Chemo brain

One of the effects of being treated for cancer is what’s known as ‘chemo brain’. It’s real, not imagined, and some reckon it could impact as many as 50% of chemotherapy patients. These are a few examples of what I’d describe as chemo brain:

  • Forgetting things that I usually have no trouble recalling (memory lapses)
  • Trouble concentrating (having a short attention span or ‘spacing out’)
  • Trouble remembering details like names or dates
  • Trouble multi-tasking (especially when it’s someone else asking me to do something I’m not keen to do)
  • Taking longer to finish things (disorganized, slower thinking and processing)
  • Trouble remembering common words (starting a sentence, but being unable to find the right words to … umm … umm … finish, that’s it!)

Personally, I’ve found it weird and occasionally a little worrying. I’ve usually prided myself in having a good memory and being able to multitask. I enjoy word games and puzzles. Leading a multi-congregational, multi-staff-church has meant being able to keep many balls in the air at once. Teaching and preaching most weeks for over two decades has required me to think quickly on my feet, especially as I only use brief notes. I’m hoping this will be a temporary symptom rather than the new normal!

photo[1]In the meantime I will keep exercising my brain, eat more vegetables (apparently it helps), keep up the crosswords, go for walks in the fresh air, drink coffee (not sure if it helps or not), read good books, use my diary, keep better notes, file things carefully, spend time talking with people, try to increase my physical exercise, make sure I get enough sleep, ask for help when I need it, have a bit of fun with friends and family, blog a little, pray that God will heal me, and try not to let a bit of mental fog here and there bother me too much!

Sorry, what was I talking about again?

It’s a tough gig being a dad

I’ve been challenged recently about the importance of being a good father. To be honest, I’ve been challenged for the past 22 years, but having cancer brings a lot of things into sharp focus. It’s made me see more clearly how often I’ve been consumed by work, rushing from one thing to the next, and not making time for the family. I’ve felt rebuked for taking my children for granted. Having my life expectancy drastically reduced is a big incentive to make the most of every opportunity with my kids.

Over the recent holidays our family watched a movie called Courageous. Friends had recommended it. It’s an inspirational movie, with an explicitly Christian challenge for dads to step up. The funny thing is that as I reflect on Courageous it’s a line from Eminem’s 8 Mile that sticks in my head… You only get one shot! One shot at being a parent per child. You can’t rewind the tape and do it again. In Courageous we see a father lose his little girl and his life being turned inside out. Through this tragedy God challenges him and his mates with the importance of being better dads.

As movies go, this isn’t a bad one. It’s well produced, it’s got a bit of action and humour, and it’s certainly motivational. But it should come with a warning: Explicit Christian themes and parental advisory content! We enjoyed watching it as a family and I think it inspired each of us. By the way, Fiona and I also watched Family Man with Téa Leoni and Nicolas Cage during the holidays. This movie reminded me how hopelessly unromantic I can be as a husband. 😦 Maybe, I should stop watching movies so I can feel good about myself!

The most recent challenge to consider my role as a dad has come about as I’ve prepared to preach at church this weekend. I’ll be opening up 1 Thessalonians 2 with the congregation at Crossroads. It’s not a passage about parenting, but has some big things to say in passing. The Apostle Paul reminds the church in Thessalonica about his attitude towards them and he uses the illustration of being like a father to them. (He also describes himself as a nursing mother, but that’s for another time!) Take a look at his words…

10 You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed. 11 For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, 12 encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory.

To be honest, if you’d asked me to write my job description as a dad, I’m not sure I’d have focused on these things! The first thing I notice here is the importance of being honest and real. He’s open and transparent before them. They can testify to his words, his actions, his priorities, his values. And he’s not cleverly pretending to be someone he isn’t. God knows his heart. This is not to say that Paul is perfect or self-righteous. He knows intimately the grace and forgiveness of God shown to him in Jesus Christ. Here’s the challenge to be fathers who our kids look up to as examples of integrity.

The second personal challenge is to allow God’s priorities to shape my priorities as a parent. Paul passionately encourages and urges his ‘children’ to take following God seriously. He understands that life is short and that we’re called to live in the light of eternity. This means not being all-consumed with education, careers, hobbies, homes and possessions. There are much more important matters demanding our attention. Interestingly, the father is also described as comforting his children. Life isn’t easy and won’t always go our way. The father is called to deal with his children with tenderness and compassion. This is my calling and I need to take it seriously.

Earlier this week I was having lunch with a friend and we were discussing our experience of being fathers. He shared with me that his kids were now following Jesus Christ as adults. They were making big decisions about their futures based on how they could best serve God. I was encouraged by the legacy that he’d left as a father. Not that he’d got it all right. He also shared with me that his daughter had recently asked him why he’d never taught her to read the Bible! It made him sit up and think.

My desire is to keep becoming a better dad. I want to prioritise my kids and do the best I can by them. It won’t happen unless I make it happen. And it won’t happen without God’s help.

Please God, forgive me for the times that I have been slack as a dad. Forgive me for the times I’ve taken my family for granted. Forgive me for my selfishness and failure to be the father you’ve called me to be.

Please make me a good example to my children. May they look at me and see someone who is seeking humbly to trust you and to serve you. May your word guide my steps. May your priorities and values shape my thoughts and words and actions. May my heart be filled with gratitude to you and overflow in love for others – especially my family.

Where seldom is heard an encouraging word

Olympics-2012Much has been said about the poor performance of our athletes at this year’s Olympics. Much is also being said about the poor performance of our journalists. Much more could also be said about our poor performance as a nation. There’s something ugly in our psyche.

Before our athletes even arrived in London, they were already champions. After all, how many people get to represent their country? When someone misses out on a medal does that make them a failure? Is a silver medal really code for ‘number one loser’? How stupid to push a microphone in an athlete’s face and say ‘you must be so disappointed’. Where’s the applause, the celebration, the encouragement?

Our behaviour as a nation is not something to be applauded. We carry on as though a lack of medals is a personal affront to our dignity as Aussies. What gave us the right to gold medals? To any medals? What exactly have we done? As we sit on the couch, and whinge and moan, how much training have we put in? How did we contribute? What sacrifices did we make?

Sadly, I’ve seen this same attitude on the sidelines watching kids’ sports. The coach who yells abuse at his team. The parents who criticise their children for making mistakes or simply failing to win. I’ve seen the tears in the eyes of the children. Their heads hung low. The lesson we teach is that you’re only worthwhile if you win. And I can only be somebody when you win for me. How wrong is that! How crass! How selfish! How demeaning! How discouraging!

We’re all flawed human beings. We need to own up to our own failures and weaknesses. Once we recognise our own shortcomings we’ll begin to learn to treat others with dignity and grace. A little humility will go a long way.

If I’m going to be honest, then I must confess that I see this same selfish spirit of discouragement in myself. My shortcomings are huge and my failures are many. And yet I can testify to the grace of God towards me. His word to me is one of encouragement. He builds me up rather than cutting me down. The Bible reminds me that God has reached out to me while I was a failure (Romans 3:23-24). Christ died for me while I was a rebel (Romans 5:8). God reconciled me to himself while I was his enemy (Romans 5:10). I’m so grateful to God that I don’t get what I deserve. Grace is an awesome thing. God’s grace is immeasurable.

There is a saying that says “There but for the grace of God go I.” How true it is! Left to my own resources I will mess up, fail, disappoint, and look to lay the blame on others.

Thank you God, that you don’t treat me as I deserve.
Please remind me of your grace. Please fill me with humility. Please enable me to build up rather than tear down. Please make my lips an instrument of blessing and encouragement, rather than discouragement and blame.

Physical inspiration

I’ve just returned from a walk/jog/walk/jog/walk… Week 1 Day 1 of C25K. The plan is to get from the couch to running 5 kilometres. It hurt! The body didn’t have a clue what I was trying to do! My lungs got their biggest workout in 8 months. The muscles were a bit stiff, the joints a bit creaky, and I had to hold my chest so it didn’t bounce around and cause pain! All I did was jog for 60 seconds, walk for 90 seconds, and keep repeating the cycle for 20 minutes. But I felt inspired to look ahead, set a plan, and achieve some fitness goals.

The inspiration came from a few places. Watching the Olympics might have had something to do with it. Marvelling at pensioners surfing on the Sunshine Coast helped. This morning I renewed my driver’s license until 2017 and I don’t want to waste the money! Research is showing that exercise plays an important role in fighting cancer.

… maintaining a healthy weight, getting adequate physical activity, and eating a healthy diet can reduce the chance of recurrence and increase the likelihood of disease-free survival after a diagnosis.

Last night I read about Paul Goebel. He’s my age and in January this year he was diagnosed with the same cancer of the lung. Admittedly, he was starting from a much higher baseline of physical fitness, but I was inspired that on June 23 this year he completed a marathon running at an 8.30 pace! Wow!

But the real inspiration is more personal. I want to be able to contribute to my family, enjoy activity, share with friends, return to work, get out and about. The disease and the treatment have a big impact on my capacity to do things, but I don’t want to give up. God has numbered my days and he calls me to use them for his glory. I have no idea how many days I have, nor does my oncologist, or anyone else. But I want to make the most of whatever days I have.

The blessing of thanks

Saying ‘thank you’ is a powerful thing. We appreciate people recognising our efforts and we get deflated if we’re taken for granted. These two little words can make all the difference in a relationship. Not that we should do things for the praise of others, but receiving their praise brings joy and encouragement. It puts fuel in our tanks.

