevens has also explored these issues with many in his church over the past twenty years. This has helped him to grasp the different forms that doubt can take in people’s lives, and to apply his thinking to how the Bible helps each one. The book engages the reader by presenting a mix of personal stories of doubt. People have trouble believing due to their struggles with personal sin, unanswered prayers, the challenge of other religions, relationships with people who have different belief systems, God seemingly remote or out of touch with this modern world, feeling overwhelmed by all around who don’t hold the same beliefs, or questioning whether their ‘conversion experience’ was real. Recognising this complexity is so helpful, and many more scenarios could be added, because doubt is not a one-size-fits-all phenomenon. Doubt could mean a lack of certainty about the future, or a questioning of what we believe, or a lack of assurance, or unbelief. The first three types of doubt will likely be common experience for all Christians and if they are unchecked they can lead to the more dangerous position of unbelief. This book helps us to engage with our doubts as part of the normal experience of living as a Christian.

So if you are reading this book because you are struggling with a problem of doubt at the moment, be encouraged! The fact that you doubt does not mean that you can’t be a Christian. “Doubt” is not the same as “unbelief”. However, you can’t afford to ignore your doubt, treating it complacently or just hoping that it will go away. You must deal with it so that it does not develop into unbelief, and use it as an opportunity to develop a more confident, resilient and mature faith. (p18-19)

Stevens answers the important question “How can I be sure that I’m really a Christian?” by pointing not to us, but to God’s love for us in Jesus. There are dangers in becoming too introspective about this issue. We can end up placing confidence, or lack of, in ourselves rather than the gospel. If we base our assurance on a response we previously made at church, or at a Simply Christianity course, or on a university camp, or an outreach event, this can lead to a misplaced and false assurance. We are not made right with God because of our response, but because of God’s gracious work in Jesus’ death and resurrection on our behalf. For me, who had made decision after decision to become a Christian (again) in my teens, it was realising the truth of Romans 5:8-9 — that Jesus had paid for my sins past, present and future — that led to my assurance before God. While this book generally leads us away from introspection, it does call us to examine the evidence for our lives being changed. The Bible pushes us to look for evidence that our faith is real and we should expect to see our lives changed by the Spirit of God at work within us. On three occasions, Stevens recommends that we keep a spiritual journal to chronicle the evidence of God working in us and changing us. I must admit that I worry a little about this strategy. It’s not that I’m opposed to journalling, it’s more that documenting our experiences will always provide fickle evidence at best. I’d recommend that if we’re going to journal, we spend even more time documenting the promises of God that we discover in  the Bible. God’s promises remain trustworthy, whereas my experiences lead me here and there. If I want clear evidence that God loves me, then I need to look at the cross, not what happened in my life last week or last year. As Martyn Lloyd-Jones describes in his book Spiritual Depression, after looking at Psalm 42-43, we need to spend more time speaking to ourselves (about God), than listening to ourselves (about why God is absent or doesn’t care). The chapter on overcoming doubt is practical and helpful. Stevens recommends the following strategy:

  1. Admit that you are struggling with doubt and seek help.
  2. Come to Jesus for help with your doubt.
  3. Seek the help of mature believers with your doubt.
  4. Identify the root causes of your doubt
    1. Doubt rooted in our bodies: Physical causes of doubt.
    2. Doubt rooted in our minds: Intellectual causes of doubt.
    3. Doubt rooted in our hearts: Experiential and emotional causes of doubt.
    4. Doubt rooted in our spirits: Spiritual causes of doubt.
  5. Addressing the causes of doubt.

In the end, the Christian faith stands or falls on whether Jesus really was the Divine Son of God who took on human flesh, was crucified and rose again after three days. If this really happened, then we can be sure that God exists. We can know what God is like because Jesus fully reveals him to us. We can be sure that the Bible, both Old and New Testament, is true because Jesus tells us so. We can be confident that God is love, and that he will accomplish his good purposes for his people. We can trust that our sufferings are part of his good plan for us, even though we may not understand how, because we can see that Jesus entered into glorious new life after suffering on the cross. We can trust that Jesus will return to bring true justice and remake our broken world. If we can be confident about Jesus, then this is the basis from which we can address all our doubts. (p71-72)

This book will point you to Jesus as the basis of your assurance and the antidote to your doubts. Any book that does this is worth a read, I reckon.

Posted in Books, Christian living, Pastoral ministry | 1 Comment

Be the best bad presenter ever

I’m a regular preacher (again) and I’ve preached my fair share of dud sermons. Mind you, I’ve also listened to plenty of dud talks from others. What gets me most is when there’s a disconnect between the message and the medium, or the message and the messenger. It’s difficult to listen to an important message that completely lacks passion. It’s frustrating to have to fight to understand where the talk is going, when there doesn’t seem to be any logic or coherence to the message. It’s deadening to listen to the speaker drone on and on without changing pitch or tone or volume or speed.

badpresenterBe the best bad presenter ever: break the rules, make mistakes, and win them over by Karen Hough caught my attention. It sounded like a book that might have something useful to say to preachers and presenters alike… and it does. Hough critiques 14 rules that are commonly given to public speakers and shows how they can actually get in the way of good communication. She speaks of the respected rules for speaking and why you should break them—mercilessly. This book is built on the conviction that you are part of the message. People want to connect with you, not a proxy of you. If they know you care deeply about your message then they will forgive your clumsiness and mistakes. Passion overrides technique.

