Do you need an echocardiogram?

echoThis morning I had an echocardiogram. Don’t know what that is? Neither did I until this morning. It’s basically an ultrasound of the heart. This is one of a number of health checks I’ve had in recent months. Since it’s six years since I was diagnosed with cancer, and two years since I’ve had chemo, and since we’re planning on moving cities, we thought it wise to book in for a major service or two. So far, I’ve had the cameras in both ends and seen some of the damage chemo has left behind. I’ve managed to take on another ‘C’ disease—well developed coeliac. So we’ve had a pantry purge and I’ve started to become one of those difficult people who is always asking what’s in the food I’ve been given. I’ve had lung function tests and discovered that despite the beating my lungs have taken I’m sitting on the low end of average for a bloke my age. My bone density has been checked and I’m osteopaenic. Don’t know that word either? Well, it’s much better than osteoporosis and osteopathetic. I’ve even spoken to my first specialist, a lung physician, who was willing to explore another ‘C’ word—cure. I liked the sound of that one, but we can’t ever know for sure.

Back to the echocardiogram. They were checking the health of my heart. Occasional atrial fibrillation or arrhythmia. I’ve had it a few times over the years and I’ve usually been able to explain it away. But then the heart is one organ to take seriously. It was behaving itself today, but there was something a little remarkable. The echo showed that my heart has become somewhat hardened. The muscle has thickened. Probable causes are high blood pressure and insufficient exercise. Yes, I know what to do. More exercise, get the heart working a bit more. And slow down, relax, rest, recreate, de-stress. In other words, I mustn’t harden my heart any more than it is.

As I walked away from the cardiologist this morning, I remembered having heard something like this before:

12 See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. 13 But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called ‘Today’, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. 14 We have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original conviction firmly to the very end. 15 As has just been said:

‘Today, if you hear his voice,
    do not harden your hearts
    as you did in the rebellion.’

Hebrews 3:12-15 NIV

I need to pay attention to my heart. This muscle is indispensable to my continued welfare and existence. I can’t do without it.

But, more importantly, I must also pay attention to my spiritual ‘heart’—the centre of my being, my values, my conscience, my choices, my priorities. God is calling me to listen to his voice. Not some mystical connection found in solitary introspection, but his message of good news focusing on Jesus. The good news is that Jesus is the only one to live for, the one who deserves everything, including my complete allegiance. He has given his life for me, to rescue me from the futility and judgment that comes from living for myself.

When God reminds me of this fact, I mustn’t harden my heart against him. When my will aches for independence, when I simply want to do my own thing, when I’m tempted to despair, when I’m feeling that God is remote or irrelevant, then I mustn’t harden my heart. When the world around me is shouting that there is no God, and when consumerism keeps luring me to live myself, then I must listen to the true word of God. The voice that reminds me that my heart will never be satisfied until it finds its rest in God.

And I urge you too to listen to God. Take a look at your spiritual echocardiogram, get your spiritual heart checked, while you still can. Good heart health is smart and spiritual heart health matters even more.

6 AD

You know I’m a Christian, right? So BC and AD to me reflect the most significant events in human history: BC—before Christ and AD—anno domini (in the year of the Lord). It makes perfect sense to me to divide our calendars at this point.

So it is with humble respect that I claim another BC and AD hinge point in my own life. BC—before cancer and AD—after diagnosis. And today I reach 6AD. Today is my six year survival mark. It’s exactly six years since my friends ushered me from the coffee shop to the cancer journey. On 2nd December 2011 I was admitted to hospital and today I begin my seventh year of life AD.

IMG_7390Yesterday I had the privilege of catching up with the same blokes who cared for me on that first day. As we have done every year, we drank coffee (or chai lattes and hot chocolates—we’re getting older), we shared stories, and we prayed for each other. Much has happened in this time. So much has changed. But the goodness of God remains. As I drove home, I found myself singing (yes, truly—and I believe I was even in tune!)

Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come
’tis has brought me safe thus far
and grace will lead me home

There have been so many dangers, toils and snares, and I am so conscious of God’s grace in all of them. God’s abundant kindness and mercy astound me. All of my bucket list prayers have been answered. I’m not supposed to be here—the doctors said so. And yet God has given me more days in this life to sing his praise.

But, you know, it’s not about me. The original BC-AD divide leaves my personal experience deep in its wake. The coming of Jesus Christ offers us forgiveness, life, and reconciliation. The sting of death has been removed. Hopelessness and despair have been replaced by joy and assurance. I can look forward in confident anticipation to an eternity with my saviour, not because of anything on my part. No, it’s all of grace, amazing grace. The same grace that transformed John Newtown, and William Wilberforce, and millions of others throughout the centuries. And you too can know this grace.