I’ve been planning, preparing, leading and teaching at an annual student conference every year since we’ve been in Canberra. Last year was to be my final Focal Point Conference. I finished the week to an emotional farewell and many expressions of thanks from my co-workers and the students attending the conference.

I wasn’t going to be involved this year because we were planning to be 4000 km away in Darwin. But those plans have changed and I was able to attend the teaching sessions each evening. A good friend of mine was the speaker and I was keen to learn from him on the topic of Grace. On the Thursday night, I was to be interviewed about the student ministry in Canberra and the impact it’s had over the previous two decades. However, I suspected something else was happening when I saw my parents seated in the auditorium! They’ve never been to one of these conferences and they live at least 4 hours away.

The interview took place, I shared a few stories, and then my good friend and co-worker Marcus Reeves, stood up to say a few words. To be honest, I don’t remember anything he said! But I know what he was saying. It was thank you! He expressed his and others appreciation to Fiona and I for the work that had gone into all of the Focal Points. We were thanked for the investment we’d made in student ministry in Canberra.

We were presented with two pictures to hang on the wall. The first is a ‘word picture’ containing the names of just about everyone who has ever attended a Focal Point. We’ve put this up in our dining room so that when people drop round they can read through it searching for their names. If you’ve been to one, then maybe you will find your name here! Click on the picture and it will grow!

The second picture is a mosaic of the covers of every book we produced for the conferences. Some of them aren’t particularly inspiring – they’re the ones I designed – but they have a special significance. Each one is a record of our effort to bring blessing to others and the collage is a great blessing of thanks in return. This picture has gone ‘straight to the pool room’ (replacing the framed limited edition 2004 Brumbies jersey)!

However, the thanks doesn’t primarily go to us. It belongs to God. It’s been his work. He’s the focal point of everyone of these conferences. It’s been his word and his work that has changed the lives of the people attending. God deserves all the honour and glory and praise. It was highly appropriate that we spent time that night thanking our great God for what he has done.

The apostle Paul is a good example to us of giving due thanks to God. Notice how he writes at the beginning of a number of his New Testament letters…

I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.  (Philippians 1:3-6)

We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all God’s people — the faith and love that spring from the hope stored up for you in heaven and about which you have already heard in the true message of the gospel that has come to you.  (Colossians 1:3-6)

We always thank God for all of you and continually mention you in our prayers. We remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.  (1 Thessalonians 1:2-3)

Let me encourage you to say thank you. You can be a huge encouragement to others simply by noticing what they do and expressing your appreciation. I don’t think I’m that good at offering thanks to others, but I do want to get better. Giving thanks to others is an important way to bless them.

And most of all, why not stop and take the time to say thank you to God. For the little things as well as the big things. We tend to say thanks before we have meals, but we’ve received a whole lot more than the food we’re about to eat. All we are and all we have is a gift from God. He gave us life and he offers us life eternal through Jesus Christ. Do you think maybe it’s time we gave him the thanks he deserves?

Thank you for reading this. May God bless you.


Journey with cancer 29 July 2012 – time out

I’ve been enjoying taking a break lately. A break from the harsh Canberra winter. A break from chemo. A break from writing. The break has been good. Relaxing, refreshing, rejuvenating. A change of routine. We’ve been holidaying on the Sunshine Coast in southeast Queensland. Walking on the beach, paddling the surf ski, fishing off the pontoon, reading Anh Do’s The Happiest Refuge, watching The Voice, eating out, sleeping in, time with family. Much to thank God for.

It’s now 9 weeks since my last dose of Alimta. My head has been clearer, my body has felt less sick, and I think my feet and hands have improved. The burning sensation and the pins and needles continue at night, but it’s less painful to walk during the day. I’ve been for many walks along the sand recently. To be honest, I’ve often felt reasonably well. Just weaker and less fit. Many times I’ve had to pinch myself. Do I really have cancer? Or is this just an awful dream, and I’m going to wake up from it soon?

At times I’ve been anxious about what this break means for the cancer. Is this just a calm before the storm? Is it growing, spreading, preparing for a new onslaught? Or has it been kept in check? I’ll need to wait for the next scan to find out. It’s hard not knowing. Sometimes I wish I had an instrument panel with dials and gauges on my chest. I could keep track of the cancer, differentiate the side effects, measure the neuropathy, and do my own blood tests without the need for needles. But… I’m a person… not a car!

Big decisions need to be made in the next week or so. Do I go back on the chemo? If so, what dose, so that the neuropathy doesn’t get worse? If not, will we be able to begin targeted treatment and get access to Crizotinib? If you have a minute to pray… I’d ask that you pray for wisdom for our oncologist; access to the Crizotinib (preferably at no cost); an end to the neuropathy; healing from the cancer; and for our stamina, patience, continued faith in God, hope for eternity, and love for others.

With thanks,


Investigating Jesus – An Historian’s Quest

I was never a great fan of history. Stuff done in the past. Dust and cobwebs. Rote learning names, dates, events and details. It all seemed so boring and irrelevant. I had to study some history at school, but from the moment I could choose my subjects I left it behind. History was history as far as I was concerned!

Of course, this attitude is pretty naive. History helps explain who we are, where we’ve come from, what’s influenced us, what things matter and what don’t. Every time we watch the news or read the paper we’re studying history. When we flick through our family albums or read over our diaries we’re reflecting on our own history. What I didn’t appreciate for sometime was that whenever I opened my Bible I was engaging with history. I was reading of people and events in the past that were shaping my life in the present. How reliable was that history? Could it be trusted? Was it something I could stake my life on? These are important questions for those of us who want to consider, or reconsider, the basis of our beliefs.

I’ve just finished reading Investigating Jesus – An Historian’s Quest by John Dickson. Firstly, let me say it’s a beautiful book! Hardback, stitch bound, colour photos of archeological sites and ancient papyri, laced with wonderful paintings and works of art, helpful diagrams, pithy quotes … and it’s well written!

More significantly, this book is entirely about history. It’s about how historians do their job. It’s not a theological book. It’s not religious propaganda aiming to persuade people to become Christians. Investigating Jesus offers a good introduction to anyone wanting to learn the tools and strategies available to historians, and it demonstrates how they’ve been applied in examining the evidence regarding Jesus.

John focuses the bulk of this book on examining the various sources that provide historical data about Jesus. He considers the Gnostic Gospels, that came to fame in Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code, and shows both their value and limitations in gaining information on Jesus. He examines various non-Christian sources, from the first and second centuries, that make reference to Jesus and he argues that it’s important not to exaggerate or underestimate the value of these sources. In fact, without any reference to the Bible, the evidence from these sources leads all reputable historians to agree that a Jewish teacher named Jesus really did live and die in the first part of the first century AD.  (p84)

The New Testament provides the bulk of the information we have about Jesus. It’s common for people to dismiss this evidence as one source that’s biased and therefore unreliable. However, the New Testament is a collection of many sources, not just one. And the biases of the authors doesn’t mean that they’re therefore fabricating evidence. Historians are used to handling documents with obvious biases and they’ve developed a number of tests to evaluate the reliability of their evidence. These include:

  • The criterion of dissimilarity
  • The criterion of date
  • The criterion of multiple attestation
  • The criterion of embarrassment
  • The criterion of coherence
  • The criterion of historical plausibility
  • The criterion of archaic language
  • The criterion of memorability

These criterion are explained and illustrated in this book to show how they can be applied to the various accounts of Jesus in the New Testament. We are continually reminded that these are common tools of the trade for historians. These are the normal processes that historians, be they atheist, Christian, Jewish, or otherwise, apply to weighing the evidence before them.

Archeology is also considered alongside these criterion. In recent years there have been some very important archeological discoveries that have given insight into the world of the New Testament. Some incidental details in the Gospels have been confirmed and some previously held theories about Jesus have been overturned.

The concluding chapter of this book considers the difference between probability and proof. The discipline of history deals in degrees of probability rather than repeatable scientific proofs. This doesn’t mean that history only offers second class knowledge. In fact, there are strong similarities with our legal system that gains knowledge by weighing up the evidence. Historical (and legal) proof is really probability beyond reasonable doubt. 

Examining all the sources that refer to Jesus, both outside and inside the New Testament, and applying the aforementioned criterion for testing these sources, leads historians of all persuasions to agree on the following:

… while many doubts remain over the details, the core elements of Jesus’ life are in fact known … there is an overwhelming scholarly consensus today that a Galilean teacher and (reputed) healer named Jesus proclaimed the arrival of God’s kingdom, wined and dined with ‘sinners’, appointed a circle of twelve apostles, clashed with religious authorities, denounced the Jerusalem Temple and wound up dead on a Roman cross; shortly after which his first followers declared that they had seen him alive again, announced he was the long-awaited Messiah and sought to preserve and promote (first in oral form, then in writing) all that they could of their memorable master’s life. The sources and methods contemporary scholars use allow certainty on at least these elements of the ancient Gospel story. (p155)

If, like me, you’ve never been much into history, then Investigating Jesus is a great introduction. If you’ve never considered the reliability of the evidence for Jesus, then here’s a place to start. If you’re after an easy to read, well illustrated, clearly argued book on the historical bedrock of Christianity, then I recommend this one. In writing this, John Dickson set out to bridge the gap between popular perception and scholarly judgment about the figure of Jesus and in my humble opinion he does this well.