I will list the rules Hough says to break, and follow each with the alternative:

  1. Your purpose is to give a good presentation
    “Good” is to a presentation like “fine” is to a compliment. Your purpose is to make something happen!
    What purpose does your presentation serve? Having a searingly clear purpose will filter out all the silt from your presentation. Think of the purpose as the destination—the outcome of your presentation. What do you want to have happen? What change will come from you taking the time to talk to these people? (p15)
  2. Give informational presentations
    That’s about as exciting as watching grass grow. Take action!
    Remove inform from your list of acceptable actions. Replace it with words such as motivate, convince, teach, inspire, anger, entertain, invigorate.
  3. Practice in front of a mirror
    Mirrors are just a one person show. Practice often, out loud, and on your feet.
    Why would you want to submit your audience, and that critical speech, to your first unpleasant dry run?” (p32-33)
  4. Picture the audience in the underwear
    Stupid visuals distance you. Connect with your audience. Who really wants to visualise Bob from accounting in his underwear?
    You’re not there to impress your audience with how remarkable you are; you’re there to communicate with them. Become more “audience involved” and less “me involved”. Self-consciousness results from too much attention to yourself, which puts others—your audience—in the background and you in the front. (p42)
  5. Open with your introduction and close with questions
    Like a dreaded college lecturer. Bookends will hook your audience and send them out singing.
    People form opinions of others within the first seven to thirty seconds, so a hook must grab people’s attention right away. Give people a reason to listen. Use the power of repetition to teach your main points. Finish with what you want your audience to take away. The risk of finishing with questions is they can take the audience anywhere and completely away from your talk. If you take questions have a closer afterwards.
  6. You either have confidence or you don’t
    That’s bogus. You can teach your body confidence. And your body is your most powerful tool.
    Hough comments on research that shows how by changing our bodies we control chemicals that affect our confidence. Body language and tone of voice are both critical features of good communication. (By the way, this is why email is such a poor communication tool for influencing others. It has neither body language or tone of voice.)
  7. What you say is most important
    It’s how you say it that matters.
    I don’t agree with this contrast. It’s a ‘both/and’ rather than an ‘either/or’. Truth matters, but so does how we communicate truth. Hough talks about the tools of articulation, volume, pitch, timbre, speed, connection to breath, and silence.
  8. Scan the back wall to simulate eye contact
    Scanning is fake.
    Far better to plant a friend in the audience and make regular contact with them—especially if they agree to smile at you regularly!
  9. Stand behind the podium
    Podiums are really, really awful.
    Body language is important. People want to see you, not a piece of furniture, so step aside and feel free to move around.
  10. Explain each topic
    Tell stories! Stories are the most powerful way to share information.
    Why does this remind me of my good friend Chappo! He was the master story teller, and as he did he explained his topics better than most. People like to hear about people rather than concepts. When it comes to preaching, stories are an excellent way of showing how it all works.
  11. Have all your bullets on PowerPoint slides
    Bullets are so called because they kill good presentations. PowerPoint numbs the brain. You are the presentation.
    Personally, I loved this chapter! I’m over PowerPoint. PowerPoint is a scourge—on our ability to communicate effectively and keep an audience awake. Worse yet, it has become a substitute for us. (p97) PowerPoint is a lot like email: it’s a perfectly good tool that should make our lives easier, but it’s become a time-sucking, efficiency-mauling monster. (p98)
    If we are going to use PowerPoint, Hough recommends three simple suggestions:
    10/24 Only ten words per slide, and never smaller than 24pt font
    Don’t read your slides. Your audience is quite capable. Use them to illustrate.
    Prefer pictures to words. They will stick in people’s minds.
  12. If something goes wrong, act like nothing happened
    Everyone knows what happened, and ignoring it is weird. Acknowledge it, deal with it, and move on.
  13. Ignore your nerves, and they will go away
    Only zombies never get nervous. Nerves are good—breathe and embrace them.
    The truth is, nerves are a great bad thing! They are the body’s way of telling you that you care, that this is important. (p115) A helpful strategy for coming our nerves was developed by Dr Andrew Weir: breathe in through your nose for 4 seconds; hold that breath for 7 seconds; release the breath through your month with a whooshing noise for 8 seconds. This technique is used to help your body calm down.
  14. Control you emotions at all times
    Passion and emotion are okay.
    Emotional intelligence is a key concept in managing yourself as a presenter. (p121) Don’t fake it, and don’t be controlled by it, but expressing your true self appropriately to the context is important.

If you’ve been presenting or preaching for a while, and you have a feeling that you’re not really connecting as you should; if people complain you’re a bit hard to understand; if you don’t seem to be motivating change in people; if you think your talks could do with a tune up; then I recommend taking a look at this book.

Posted in Books, Preaching | Leave a comment