Heaven, how I got here

heavenI miss Chappo! Yesterday I saw someone reading one of his books and I felt a pang of grief. He was so good to talk with, to chat to about real stuff. He’d always keep pointing me to Jesus. He loved Jesus and wanted nothing more than for others to love him too. Chappo might not be here—that’s because he is now with the risen Jesus—but I still have his books. My favourite is A Fresh Start. It’s clear, fun, engaging, serious, Biblical, and helpful, all rolled into one. It’s a great explanation of what a Christian is and how you can become one.

It got me thinking that we could do with some more books like A Fresh Start. It’s a while since I’ve read a simple and engaging book that explains the significance of Jesus and calls people to respond.

Last night, Good Friday, I sat down with my Kindle and thumbed through the books that I’d bought cheaply, but hadn’t got around to reading. Colin S. Smith’s book, Heaven, how I got here caught my eye. I decided to take a look, hoping it wasn’t another of those ‘heaven tourism’ books. My Kindle told me that it would take about an hour to complete. Just what I needed before I went to bed.

Heaven, how I got here tells the story of the thief on the cross from the thief’s perspective. Of course, we only have a brief glimpse of this man in the Scriptures and only a few of his words are recorded, so there is much that has to be ‘imagined’ in this account. However, I would describe Smith’s narrative as a ‘Biblically informed imagination’. The author draws all his important insights from the Scriptures themselves. Profoundly important theological insights are ascribed to the dying thief as he reflects on the significance of the innocent Jesus, dying at his side.

Why has he be condemned if he is innocent? How can God allow him to hang on the cross if he is the promised Christ? Smith highlights one reality that I’d only ever glossed over—that Jesus died before this man. He watched as Jesus died. He had time (albeit agonisingly brief) to reflect on what Jesus had said and done. The thief heard the taunts and attacks thrown at Jesus. He saw close up the injustice and horror. He witnessed the devastating words of Jesus, “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?” and his final cry “It is finished.” He experienced the total darkness in the middle of the day, the shudder of the earthquake, and the acclamation of the centurion, “Surely this man was the son of God.”

This book is tonic to those for whom the cross has become mundane. It brings us in, close and personal. We can almost hear and touch and see and smell the events as they unfold. But the real strength of this book lies not in reminding us of the horrors of crucifixion. It lies in the awesome significance of what Jesus achieved, not only for the thief, but for you and for me. Heaven, how I got here is good news to all who think they have no hope of forgiveness and a challenge to any who think that it’s what they do that will get them there.

Please persuade me

Version 2I’m a preacher. Something of a frustrated one currently. Most Easter Sundays see me preaching. And if you only ever hear me on this day, you might think I’m a one trick pony. The topic is always the same. Resurrection. Jesus coming back from the dead. The empty tomb. Appearances to the women. Dealing with doubting Thomas. The hope of eternal life. Why death is not all there is. Being prepared for your future beyond your future.

If you get along to church on an Easter Sunday morning, there’s a pretty good chance you know what you are going to get. And if you are the preacher at that church, there’s a pretty good chance you know what you should give. It will be about Jesus. The one who died is no longer dead. There is real hope for humanity. We can know our creator. We can receive his forgiveness. We can be adopted into his family. We can trust him in life and in death. Life can be better—not freedom from suffering, but genuine hope in our suffering. Life can have meaning—not simply protons, neutrons, electrons—life with God, shaped and transformed by God.

Easter is familiar. Like birthdays and Christmas are familiar. It comes around every year. We know what to expect, and we know what to give. It’s comfortable.

So, let me plead with you, preacher. Don’t just preach another sermon tomorrow. Don’t give me extraneous facts. Don’t show me how well you know your Bible. Don’t parrot out the same message you wrote for another gathering a decade ago. Don’t read your manuscript like any other lecture. Don’t make it about you—make it about Jesus. And make it about me, and how much you want me to know Jesus. Persuade me. Implore me. Urge me. Don’t give me reason to ignore you, to tune out, to scan my Facebook. Call on me to take this with deathly seriousness. Prove to me how much this matters to you. Show me how much you care—about me and your message.

Don’t you dare simply go through the motions. Preacher, if you’re not persuaded, then pull out now. Tomorrow you will have people turn up to listen to you. Please don’t let them down. Persuade them. Show some passion.

Stop now and pray. Ask God to speak through you. Pray that you will be captivated by the love of Christ. Call on God to fill you with the power of the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead. Humble yourself and seek God’s help for your privileged task of declaring that Jesus is alive today.

When I turn up to church to hear what you have to say, please persuade me. Make me so glad I came.

Be like the Apostle Paul…

As was his custom, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead. ‘This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Messiah,’ he said. Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and quite a few prominent women.
(Acts 17:2-4)

Another author in the family

P1070341Over the past couple of years my father has been working on his memoirs. He’s been reflecting on more than eight decades of seeing God at work in and through his family, in many different locations. In the last few days these words have been delivered—printed and bound—to his home. Dad has called his book From Donholme to Nareen Terrace, and he has shaped the book around each of the places he has lived. I’m glad the book has a title, because otherwise I might be tempted to call it The Book of Norman! (That’s got that joke out of the way. It was bound to emerge at some point.)