At the end of the day, this is a ‘second order’ book. It’s like an instruction manual that shows how something works and helps you to use it. Investigating Jesus is aimed at helping the reader to investigate Jesus. It’s not an alternative to investigating Jesus for yourself. Having read this book you’ll be better equipped to go back to the primary sources, read them over and over, and weigh up their implications. If you’ve never done this before, let me encourage you to get hold of a New Testament (and any of the other primary documents mentioned in this book) and discover all you can about Jesus.

Journey with cancer 29 June 2012 – family bits and pieces

Dear family and friends

Time to share some personal updates on how we’re travelling. People have been asking how things are going with the changes to chemo. I’ve dropped the Alimta (the ‘poison the cancer and lots of other things’ chemo) for two cycles in an attempt to clear the neuropathy in my feet. I’m continuing with the Avastin (this chemo works by restricting the growth of new blood vessels that are required to deliver nutrients to the cancer). Without the Alimta in my system, I’ve felt the least toxic I’ve been in over 5 months. They say there’s a ‘chemo haze’ where things feel foggy, memory lapses and you can be rather vague. This has been me – or at least my excuse – for some time!

The neuropathy still exists in my feet, but the oncologist has recommended a 6 week break from Alimta in the hope it will clear. In the mean time, I’ve purchased some new shoes that are more supportive and comfortable, and I continue to go for walks as I’m able. I was reminded recently that I’d been talking about walking the Kokoda trail with a friend this August. It won’t be happening!

The costs of chemo have been very high over recent months and we are thankful to a number of people who have supported us in this. Recently, we received great news from Roche Pharmaceuticals saying that they were willing to share the costs of the Avastin on a 1 in 3 basis. This is a wonderful answer to prayer.

On the family front, June is always a busy birthday month for us. We celebrated Marcus’s birthday by watching him play for the Brumbies under 14s rep team at the NSW Junior Rugby Championships. They had a strong side and easily disposed of their opposition in the pool games. However, the finals were another story. The semi final was a bruising encounter as they played a Penrith side stacked full of boys twice as big as Marcus. At one point a boy, considerably bigger than me, cleared Marcus from the ruck by simply picking him up and throwing him out of the way!

The final was against a well-drilled Gordon side who were the reigning champions. It was played in torrential rain and the Brumbies toughed out an 8-5 victory to take the State Championship. We thoroughly enjoyed the weekend, staying with friends in Orange for the pool games (in beautiful sunshine) before heading to Sydney to play the final (in torrential rain). This worked well, as Marcus was able to enjoy a birthday dinner and an overnight stay with his grandparents as we passed through the Blue Mountains.

Grace’s world has been dominated by the school musical production of Footloose. They’ve spent this term learning parts and rehearsing for the public performances being held this week. Our whole family watched the show last night and thoroughly enjoyed it. Grace had a part that involved rollerskating (the old fashioned way) around a cafe on stage. It was great fun. Grace has also been counting down the days until she is able to get behind the wheel of a car. She picks up her learners permit this Monday and the fun begins!

Matt is home from uni this week, enjoying his mid-semester break. He had a tough start to the year, especially given all that we’ve had going on, but seems to have thoroughly settled back into things. His church in Sydney is a great encouragement and the ministry on campus continues to spur him on. He still enjoys surfing in Sydney, mainly at Maroubra, even in the winter months! As I write this he’s out for a 15km run, up and down Mt Ainslie, in training for a marathon in September. I wish I had that energy!

Luke and Sharon are doing well. Sharon’s still managing the new Kings Swim School near the airport. Luke continues his training in Physical Education and Maths teaching. They’re both busy at church, assisting with children’s and youth ministry and other things. We love having them nearby and appreciate their support and encouragement. Luke’s birthday was last week and the family enjoyed a night out listening to Nathan Tasker and his band. The music was great, but it was also encouraging to hear Nathan share how God had helped his wife and him to cope with the recent deaths of her father and their twin babies. There was a strong message of hope in the midst of great sorrow.

I’m very thankful for Fiona’s ongoing love and support, both personally and medically. This journey with cancer is often a tough one, and I probably don’t consider enough how it’s affecting my wife (or kids). Fiona’s the one who does most of the work keeping our home and family on track. She’s had a very busy term due to taking on an extra day relief doctoring at the Aboriginal Health Centre. She invests a lot into people and has laboured long and hard for a number of her patients. I think it’s been harder than usual lately, having to care for a few patients who are battling cancer. There’s a lot of emotion tied up with her work. Fiona also celebrated her birthday last week and we had a special dinner at a restaurant on Red Hill that has superb views of Canberra.

We’re looking forward to a couple of weeks away as a family in the school holidays. Friends have kindly offered their place on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland. We’re hoping to experience some warmth (please)! It’ll be good to enjoy some surf, maybe catch a few fish, visit some fun places, read a book or two, and generally relax together.

We continue to thank you for your support in this journey. Please keep asking God to heal me of the cancer and that our family will trust God in everything that comes our way.

May God bless you,


Telling the truth in your 80s

John Chapman is as bold as brass when it comes to telling the truth. He knows that when you’re 82 it’s not too smart to keep putting things off. Especially the things that really matter. Life’s too short. There’s no point in pretending. And certainly not with the people you deeply care about. So he just tells it like it is, and he gets away with it. Addressing a bunch of oldies in his retirement home he says…

I can see there are a lot of snow-capped mountains and barren peaks here today. Now put your hand up if you think you’ll be alive in 10 years … what about 5 years? … if you’re not right with God, and you’ve only got 3 years to go, wouldn’t you make that a high priority? I would, if I were you!

Chappo has been a follower of Jesus since his teens and he’s learned a great deal over the years. In a recent interview, at an AFES student workers conference, he shared at length about his experiences as a Christian. It’s a long interview (86 minutes) but it’s full of priceless gems of encouragement amidst his trademark story telling and humour. The topics cover such areas as being a Christian at school, connecting with people in country towns, his experiences with the 1959 Billy Graham crusade, how to become a better preacher, communicating about Jesus Christ on university campuses, getting organised with prayer, the struggles of growing old, why heaven will be so much better, and more.

A particular highlight for me was hearing about Chappo’s commitment to praying for other people. (It occurs between 54 and 60 minutes into the video.) He explained how 6 weeks of hospitalisation over Christmas gave him more opportunities to pray. He described his strategies for prayer that include his photographic prayer diary, his daily lists, his 9 day cycle, and his special prayers for people in need. He mentioned that he prays for his ‘oncology patient’ friends, including myself, each time he gets up to go to the toilet at night. I feel very privileged to be on this exclusive prayer list! Furthermore, Fiona and I were so encouraged to hear Chappo share how he also prays for our youngest son, and how they’ve been writing to each other and found this mutually encouraging. God bless you brother!

Do yourself a favour. Skip that meaningless forensic pathology television show, or that B grade multi-repeat movie, or that footy game you were planning to watch… and listen to Chappo get fired up about what’s really important. Click here to watch.

I can do all things through God who strengthens me

Waisale Serevi is arguably the greatest rugby 7s player ever. He represented Fiji from 1989 until 2007. This is an astonishing feat in a game that demands the utmost in speed, strength, stamina and skill. I remember the first time I noticed Serevi on television, as he had the words “Philippians 4:13” written (somewhere) on him. I understand he’d later have these words on his boots, strapping and jersey for every game. In fact, there are a number of high profile athletes who have taken to writing this reference on their arms or strapping, and some have even had them tattooed on their bodies. Joe Tomane, of the Brumbies and Wallabies, in a recent interview revealed that he has the whole text inked on his torso. It’s a verse from the Bible and this is what it says:

I can do everything through him who gives me strength.

What does it mean exactly? And what’s the appeal for athletes in particular? Is it saying that I can score more tries, kick more goals, lower my golf handicap, run faster times, improve my win/loss record, gain Olympic gold? Does it mean that with God’s help I can pull off anything I put my mind to? Are these words a recipe for success, reaching our dreams and achieving personal bests? And what’s the ‘everything’ spoken of in this verse?

As with any Bible reading, and all responsible reading in general, we need to take the words in their context. Someone once said that a text without a context is a pretext for a proof text. I just wanted to write that! Nobody likes having their words taken out of context and made to say something that they never intended. So let’s have a look at the verse in its context:

10 I rejoice greatly in the Lord that at last you have renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you have been concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. 11 I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.13 I can do everything through him who gives me strength.14 Yet it was good of you to share in my troubles. 15 Moreover, as you Philippians know, in the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel, when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only; 16 for even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me aid again and again when I was in need. 17 Not that I am looking for a gift, but I am looking for what may be credited to your account. 18 I have received full payment and even more; I am amply supplied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent. They are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God. 19 And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:10-19)

We can see from its original context that the Apostle Paul is expressing his thanks to the Christians in Philippi for supporting him in his time of need. He thanks God for their gifts, not so much because he was in need but because it shows they have generous hearts. The immediate context is verse 12, where he reveals that he has learned the secret of contentment. He is able to be content in any and every situation.

The extraordinary thing is that Paul’s contentment is not contingent on his circumstances. His words are powerfully backed up by the fact that he’s in prison as he writes. He’s not waiting for good things to come his way. Winning Lotto won’t make him content. Having a supermodel wife won’t make him content. Winning the championship won’t make him content. Having his book published won’t make him content. He’s learned to be content even when he’s hungry, even when he’s abandoned, even when he’s imprisoned. How can this be? How can Paul find contentment even when things go pear-shaped? Here, in context, is his answer:

I can do everything through him who gives me strength.

Left to his own resources, Paul would be unsettled, dissatisfied, complaining, grumbling, miserable, and always wanting things to be different. In other words, he’d be like a lot of us – desperately hanging out for his circumstances to get better. Then we’d be content – or so we think. But for Paul contentment doesn’t come from his circumstances. Nor does it come from his inner strength, his resilience or his personal resources. It comes from the God who enables us to rise above our circumstances.

I’ve found these words to be a powerful challenge in the past week. I’ve been struggling with discontentment. The freezing cold here in Canberra. The frustration of having to back off the chemotherapy just as we see it further reducing the size of the cancer. The pain and discomfort in my feet preventing me from walking very far. The uncertainties about the future and my inability to make long-term plans. The grief of things lost and unfulfilled. Even the jealousy of having some of my close friends enjoying time in Darwin, instead of me! To be honest, I’ve been irritable, frustrated, depressed and generally discontented.

So what can I do? What should I do?

I should pray that God will strengthen me to learn the secret of contentment. That’s what I should do. That’s what I will do! I know the truth that contentment is not to be found by changing the circumstances. It comes from changing the heart. My prayer is that God will change my heart and help me to see things as he does. Knowing the secret of contentment rescues me from being self-obsessed. It frees me to love God, to love my wife and my children, to love my friends and others, even to love my ‘enemies’.

My prayer is that God will continually remind me of all that I have and all that I am in Christ Jesus, that he will strengthen me to be satisfied in him whatever my circumstances, and that he will teach me the secret of genuine contentment.

Why we need more churches

Late last year I was invited to speak at a conference on the topic Why we need more churches. It seemed a silly question really. Of course we need more churches. The population’s growing. We’re not keeping up. Denominations are dying. Church attendance is declining. Church buildings are being shut down or turned in restaurants, offices, trendy homes, and even funeral parlours.

But for me, it was and is a real issue. People confronted me with this question a number of times after hearing that we were moving to Darwin to plant a new church. Many were enthusiastic and supportive of our intentions, but others seemed to view it as invading their turf. Some denominational leaders said “We’ve already got churches up there.” One wrote to me and told me not to come because they had it covered. It was suggested we go somewhere else, where new churches were really needed. I met with one local pastor who warned me that the last thing they needed was people from ‘down south’ coming up and planting churches – despite the fact that he, and many other pastors I met, had done exactly this!

We faced the same issue in Canberra when deciding to plant a new church south of the lake. Some denominational leaders believed this would create a ‘competition’ with their churches. We were asked why people didn’t simply leave our church and join theirs, instead of starting another. It’s easy to get excited about new churches, until someone starts one in your neighbourhood.

Let me offer a number of practical reasons (with warnings) for why we need more churches, and then one theological reason.

Practical reasons why we need new churches

  1. Current churches are not effectively connecting with the Australian population. Some surveys suggest that 65% of Aussies don’t have a personal relationship with a Christian.
    We need to be careful here because we could increase the number of churches, remain in a religious ghetto, and still not connect with 65% of our population.
  2. Existing churches are perceived as irrelevant, out of date, oppressive, self-righteous, and a bunch of other things that keep people disinterested.
    It’s not ultimately perceptions or image that matters, but the reality of what is believed and practiced. It’s just as important for established churches to make an impact on people’s lives as it is for new ones. And who’s to say that new churches will be different? New churches could end up reproducing the problems of their founders.
  3. Someone once said of the church, “It’s easier to give birth than to raise the dead!” It’s true that some established churches will be harder to turn around than the Titanic, so maybe it’s better to leave them to sink and get people out into other boats.
    While this is often true, we shouldn’t cop out on the importance of revitalising wayward churches. I think it’s Mark Dever who has spoken of the 2 for 1 benefit of resurrecting dying churches. He sees it as both removing a bad witness in the community and adding a good witness. And it utilises existing resources.
  4. Geographical reach is an important strategic reason for planting new churches. While committed Christians might travel long distances to come to church, their neighbours or interested friends most likely won’t. This might lead to a city church giving birth to another congregation in a different part of the city, or a country church beginning a satellite church in a neighbouring town.
  5. Cultural reach is another driver for starting new churches. Some churches will never reach certain subcultures in their community. The language, dress, customs, activities of the church just alienate outsiders. Hence, a church might be planted to reach uni students, or an ethnic or language group, or mining workers, or some other group.
    While a church might be created to reach a certain demographic, the church needs to be open to anyone. It could begin with one type of people in mind, and discover the need to keep changing as it comes into contact with different people.
  6. Urban growth continues in some parts of Australia at a rapid rate. The number of churches is not keeping up proportionally with the size of the population. We can’t depend on town planners to allocate land or facilities for churches. We can’t assume denominations will add another franchise in the new housing development. Christians should see urban growth as creating new mission fields and the need for more churches tailored to connect with people in these centres.
  7. Of the many churches that exist, many seem to have lost the plot. They’re not what I’d call evangelical, that is grounded in the Bible and focused upon Jesus Christ – his offer of relationship with God and his call on people’s lives. Many churches have competing agendas or no apparent agenda at all. Some appear to be little more than middle-class religious clubs. Others are preoccupied with rituals and out-dated forms that veil the truth of the gospel. We need more churches that are teaching the Bible and proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ.
    Mind you, the imperative is also to transform existing churches with God’s agenda.
  8. There’s a need to plant ‘church-planting-churches’. Very few churches in our country have planted daughter churches. Institutional thinking has left this to the denominations and it doesn’t always happen. If churches are planted with the DNA of planting more churches, then we create a multiplying (rather than simply adding) effect.
  9. Planting new churches re-energises people to serve. In large churches it’s easy for people to sit in the congregation and watch others do the work of ministry. The new group, or the core team for the new church, will easily see the needs and opportunities for ministry. There tends to be more urgency and importance placed on reaching out to others in new churches. Children’s workers, musicians, teachers, preachers, welcomers, carers, you name it – the new church needs them!
    The danger is that burnout often occurs. Many jobs are being filled by a few. The newly planted church needs to establish clear priorities and monitor people’s involvement carefully. Having lots of busy people doesn’t necessarily equal a healthy growing church.
  10. Planting new churches sharpens the vision for ministry. It requires people to ask the big questions of what are we doing, why, when, where and how? It forces people to get off the treadmill and set a deliberate course for the future.
    Once again, it’s important for existing churches to take stock and set a clear vision for their ministry. Planting a new church shouldn’t be seen as the easy alternative to making important changes in the existing one.
  11. It’s a good thing for the sending church. Planting a new church is always costly, so it helps the sending church to practice generosity. There’s a loss of people and relationships, money and resources, gifts and talents, vibe and comfort. If you’re the ones left behind it’s easy to feel like you’re the ones left behind! So we should see this as a fresh opportunity to grow and change, to step up and get involved, to refocus our vision, and to look toward planting again.

Theological reason why we need new churches

We could brainstorm and come up with dozens more practical reasons why it is important to keep planting new churches. And people already have! But the need for more churches isn’t essentially about pragmatics, strategy, analysis, or the latest trends. It’s not fundamentally needs driven.

There’s a deeper, broader, more profound, theological reason for why we need more churches. It’s at the core of the plans and purposes of God.

The church is at the heart of God’s design for humanity. We were created to belong to the church. It’s key to what it means to be truly human! Now all that might sound a bit weird, and you won’t find it taught in anthropology, psychology, sociology, or biology. You probably won’t even hear it taught in many churches. But it’s in the Bible and it needs to be taken seriously.

Take Ephesians 5, for example, a passage that gets preached at many weddings. It seems to be a passage about marriage, that gives instructions to husbands and wives. The Apostle Paul appeals to Genesis 2, man and woman in union together, as the foundation for marriage. But a careful reading shows something deeper going on…

31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” 32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.

The profound mystery isn’t the union of man and woman, it’s the union between Christ and his bride, the church. This is the core reality, the primary marriage. Humanity was created for union with Christ. That is, we were made to belong to Christ’s church and we experience this as we place our trust in Jesus Christ and respect his headship.

These ideas, introduced at the beginning of the Bible, find their climax and fulfilment at the end in Revelation 19…

Then I heard what sounded like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting:

For our Lord God Almighty reigns.
Let us rejoice and be glad
and give him glory!
For the wedding of the Lamb has come,
and his bride has made herself ready.
Fine linen, bright and clean,
was given her to wear.”
(Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of the saints.)

Then the angel said to me, “Write: ‘Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!’” And he added, “These are the true words of God.”

The ultimate event to participate in is the wedding between the Lamb, Jesus Christ, and his bride, the church. God is calling people to be ‘at one’ with his Son, our Lord and Saviour. This imagery highlights the extraordinary importance of being united to Jesus. This is what truly matters. This is the relationship we were made for. This is why the church is so important.

Of course, the church on view here is not St Blogs down the street, nor is it the denomination or institution. The church on view is the gathering of all who truly belong to Jesus Christ. This gathering finds its earthly expression as people give their lives to Jesus and meet together with others who have done the same.