I am eagerly waiting to get my hands on a copy—not least to reflect on my own life through the lens of my father. But more so, to read and learn from the experiences of my dad. It is a joy to see this book come out. Roughly six years ago, my father was diagnosed with cancer and we all wondered how long he would be with us. Then my diagnosis made it seem highly unlikely that we would have much of a future together. Tomorrow marks my father’s birthday, and how great it is to be able to look back and celebrate the goodness of God over 82 years.

Maybe you know my father. Perhaps you’ve shared a part of your life with him. If so, there’s a chance you might even get a mention!

Let me know if you’d like to buy a copy. Perhaps I can get a job as a promoter.

Then again, I should probably read what he has to say about me first!

Blindspots

FIEC-conference-2017-small
Planning is now well underway for the FIEC 2017 National Conference. It will take place at Stanwell Tops in NSW, from Monday 4 to Thursday 7 September.
 
This is the one time of the year when we get together with our brothers and sisters serving in FIEC churches across our country. It’s a time to catch up with old friends, make new ones, and encourage one another to keep serving our saviour, the Lord Jesus. 2017 marks 500 years since the birth of the Reformation, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door in Wittenberg. We thank God for calling his people back to the truth of his word, and we are calling on God to keep us reforming. 
 
This year’s conference is based on the theme of BLINDSPOTS. Where do we need to be changing? What are the threats to the spread of the gospel? Why might we need shaking from our complacency? How will we persevere in bearing testimony to Jesus in an increasingly hostile world? These are some of the challenges we all face. And there are many more we probably don’t even see.
 
We will be asking what God’s Spirit is saying to our churches. I will be opening God’s Word from the book of Revelation, asking God to shine a light on our blindspots. Peter Jensen will speak in the evenings, and many of our pastoral staff will lead us in sessions designed to get us reviewing our ministries, planning for the future, and prayerfully advancing in the strength God provides. There will be seminars, workshops, and opportunities to connect with others doing similar stuff to you.
 
Whether you come from a small church or a bigger one, whether from the country or the city, whether you’re encouraged or struggling—this conference will be designed to spur you on in your service of God.
 
Please plan now to come. Set aside the dates. Budget for the opportunity. Consider who to invite.
 
Full costs, details, and registration will be available on our website soon.

Fellowship of Independent?

It’s been fun trying to explain to explain my new role in our organisation to people.

“I used to work for an IEC”, I say.
“But now I’m employed by an F.”

Each letter of our acronym and each word in our title is significant. I wouldn’t say that they each bear equal significance, but together they paint a picture of who we are and what we are on about.

Let’s start with independent. This doesn’t, or at least it shouldn’t, mean that we are a bunch of lone rangers. We’re not to be a motley bunch of mavericks who despise denominations, resent others having input to our decisions, or simply can’t get along with anyone else. ‘Independent’ mustn’t describe an unwillingness to fellowship with other believers or an isolationist mindset—this is profoundly unChristian. It simply affirms the fact that each church is self-governed, with its own constitution, leaders, and ways of doing things. I’d like to think that we are little ‘i’ independents!

So how do we function as a fellowship? While upholding the independent governance of each church, we share a vision for reaching Australia with the gospel of Jesus through planting and building healthy evangelical churches. We understand that together we can teach and learn, and give and gain, to and from each other. We can pool resources, encourage one another in our shared vision, share our joys, and carry one another’s burdens. We can seek to build one another through teaching from God’s word at conferences and courses, and commit to regular prayer for our members. Together, we can share ideas, learn from others’ experiences, cooperate in ventures, and provide help to those who need guidance and support.

Ours is a fellowship that is shaped by firm beliefs. We are unashamedly evangelical. We are persuaded that true Christianity is evangelical in its very essence. That is, people are reconciled into relationship with God, and churches are created and grow, through the work of God’s ‘evangel’—the good news that Jesus Christ was crucified for the forgiveness of sins and was raised physically from the dead to rule over God’s world. We learn this good news from the Bible—not people’s best ideas about God, but God’s specific revelation of himself.

Finally, we are a fellowship of churches—evangelically persuaded and independently governed churches. We don’t view FiEC as ‘our church’, ‘the church’, or even ‘a church’. Rather, we are a network or ‘denomination’ comprised of many churches who voluntarily take steps to fellowship with one another in various ways. It is impractical for all of our churches to meet together—we are scattered across this vast country. However, we seek to gather members of each of our churches together at different events during the year so as to encourage personal and practical fellowship. The official representatives of each church—usually the senior pastors—meet together at formal meetings of the FiEC to review, plan, and pray for our fellowship.