It’s always been God’s plan to gather people to himself. His Son, the Messiah promised in the Old Testament, came to build his church. We see this in the climactic announcement about Jesus’ identity in Matthew 16…

13 When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”

14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

15 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”

16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

17 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20 Then he warned his disciples not to tell anyonethat he was the Christ.  (emphasis added)

Jesus is the promised Christ or Messiah (these words mean the same thing). He came to take on the Messiah’s job description, that is to build his church. Not an institution, not a building of bricks and mortar, not a local spiritual club – but a gathering of people, belonging to God for all eternity. The church is not a social construct. It comes from the heart of a merciful loving God.

Why do we need more churches? Fundamentally, because God is calling people to belong to the church of Jesus Christ. We’re not talking about structures, organisations, denominations, buildings or campuses. We’re talking about the church of God, union with Christ, people coming to grips with what it means to be truly human.

Humanly speaking, this will come about in many ways – denominational and non-denominational strategies, revitalising existing churches, transplanting congregations to reach new areas, pioneering mission to connect with new people groups, people speaking with their friends and family, church planting organisations equipping people to lead new churches, and more.

From God’s own perspective, this is a seriously costly project. Jesus went to the cross and died so as to bring people into his church. Growing the church required the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus Christ himself. The church is deeply precious to God. It’s his treasured possession and therefore needs to be handled with great care. We see Paul encouraging the leaders of the church in Ephesus to take this seriously…

Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.  (Acts 20:28, emphasis added)

Planting churches will also mean leading churches. It’ll mean teaching and warning people, loving and caring for people, equipping and mobilising people, serving and encouraging people, praying for and giving to people. Planting new churches should never be seen as the ‘easy option’, nor should it be adopted as the latest fad strategy. It’s hard work. It’s a costly project. It can take a lifetime. It should be embraced with humility, relying on God’s strength, and going about it God’s way, because it comes from the heart of God himself.

Healing – medicine or miracles?

IMG_0877Everyone has an opinion on cancer. Since my diagnosis I’ve been given books and blogs and articles to read. Some are conservative and mainstream. Others are out there and adventurous. I’ve learned about surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, phototherapy, herbal medicines, angiogenesis inhibitors, acupuncture, detox diets, and much more. It’s encouraging that research is advancing at a rapid rate and treatment options are available today that wouldn’t have been dreamed of a few years back. But it’s so confusing. There are so many voices. How do we know what’s best? How do we distinguish the quacks and the frauds from the progressive and informed? Do we just go with tried and tested or do we explore and experiment? I’m just grateful for my GP wife who is well equipped to ask the right questions and then translate the answers for me!

I’ve found something else disturbing, and it’s more theological than medical. A belief that treatment should be refused because it’s incompatible with faith in God. One man is refusing any treatment because his pastor has prayed for him and pronounced him to be healed. The problem is that he’s not healed. So what does he do? Conjure up faith that he really is healed, expecting his belief to eventually become reality? Or does he take the advice of family and friends and visit an oncologist?

The faith-healing movement has a lot to answer for. Promises of healing are sometimes presumptuous and dangerous. In some devastating cases people have died because they have refused simple, available, proven treatment options. I know of a number of people who’ve been left riddled with guilt because they (or their friends or relatives) have been promised healing if only they have enough faith. They’re rebuked for having hidden sin in their life. They’re criticised for having a weak faith or doubting God’s ability and willingness to heal. Sadly, this can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, leading people to doubt the goodness of God and the validity of their own faith.

The Bible describes God as the creator of heaven and earth. He sustains our every breath, knowing every detail of our bodies and minds. He is Ruler over all and not constrained in any way by our actions or beliefs, or our lack thereof. He is the Sovereign Lord who gives life and takes it away. He is the Healer who sometimes chooses to heal and other times does not. God works through our trials, struggle, sickness, and pain. He doesn’t promise to remove all suffering in this life, but he does promise to use it for our ultimate good. God has set a day when our healing will be full and complete, but this will be after our death and resurrection.

Ongoing illness needn’t be understood as a sign of personal sin or evidence of a lack of faith. It may simply be a part of God’s good purposes for our lives in this world of decay and death. Nor should we think that God’s ability or willingness to heal is in any way contingent on our faith. Jesus heals many people in the gospels without any mention of their faith. We mustn’t think that our faith is the trigger mechanism that activates God’s power to heal. God can do whatever he likes, with or without our help.

And what’s more, as creator and sustainer of all things, God can use whatever he chooses to bring healing to people. If someone is healed through chemotherapy, then we can thank God! He made the brilliant minds that have taken the products of his creation and applied them to fighting the cancer. If someone is healed through surgery, then we can thank God. He gave the skill to the surgeons, anaesthetists, and nurses. If someone is able to keep the cancer from growing or spreading by keeping to a strict diet, then we can thank God. How generous is God to provide ‘natural’ ways of combatting the cancer. If someone should be healed without any medical explanation and contrary to medical advice, then we should thank God. How merciful is our God, and how great beyond our understanding!

And if God chooses not to heal someone, but to take them home to himself, then we can thank God! We can thank him for our life! We can thank him for his kindness in giving us new life in Jesus Christ! We can thank him for his promise to rescue us from our decaying bodies and bringing us into a glorious future with him.

Healing – medicine or miracles? I really don’t mind. I’d love to be miraculously healed, and soon. I’d be thrilled to have chemo, or targeted drugs, or some other therapy succeed in eradicating all the cancer from my body. I’m very grateful that God has sustained me thus far and I look forward to many days, weeks, months and years ahead – God willing! But death awaits us all, one way or another, and I thank God most of all for the hope of the life to come.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade —kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire —may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.  (1 Peter 1:3-9)

Silos, politics and turf wars

silosPatrick Lencioni is the guru of team work. His book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, is the place to begin. Then add Death by Meeting and Silos, Politics and Turf Wars and you’ve got an excellent tool kit for tuning up your team. This book is written primarily for executives in business who are seeking to align their organisations, departments and staff. I read it as the lead pastor of a church with multiple congregations, specialised ministries and a growing staff team. It helped me identify a number of areas that had been hampering our effectiveness as a team. The subtitle sums up its main message: about destroying the barriers that turn colleagues into competitors.

Our church would probably be considered mid to large on a scale of size and complexity for churches in Australia. We have three congregations meeting each Sunday (at one point we had four). There are forty to fifty small groups meeting throughout the week. We have children’s and youth ministries happening at various times and reaching around 250 young people. The church has sent and supports a number of home-grown missionaries. We provide staff and resources to university ministry on four local campuses. There are ten pastoral staff and seven ministry apprentices employed to work with the church and its associated ministries. All this means that we face many challenges in keeping people focused and cohesive as we pursue our mission together.

These challenges are experienced at a staff level with people on the team having different areas of responsibility. Some staff are deployed to work across multiple congregations, taking responsibility for connecting or growing or serving. Some have primary teaching/preaching responsibilities, whereas others work mainly with individuals and small groups. Some staff oversee teams on the different university campuses. One directs the youth ministry, another the children’s ministry, and another the ministry among international students. Some work from a church office, others work mainly from home, and a couple are most likely to be found in a coffee shop! It can be difficult getting everyone together, let alone working as a highly functioning team.

When it comes to team meetings that are working on church issues, it’s easy for the campus ministry staff to feel disconnected. If we spend time planning or reviewing the kid’s ministry, it might seem entirely unrelated to needs of the international student ministry. Different departments of the church can end up in competition for attention, people, budgets and resources. It’s easy to feel like my area is the most important and to resent the time wasted engaging with others’ concerns. Silos can arise in any organisation and growing churches are not immune. Sadly, divisions are far too common in churches. They can be found among staff and other leaders, and sometimes they can polarise whole congregations against each another. It’s so tempting to focus on ourselves and our areas of responsibility, and to forget that the church is called to a unity of people and purpose.

Silos, Politics and Turf Wars is full of practical wisdom for getting people and organisations together on the same page, supporting one another, sharing our problems, and celebrating our various successes and achievements. Lencioni offers a model for combating silos, consisting of four components:

  • A thematic goal
  • A set of defining objectives
  • A set of ongoing standard operating objectives
  • Metrics

Lencioni argues that determining the thematic goal is the key to aligning the organisation and its people. He defines this as a single, qualitative focus that is shared by the entire leadership team – and ultimately the entire organisation – and that applies for only a specified time period. (p178) This is different from a long-term vision, a five year plan or a ‘Big Hairy Audacious Goal’. It’s designed to focus the organisation over the next six to twelve months and provide clarity about what’s most important on the agenda over this period.

There should only be one thematic goal. If everything is considered equally important, then nothing ends up being important. However, the thematic goal needs to be broken down into a number of actionable defining objectives. These are the building blocks that clarify what is meant by the thematic goal. Everyone needs to be committed to these objectives, regardless of the role they have within the organisation.

The standard operating objectives are different. These are the objectives that don’t go away from period to period. These are the things the organisation needs to keep monitoring regardless of the current thematic goal. Depending on the business, these might include such topics as revenue, expenses, customer relations and so on. These aren’t the type of things to rally the organisation around, but they do require constant attention.

Once the thematic goal, the defining objectives, and the standard operating objectives have been established, it will now be important to measure progress. The leadership team will need to establish appropriate metrics.

Lencioni includes a number of fictional, but realistic, case studies at the back of his book. One of these case studies depicts a church and I will reproduce it (with modifications) to demonstrate how this model might work in practice. Don’t judge the details, but simply consider the illustration!

Attendance at weekly services is up. More and more people are coming each week. The building size is limiting further growth. Regular giving is increasing. Many new people are not in small groups or serving in the life of the church.

Thematic goal:
Expand to enable healthy continued growth.

Defining objectives:
Add another Sunday service.
Offer more small groups.
Train more leaders for groups and other ministries.
Develop an integration process to assist newcomers into groups and ministry areas.
Add another member of staff.

Time frame:
One year.

Standard operating objectives:
Maintain attendance growth.
Maintain quality follow-up of all newcomers.

Maintain quality of Sunday services.
Maintain regular giving.
Increase numbers of people in small groups.
Maintain support and equipping for all leaders.

If you’re part of a growing organisation, and things are becoming more complex, and you’re keen to ensure people are clear on their roles and working as a team, then I expect you’ll find this a useful book. I recommend that you read The Five Dysfunctions of a Team before you read this one, because it’s more foundational and you’ll discover that they complement each other nicely. Like most of Lencioni’s books this is written as a ‘leadership fable’ so it’s very easy to read and the points are clearly summarised in the final section.

An open letter to Sam Harris

Dear Mr Harris

samharrisI was encouraged by a friend to watch your lecture on Death and the Present Moment at the recent Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne. Your topic is very close to home for me, as I’ve been battling a stage 4 adenocarcinoma of the lung for the past 6 months. I understand it was also especially pertinent for you, and many in your audience, following the death of your good friend, Christopher Hitchens. Your lecture has provoked me to consider a number of issues and to write a few words in response.

For me, the most provocative words in your talk were the following:

Atheism appears to be a death cult, because we are the only people who admit that death is real.

When I heard these words, I had to stop and hit replay. You didn’t really say that, did you? Surely, this is hyperbole for the sake of impact! I’m a theist, not an atheist, and I firmly believe in the reality of death. I’ve visited morgues, been on the scene at fatal accidents, attended funerals, and sat beside lifeless bodies in the hospital. Strangers, friends, and family. No breath, no movement, no heartbeat, no consciousness, no life. I’m not an atheist and yet I affirm that death is very very real. It seems bizarre to claim otherwise.

I suspect it’s what you call the ‘gospel of atheism’ – that nothing happens after death – that’s really at issue here. You admit that atheism doesn’t offer real consolation in the face of death and you claim that religion creates a fictional hope, that’s really no hope at all. Thus, while people might feel better that their deceased daughter is ‘now with Jesus’, you don’t believe they have any reason to believe. I think this is a question worth putting on the table and exploring:

Is there, or is there not, any reasonable evidence for life after death?

There may be a number of ways to answer this question, but it would appear to me that a fruitful starting place is the Christian claim that Jesus, the first century carpenter, died and subsequently rose from the dead. I’d start here because Christians base everything on this being true. The claims that Jesus’ body was no longer in the tomb and that he had been seen alive are foundational to Christian beliefs. Scrutinise them, consider the explanations, explore the alternatives, look at the impact on people at the time. Evaluate the counter claims, conspiracy theories, tampering of documents, and challenge the evidence. Public scrutiny and debate are a good thing if they’ll help us get to the truth of the matter.

You also seem to assume that religion is all about faith, whereas atheism is all about reason. This assumption needs to be challenged. They’re not opposing pairs. Faith can be based on reason. I’d say that good faith must be based on good reasons. Let me illustrate. I have faith that my wife loves me. Why? Because there is good evidence that this is so. I sit on a chair, showing my faith in the chair to hold my weight, only because it is reasonable. I take a step of faith (trust, dependence, practical belief) because there are good reasons to exercise that faith. Dare I say it, atheism is a step of faith – faith that there is no God and no life after death – based on reasons. What is needed is a non-bigoted, open-mindedness to examine and evaluate the reasons for the faith(s).

There is something else that bothered me about your lecture. You seem to divide the world into two belief systems: atheism and religion. This seems reductionist, disingenuous, and deceptive. It is not meaningful to lump together Muslims and Hindus as being the same. They’re both ‘religious’ and they’re both ‘not atheists’, but one believes in only one God and the other believes in many Gods. In fact, you could group Buddhism and Atheism together as ‘non-theism’ and contrast them with Judaism and Islam as ‘theism’. My point is that speaking of ‘religion in contrast to atheism’ simply muddies the waters. It would be much more productive to evaluate the particular claims of different religions alongside the particular claims of atheism.

I’d like to finish with an observation that you made about people. You intended it as a critique of atheists, and I’d like to claim it as a critique for many Christians also. These are your words:

We spend much of life tacitly presuming we’ll live for ever.

Death is the clearest evidence that life is finite and yet we live as though it isn’t so. You remind us that we waste a lot of time on trivia when things are ‘normal’. Why else would we watch that hopeless movie for the fourth time?! We care about the wrong things. We regret the things we’ve spent time caring about. You call us to live in the moment. You invite us to explore what’s really worth having and doing. I’m persuaded that the answers to these questions are to be found in knowing God and enjoying the life that God gives us, not by dismissing God and reconstructing a world without him.

The death and resurrection of Jesus is evidence to me of what lies ahead. These events in history provide the reasons for my faith. They explain why I’m not religious. That is, I’m someone who has discovered good reasons to put my faith in Jesus, rather than trying to earn my place in heaven (in contrast to many other religions). However, my assurance of a real life beyond death, doesn’t lead me to complacency, but to a renewed urgency and purpose in life here and now. Sometimes I can drift along as though this is not the case, as can we all, so thank you for bringing me to attention once again!


Dave McDonald

Journey with cancer 6 June 2012 – the good, the bad and the ugly

Dear family and friends

feetI’m sitting on my favourite bed, in my favourite room, writing to my favourite people! We’ve just got home from another visit to our oncologist. These are always anxious times and I tend to get fairly stressed around each visit. We were keen to learn about the results of my CT scan on Monday and to talk about what happens next. I’d been feeling more unwell than usual over the past week and we had a few questions to ask.

The good news is that the primary lung cancer has continued to reduce in size. This is a cause for rejoicing and I thank God for the positive benefits of the chemo. The shrinkage is unexpected, given that I’ve been on a maintenance chemo program and we were simply hoping to keep things in check. Six months ago the tumour was 26mm in diameter and it’s now shrunk to only 12mm. It makes me wonder if it can’t keep getting smaller until it vanishes altogether! However, the oncologist doesn’t see this happening and there are other factors involved. Seems bizarre to be held to ransom by something the size of a marble!

The bad news is that there is now clearer evidence of metastases. The cancer isn’t all in one place. Nothing new since the last scans, but evidence of the spread of cancer nonetheless. It would be so good if all the cancer was contained in the one tumour and all they needed to do was operate. Just cut it out! No more cancer! Clean bill of health! Sadly, this isn’t my story. Chemotherapy is designed to attack the cancer wherever it pops up, even in the places you can’t see, and thankfully it seems to have been doing it’s job pretty well.

This brings me to the ugly. Chemo has it’s side-effects and they can be pretty nasty. I’ve catalogued the various symptoms previously. Nausea, constipation, aching, skin rashes, lethargy, and so on, are all pretty standard. At least I’ve got my hair! But, I’ve begun to experience another effect that we need to take seriously… peripheral neuropathy. I get a burning sensation on the soles of my feet and palms of my hands, and it’s been getting worse in the last week or so. It’s a bit like pins and needles and makes my feet and hands feel tingly, hot and heavy. I walked into town the other day and had so much pain in my feet that I considered getting a taxi home. It’s been very concerning because walking is the easiest exercise for me to keep up.

While not a common side effect from my treatment, some patients do experience neuropathy in varying degrees. If ignored, it can leave severe and lasting damage. It’s resulted in some people becoming housebound or confined to a wheelchair.

Our oncologist is concerned by my symptoms and he’s recommended we cease the chemotherapy for a couple of cycles to see if the neuropathy improves. This will mean dropping Alimta, but continuing with the Avastin (which is not a chemo drug). I’m learning more and more that my treatment is a balancing act. You get wins in one area while accepting losses in another. I just want a lot more wins than losses! I’d love to keep charging on, bashing the cancer as hard as I can cope with, but it seems that I’ve found one of my limits already.

If you’re one who prays, then please speak to God about me over the next few weeks. We’d love the respite in chemo to clear up any symptoms of neuropathy AND we don’t want the cancer to grow or spread in this period. I hope this isn’t too much to ask for!

Thank you again for your support and for sharing this journey with us,

With love, Dave (and Fiona)

Journey with cancer 4 June 2012 – a chemo sandwich

It’s now six months since I was diagnosed with cancer. It feels like a landmark of some kind! The good news is I’m alive. The bad news is I sometimes don’t feel like it. Life has become a ‘chemo-sandwich’. I go into hospital and get poisoned, spend three weeks recovering, and then I do it all over again. The challenge is to put some nice stuff into the middle of the sandwich.

Here are some of the enjoyable bits I’ve found in my sandwiches…

  • Going for walks with my wife
  • Being invited out for a meal
  • Reading some good books
  • Sitting on the swing in the backyard, soaking up the sunshine
  • Having a family golf day
  • Sharing coffee with friends
  • Going for walks with the dog
  • Cheering on the Brumbies
  • Preaching at church
  • 10pin bowling with my boys
  • Learning to write (blog posts)
  • Chatting over lunch with friends
  • Catching a couple of fish
  • Visiting the Harley Davidson shop, and dreaming
  • Having a good cry
  • Buying myself a down-filled jacket
  • Going for walks with friends
  • Reading through 2 Corinthians
  • Having friends come to visit
  • Planning a holiday in Queensland
  • Walking the Relay for Life with my family
  • Playing Words with Friends with friends
  • Going out to dinner
  • Staying at home in front of the fire
  • Going for walks on my own
  • Drinking ginger beer
  • Being inspired by others who are also doing it tough
  • Learning more and more what it means to trust God in all things

Thank you once again for sharing our journey. 🙂

If I were God I’d make myself clearer

ClearerIf I were God I’d make myself clearer. That’s a big call! Way too big for me. But I can understand the sentiment. Why doesn’t God simply prove beyond all reasonable doubt that he exists? Once and for all. No questions. No ambiguities. No contradictory evidence. Just clear, obvious, proof.

I guess the obvious question is, what would such clarity look like? What would I consider persuasive? What would it take for you to be convinced of the existence of God? And then, which God are we talking about? There are so many religions, so many claims about God, how can we possibly know which is the right one, if any of them are?

In this little book, John Dickson takes us on a pathway through the maze of ideas about God. It’s been popular for years to argue that all beliefs are really different paths to the same end. This could be for a couple of reasons. Firstly, so much blood has been spilled through religious conflict, that there seems nothing to be gained by highlighting differences that could cause more conflict. Secondly, sorting out the differences takes research, time and effort, and not many people are prepared to do this. It’s easier to stay preoccupied with trivia.

John demonstrates that religious pluralism has obvious and fatal flaws. How can Hinduism and Buddhism possibly both be true expressions of reality. Hinduism has many gods, while classical Buddhism rejects the notion of any god. Christianity believes that people are saved by the mercy and grace of God, whereas Islam argues that people are saved through ethical and ritual obedience. Christianity claims that Jesus is the Messiah who fulfils the promises made to Israel, and yet Israel still awaits a Messiah. The Koran claims that Jesus was neither crucified or resurrected, while Christianity hangs everything on these events. A quick assessment of these claims highlights the bankruptcy of pluralism. It could be that none of these religions are true, but there is no way they can each be true.

This is a scary prospect in a world committed to tolerance. However, John offers us a better understanding of tolerance.

True tolerance, then, is not my willingness to accept the position of another, it is the more admirable ability to treat with respect a person with whom I deeply disagree. A tolerant Muslim, for instance, is not one who accepts as valid the Buddhist doctrine of ‘birth and rebirth’, it is one who, while rejecting such a teaching, is able to remain respectful and compassionate toward Buddhists themselves. Again, the tolerant Christian is not one who accepts as valid the Hindu claim that there are many gods, it is the one who, while denying polytheism, is able to treat Hindus with the honour due to them as fellow members of the human race. In each case there is an informed awareness of the contrary position of the other and a generous commitment to respect and value the person who holds that position.  (p38-39)

Such an understanding of tolerance opens the way through the maze of ideas. We can be intellectually rigorous and culturally sensitive in a way that overcomes bigotry and discrimination. We don’t have to paint over differences but can be freed to respectfully discuss, and argue, and explore and persuade one another.

This book argues that Christianity is to a large extent a ‘verifiable’ religion. This is not to say that it’s true, but that it’s founded upon public, historical, evidence. It makes claims that can be tested through historical, archeological, literary, and critical scrutiny. The implications of this are important. If none of the places, dates, names or events pertinent to Christianity could be attested anywhere else, there would be good grounds for being suspicious as to it’s truth claims. If it could be demonstrated that Jesus never lived, was not crucified, or did not rise from the dead, then Christianity could hardly be trusted as the way to God. As it is, Christianity makes some dangerously verifiable claims and invites people to check them out. No tricks or mirrors – just open investigation. This is a book that invites such scrutiny.

The heart of the evidence for Christianity lies in the documents of the New Testament, much of which were written shortly after the events they describe. Consider, for example, the following incident recorded in the Book of Acts. In AD 50 the city of Athens in ancient Greece was a melting pot of ideas. All kinds of claims were made about religion, and there were many ‘gods’ being promoted. Into this confusion, the Apostle Paul sought to bring some clarity by directing people to the evidence concerning Jesus. You can read what he said and the reaction it evoked…

22 Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.

24 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else.26 From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live.27 God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

29 “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by man’s design and skill. 30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.”

32 When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” 33 At that, Paul left the Council. 34 A few men became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.  (Acts 17:22-34)

Some sneered, some followed, and others were keen to find out more. If you’d like to find out more, this little book by John Dickson will help point you in the right direction.

Beam me up Scotty!

Beam me up Scotty! There’s something epic about those words. I can’t say I was ever a hard-core Star Trek fan, but this is one line that really stuck. Maybe it tapped into an inner deep desire to experience teleportation – how cool would it be to just get beamed places?

Well now it’s happened… to Scotty. The ashes of actor James Doohan, who played ‘Scotty’ in the 1960s TV series of Star Trek, were beamed into space on board a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. They are expected to orbit the earth for about a year before the rocket’s second stage falls to ground and Scotty gets burned up again on re-entry. You can do it too if you wish. It will cost you $2995 for every gram of your ashes, with a minimum fee of $12,500.

I learned of this as I was driving to the hospital for chemo this morning. It must have tickled the announcer’s fancy, because he asked people to ring in and discuss what they’ve done with their loved one’s ashes or what they’d like done with their own. One bloke said he’d invested so much in his house and property that he wanted his ashes scattered over the lawn. Another spoke of the urn getting used as a door stop until other family members objected. One woman wanted hers put into the garden to fertilise the tomato plants, and another described scattering them on the ocean.

However, one caller left me gob-smacked with what she had done with her partner’s ashes. They’d been compressed to make a diamond! For real! You can take a cup or so of ashes and get them fashioned it into a flawless diamond. They can make it different colours to suit your choice. You can have different sizes, a half-carat or a one carat stone. Presumably it can be set on a ring, a brooch, or a necklace, so you can carry the remains of your loved one with you. They can be on your body all the time, or put on for special occasions. Once again, you can do it too. Most say ‘price on application’, but word is you’ll be looking upwards of $15,000 for a one carat gem. Someone commented on radio that you could be worth more dead than alive!

It used to be dust to dust, ashes to ashes… but now there are more glamourous options, for the rich and eccentric anyway. I’m not sure how the conversation would go if you were complemented on your pendant, and then replied “That’s my husband. I had him made into jewellery.” I suspect it’d stop pretty quickly, that is until they moved on and couldn’t stop speaking about you to others! 

I get the space thing, even though I would never blast that kind of money away. It celebrates the life of the deceased. Just like a gardener might want to be used as fertiliser or a fisherman used as burley. If something is so much a part of their life, its nice to celebrate or at least respect that in death.

And I kind of get the diamond idea. Perpetual memory, something beautiful and precious, ongoing respect, even if a tad elitist. But maybe there’s also the sense of not wanting to let go and not wanting death to be the end. Maybe the diamond is seen as a hint of victory over death, something of substance that will last for eternity?

But let’s get real, it’s only a rock. It can’t replace the person. It won’t listen or respond. It can’t offer comfort or help. It might have the DNA (I don’t understand all that stuff) but it is not the person. And maybe one day it will be lost or stolen or given away to someone who doesn’t appreciate what it is, and the grief will flood back all over again.

So much effort to blast ashes into space or to fashion a diamond. They can’t take away the harshness of death. And what’s more, they don’t offer any substantial hope beyond death. Death is cruel and unnatural. It’s an ugly stain on our existence. It’s no respecter of persons. It makes a mockery of so much that we consider to be important in life. It’s a final undoing. These words from the Bible are blunt, but true:

By the sweat of your brow
you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
and to dust you will return.  (Genesis 3:19)

Naked a man comes from his mother’s womb,
and as he comes, so he departs.
He takes nothing from his labor
that he can carry in his hand.  (Ecclesiastes 5:15)

I’m a little surprised, yet pleased, that we had a quarter hour of radio talkback about death this morning. I admit it was probably the quirky that caused it, not the mundane fact of death. We rarely talk about death. We’d prefer to ignore it, because it’s going to hurt, and we don’t have any answers. But taking the time to think about the reality of death can make a huge difference to how we live life now. You’re more likely to make wise decisions for your life following a friend’s funeral, than you are at a New Years party, even with all the resolutions. Consider these strange but wise words from the Bible:

It is better to go to a house of mourning
than to go to a house of feasting,
for death is the destiny of every man;
the living should take this to heart.
Sorrow is better than laughter,
because a sad face is good for the heart.
The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning,
but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure.
(Ecclesiastes 7:2-4)

The important question remains, is there be any substantial hope beyond death? Or is the crematorium fire, the last word on our existence? We want to cling on to our loved ones. We’d dearly love to be reunited on the other side. Is this possible? Is there something more personal, more relational, more real than ashes to diamonds? The Bible’s answer is yes. The answer is the promised resurrection of the body. Consider these words:

35 But someone may ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” 36 How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 37 When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. 38 But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body.39 All flesh is not the same: Men have one kind of flesh, animals have another, birds another and fish another. 40 There are also heavenly bodies and there are earthly bodies; but the splendor of the heavenly bodies is one kind, and the splendor of the earthly bodies is another. 41 The sun has one kind of splendor, the moon another and the stars another; and star differs from star in splendor.

42 So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; 43 it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; 44 it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.

If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. 45 So it is written: “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam [ie. Jesus], a life-giving spirit. 46 The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. 47 The first man was of the dust of the earth, the second man from heaven. 48 As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the man from heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. 49 And just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven.  (1 Corinthians 15:35-49)

This is God’s promise to those who will listen to him, and trust in Jesus. There’s evidence in history that Jesus has conquered death, and this gives us good reasons for hope beyond death. Not wishful thinking. Nor absolute certain proof beyond any shadow of a doubt. But reasonable and rational confidence based on reliable historical evidence. I’d recommend investigating these promises. They offer so much more than getting beamed up like Scotty!


I always enjoy receiving comments on this blog, but a comment last week especially warmed my heart. It was a message from Manase Ogola, who lives in Kenya. Manase has been a part of our family since 1993. Let me explain.

After becoming parents, Fiona and I made the decision that for every child God gave to us, we would sponsor a child living in poverty and seek to share in their lives. We stumbled across an organisation called Compassion that was committed to the physical and spiritual welfare of the children, together with their families and community. We initially ‘adopted’ two children, Grace and Manase, from different families in the same area of Kenya.

The connection was mainly through letters. We would write 5 or 6 times a year and they would reply. We’d write news (our kids would sometimes draw pictures), ask them how they were going, and we’d seek to be encouraging. They’d share about how the money was being spent, what they were learning at school, how they contributed in their families, and how they’d been encouraged from learning more about God.

In 1995 I was able to take this relationship to another level. I was invited to be an Australian representative at an international student ministry conference in Nairobi. This gave me the opportunity to visit the children and their families. I’ll never forget this day we met. There were many tears of joy! After writing letters and praying daily for these kids I’d never actually met, it was deeply moving to spend time with them and their families. It was also incredibly humbling. I remember walking into Manase’s very simple home, a mud hut with a thatched roof, and seeing a photograph of my family on the wall. It was so moving to hear his mother say that she prayed daily for me, my family and our church in Canberra. I thought I was going to bless them, but they blessed me more than they could ever imagine.

We’ve maintained our support for these children ever since this time. Many letters have been exchanged and a few years ago Fiona and our son, Luke, were able to visit them again. We’ve sponsored more children as God has blessed our own family with growth. We added Lawrence to our Kenyan family shortly after adopting Grace and Manase. Compassion have also enabled us to continue our commitment to their families once the children have grown beyond sponsorship age. We now support Manase’s twin brothers, Nelson and Allan, and Lawrence’s niece, Sharon. After our daughter, Grace, was born, our Kenyan Grace had a sister called Fiona whom we now support! Grace is now married and has a little boy, named Luke! As you can see the connections have grown strong and are very precious.

While no longer a part of the Compassion program, we have decided to continue our support for Manase as he pursues God’s purposes in his life. He is now studying to be a pastor and we’ve been able to help this happen by providing the fees necessary for his tuition. Aussie money can go a long way in Kenya and we are pleased to continue this fellowship. Recently, friends moved from Canberra to Kenya for work and they were able to take a load of good theological books for Manase. What a joy it is to share with our adopted families across the world. God has blessed us richly and we are pleased to be able to share his blessing with others.

We’ve been encouraged by the work of Compassion. We support their commitment to being Christ-centred, child-focused, and church-based. We’ve experienced their work on the ground and believe they’re a trustworthy group, doing a good job. If you’re thinking of how you can make a difference to others, share your wealth, bring blessing to others, while having your life enriched… then let me encourage you to take a good look at Compassion.

If I were God I’d end all the pain

PainIf I were God I’d end all the pain. That sounds pretty right. I’m not much of a fan of pain, especially my own! Currently, I’m sitting on my bed wearing ugg boots and a hoodie, bemoaning the cold weather, wondering if I’m well enough to venture out to watch the Brumbies play the Reds at Canberra Stadium tonight. Today’s temperature is supposed to range between 0 and 10 degrees. Subtract the wind chill and it will probably feel like minus a zillion at the ground. I must be sick or something, because until this year, I don’t think I’d missed a home game in a decade. Maybe I should ring up someone and see if I can sneak into a corporate box!

Yesterday it felt like sickness was getting the better of me. I ached all over and spent the afternoon and evening drifting in and out of sleep. I’ve probably just got another cold and a weakened immune system. But it’s not fun and it’s another reminder that things aren’t what they should be. For some dumb reason I checked the weather app on the phone at 10pm last night to discover it felt like -1.6 degrees in Canberra, while it was a balmy 25 degrees in Darwin. My heart sighed, I wished we were there, and once again wondered what on earth God was doing.

John Dickson’s little book, If I were God I’d end all the pain, is a helpful read for those who are looking for answers to the questions raised by suffering and pain. It’s not a detached philosophical book that fills the head and ignores the heart. John has experienced pain, first hand and from a young age, having lost his dad in plane crash when he was nine years old. He writes as one who understands the questions and who has explored many of the answers being offered.

Issues of faith and doubt loom large in the presence of suffering. Sometimes people attempt to use suffering as proof for the non-existence of God. It’s often expressed something like this:

Assumption 1:  An all-powerful God would be able to end suffering.
Assumption 2:  All all-loving God would desire to end suffering.
Fact:  Suffering exists.
Conclusion:  An all-powerful, all-loving God, therefore, does not exist.  (p15)

John offers an alternative proposition that he explores in this book:

Assumption 1:  An all-powerful God exists.
Assumption 2:  All all-loving God exists.
Fact:  Suffering exists.
Conclusion:  God must have loving reasons (which he is able to achieve) for permitting suffering.  (p16)

This is not offered as a proof for God. Nor does it solve the problem of suffering. It still leaves deep and emotional difficulties for the one who believes in God. Such as, Why does God allow this suffering? and What has he done about it? 

Before John gives a Christian explanation for the problem of suffering, he explores a number of other perspectives. He demonstrates how Islam understands suffering in a very different manner to Buddhism, and how Hinduism and Atheism are very different again. I won’t attempt to summarise these views because I don’t want to caricature them by reducing each to a few sentences. But it’s important to understand how different these world views are, against the popular claim that all religions are simply windows into the same truth. This suggestion shows serious ignorance and disrespect for each of these religions and world views.

The Bible’s perspective on suffering is that it’s okay to ask questions and raise doubts. In fact many of the biblical authors, especially the Psalm writers, do exactly that. Psalm 22 is offered as an important example:

1  My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from the words of my groaning?
2  O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, and am not silent.

John writes in response to the words of this Psalm:

If I were a Buddhist, this sort of questioning would indicate my unenlightenment; if I were a Muslim, it would border on blasphemy; if I were an atheist, or course, it would be meaningless. Actually, I suspect some church folk of today would feel uncomfortable repeating the sentiments of this psalm. Sometimes we in the church feel we must declare “The Lord is my shepherd” even if the Shepherd seems to have gone walk-about. But faith isn’t like that, at least biblical faith isn’t like that. Faith is not denial of reality, nor does it involve repeating a mantra to dispel the doubts. The presence of Psalm 22, in the Bible, right before Psalm 23, reminds us that we have God’s permission to express our disappointment.  (p34-35)

The Bible gives an explanation for the cause of human suffering and it lies in our decision to reject our Creator. From that moment onwards (somewhere near the beginning of human history) everything has been out of whack. Things have grown worse and worse with every assertion of our independence from God. I’m preaching on Genesis 4-9 tomorrow and I’ve been struck again at how quickly everything deteriorated. John writes of Genesis 3:6, So began the long and torturous story of the human will: men and women, made in God’s image, defying their Maker for an imagined personal gain. (p42)

Of course, many have asked why God doesn’t simply step in, over-rule our selfish decisions, and stop the pain we cause. If he has the power to do this, then what’s stopping him? The answer lies in God’s respect for human dignity. He has made us as real beings with real choice. We’re not puppets like Truman, in the movie, The Truman Show. God doesn’t play ‘dolls house’ with the world. We are real independent beings who can choose either to relate to God, or to reject God. God allows us to choose, and to live with our choices, but he won’t allow evil and suffering to continue forever. He’s set a time when he will call all injustice to account. It’s a testimony to God’s patience that he hasn’t done this yet. God is giving people time to turn back to him.

This book also highlights the biblical perspective that God hasn’t given up on this world. He promises an eternal future for all who put their confidence in Jesus Christ. Contrary to the popular notion of heaven, where people are seen as disembodied souls separated from physical existence, the Bible speaks of a new physical creation. We can look forward to an end to pain and suffering and the restoration of our bodies. This is a place where we continue to enjoy real physical sensory experience. We can look forward to a future that holds real hope for those currently suffering in pain.

John finishes his book with a profound perspective on suffering that’s unique to Christianity. In contrast to Islam, which sees God as the ‘Unmoved-Mover’, the Bible portrays God as sharing in our suffering as the ‘Deeply-Moved-Mover’. Jesus, God-in-the-flesh, shares in this painful world, suffers deeply, and dies a torturous death by crucifixion. But the deeper significance in Jesus’ suffering is found in these words of Psalm 22, that Jesus makes his own:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Why would Jesus cry out such a thing? This is God’s Son, in whom God is well pleased, so what’s happening? Jesus does far more than experience my physical or emotional suffering and pain. He takes my guilt and shame, enduring the judgment of God against all my selfishness and sin, so that I can receive God’s mercy. Totally undeserved, but generously offered. Here is real hope for all who suffer… if we will put our trust in Jesus.

%d bloggers like this: