Death by Meeting

meetingA friend of mine had a fishing boat that he’d named A MEETING. It was brilliant really. He could be out fishing and if anyone called, his wife could ‘honestly’ let them know that he was in a meeting and he’d be back later (hopefully with dinner)!

My kids used to think that my job was to go to meetings. Sometimes I thought that too! Staff meetings, council meetings, leaders meetings, training meetings, congregational meetings, one-to-one meetings, committee meetings, annual general meetings, budget meetings, planning meetings, review meetings, vision meetings, administration meetings, board meetings, boring meetings, way too many meetings! If you didn’t enjoy having to read the word ‘meeting’ 16 times in the previous sentence, then you’re probably like many of us who don’t like seeing the word appear that many times in our diaries. Surely life wasn’t meant to be an endless sequence of meetings. In his book, Death by Meeting, Patrick Lencioni writes:

While it is true that much of the time we currently spend in meetings is largely wasted, the solution is not to stop having meetings, but rather to make them better. Because when properly utilized, meetings are actually time savers.  (p250)

In my line of work, I couldn’t see a way around having meetings, so I was a prime target for this book. I read it and I wasn’t disappointed! Death by Meeting is another ‘Leadership Fable’ in the same vein as The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. It hooks in the reader with a great story, making the book easy to devour, and finishes with a summary section that ties together all the main points.

Lencioni argues that there are two main reasons we don’t like meetings. Firstly, meetings are boring, tedious, unengaging and dry. Does this resonate with anyone?! Busy people forced to sit through boring meetings is a recipe for pain. Secondly, meetings are ineffective. Sometimes it’s impossible to see how they contribute to our organisations. All they seem to achieve is tying up people’s time and breeding resentment. I’m sure you know what he’s saying!

Problem #1: Lack of Drama

Lencioni brings his experience as a student of screenwriting to the topic of meetings. Why is it that we get excited about watching a movie for two hours, but cringe at the thought of a two hour meeting? He explains why meetings should hold greater appeal than movies. We get to participate and interact in a meeting, whereas we sit passively during a movie. Meetings can have a massive impact on what we need to do afterwards, whereas nothing much in our lives is affected by whether we watch a movie or not. The difference, he demonstrates, is that movies contain drama, tensions and conflict. And these are the same ingredients that make for good meetings.

People need to be hooked in to participating in a meeting from the outset. They need to be jolted into grasping how important this meeting will be, how dangerous it would be to make a bad decision or to fail to respond to a strategic opportunity.

Throughout meetings conflict should be encouraged, not avoided. Avoiding difficult issues ultimately leads to boredom and frustration. However, mining for conflict and disagreement opens the opportunity for productive, engaging, and even fun meetings! Leaders need to give people permission to disagree and explore contentious issues. This creates an environment of trust where individuals can be honest and constructive and it leads to better outcomes for the organisation. Lencioni writes:

The truth is, the only thing more painful than confronting an uncomfortable topic is pretending it doesn’t exist. And I believe far more suffering is caused by failing to deal with an issue directly – and whispering about it in the hallways – than by putting it on the table and wrestling with it head on.  (p230)

Problem #2: Lack of Contextual Structure

Too often our meetings lack clarity and purpose. Some topics take up all the time and never get resolved. Other matters are rushed through at the end without getting the scrutiny they need. Some agenda items are big picture, long range and visionary. They require research, preparation and time to consider. Other items are trivial and would be better dealt with outside of the meeting. What’s the point of our meetings? Lencioni writes:

The single biggest structural problem facing leaders of meetings is the tendency to throw every type of issue that needs to be discussed into the same meeting, like a bad stew with too many random ingredients. Desperate to minimize wasted time, leaders decide that they will have one big staff meeting either once a week or every other week. They sit down in a room for two or three or four hours and thrash everything out… Unfortunately, this only ensures that the meeting will be ineffective and unsatisfying for everyone.  (p235)

This book recommends there should be different meetings to fulfil different purposes. It offers a template of four basic types of meetings.

Meeting #1: The Daily Check-In

This is a 5 minute meeting, held at the start of each day, where each member of the team reports very briefly on their activities for that day. This meeting is to get everyone on the same page, clear about priorities, so that things don’t fall between the cracks, and people don’t step on each other’s toes.

Meeting #2: The Weekly Tactical

These meetings are focused on tactical issues of immediate concern. Lencioni recommends not setting agendas in advance for these meetings. Rather, what’s actually going on and what the organisation needs to be doing determine what get’s discussed. Discussion should be restricted to specific, short-term topics that require people to focus on solving problems. The two overriding goals of these meetings are the resolution of issues and the reinforcement of clarity.

These meetings should normally take place weekly and run for between 45 and 90 minutes. Of course, this will mean that there simply isn’t enough time to discuss many complex and important matters. Long-term strategic issues will be left unresolved. There won’t be the opportunity for brainstorming, analysis, or even preparation (as there is no prior agenda). When strategic issues are raised in the weekly meeting, it’s important for the leader to take them off the table and plan for them to be discussed in a different type of meeting.

Meeting #3: The Monthly Strategic

These are potentially the most interesting, important, and fun meetings for the team. This is where we deal with the big stuff, where we’re headed and how we’re going to get there. It’s important to set the agenda for these meetings so that people come prepared. Research, planning and preparation will be required if quality decisions are to be made. There should only be one or two topics on the agenda so they can each receive the attention they need. The duration of these meetings will vary, but Lencioni recommends scheduling two hours per topic to encourage good conversation and debate.

It’s important to schedule these strategic topic meetings. When we don’t hold them, our meetings are dominated by the urgent rather than the important, and we fall into the trap of simply doing the same old same old. Sometimes a topic will arise that can’t wait until the next monthly strategic meeting. In these cases, the leader should call an ad hoc meeting specifically to tackle this topic. Don’t fall back into the trap of stumbling over the topic in the weekly tactical meeting.

Meeting #4: The Quarterly Off-Site Review

Off-site meetings provide the opportunity to step away from the daily, weekly and monthly issues that dominate our time and thinking. They provide the time and space to sit back and take in the wider picture. In fact, getting away from the office (so to speak) often creates a freshness and energy that takes the team and the organisation to a new level.

Such meetings need more time, usually a day or two. They provide a relaxed environment free from normal distractions. They can be utilised for a variety of purposes, such as building relationships, enhancing teamwork, comprehensive strategy review, long range dreaming and planning, or exploring what the competition is doing.

A final thought on meetings

As a church pastor, my life and work and ministry has been dominated by meetings. At times they’ve been vibrant, productive, and fun. Often they’ve been dull, lifeless and a chore. This book has offered me cause to reflect and examine our meetings. It’s led me to make some helpful changes, to clarify the purpose of our meetings, and to introduce deliberate variety in our meeting program. But as I reflect, it’s the kind of book that needs to be read and re-read. It’s easy to fall back into unhelpful old patterns and for our meetings to lose their edge. I’ll finish with this quote from Lencioni:

Bad meetings exact a toll on the human beings who must endure them, and this goes far beyond their momentary dissatisfaction. Bad meetings, and what they indicate and provoke in an organisation, generate real human suffering in the form of anger, lethargy, and cynicism. And while this certainly has a profound impact on organisational life, it also impacts people’s self-esteem, their families and their outlook on life.

And so, for those of us who lead organisations and the employees who work within them, improving meetings is not just an opportunity to enhance the performance of our companies. It is also a way to positively impact the lives of our people. And that includes us.  (p253)

What caused the cancer?

It’s a question many people have been asking me. And believe me, I’ve asked it myself. I’m not a smoker. I haven’t spent my life hanging around smokers. So how did I end up with a lung cancer? I know it’s not a smokers’ cancer, but that doesn’t explain why I have it.

There are lots of things that go through the mind. Is it genetic? My grandfather had cancer, my father has recently had cancer, and I haven’t explored the family tree any further. But each of these cancers are so different. There doesn’t appear to be any connections between them, other than the ‘C’ word.

Have I brought it on myself with overwork and stress? Being the pastor of a church may seem like a pretty cushy job, but I can tell you it ain’t! Mentoring a team of staff, managing a significant budget, coming up with talks each week, pastoring hundreds of people, juggling church leadership with a university ministry and sports chaplaincy, raising up and training leaders, running conferences, admin, change and rebuilding year after year. Then there’s the stuff that goes pearshaped, the breakdown in relationships, the staff conflicts, helping the schizophrenic who then turns on you, counselling couples with broken marriages, comforting grieving parents, and the list goes on. A friend once told me that you couldn’t pay him enough to do all that stuff! Not that I’d change this (not all of it anyway!) and I thank God for the opportunities he’s given me.

Or is it the imbalance of life, getting it wrong, living on stress and adrenalin, insufficient exercise, too many coffees, not taking my lunch to work, staying up late to finish off work, working on days off, not allowing enough time for the fun stuff? Where should I lay the blame?

There are some who believe that I must accept the blame. I’ve clearly done something to deserve it. Perhaps it’s spiritual karma that is causing the suffering. Maybe I’ve done something that’s resulted in me getting sick. Some Christians might claim that God is teaching me a lesson, or disciplining me, or punishing me for specific things I’ve done wrong. They might suggest if I own up to my actions then maybe I’ll be healed, or spared further suffering. Others would claim that Satan has me in his cross-hairs, wanting to damage not only my life, but my faith in God.

I reckon there could be some truth in some of the things above. Genetics, lifestyle, and spiritual factors may all play a part. But it’s not helpful to speculate or jump to conclusions about what lies behind it all. It’s tempting to fall into the trap of Job’s so-called ‘comforters’ and presume to speak for God. I find myself going back over my life, and words, and decisions, wondering if something I’ve done is responsible for the cancer. But I can’t find an answer and it probably doesn’t help. The truth is I haven’t been given a divine diagnosis. God hasn’t given me an explanation, and he may never. He’s under no obligation to do so.

I don’t know the reasons why I have this particular cancer at this particular time. But let me tell you what I do know! We live in a messed-up fallen world. The Christian explanation for this, is that we’ve all chosen to turn away from our creator and this has serious repercussions. We forfeit the joy of living in harmony with God. We experience the pain of fractured and broken relationships with one another. We damage ourselves and our environment through our selfishness. In short, we’ve turned our backs on God and we now live with the consequences. Pain, suffering, tragedy and grief have become a normal part of human experience. Cancer, my cancer, all cancers are part of this fallen world. This doesn’t explain why particular things happen to particular people, but it certainly puts them in context.

In fact, from the moment we’re born we live under the shadow of death. It’s hard to accept this when we’re young. Old age seems seems so far away, but it’s an obvious fact of life that each of us will die at some point. It may not be soon, but it’s guaranteed to happen. From a Christian perspective, we not only live under the shadow of death, we also live under the sentence of death. Death is God’s judgment for our spiritual anarchy. It sounds harsh, and it is. There’s nothing nice or natural about death.

You might be thinking, what a gloomy pessimistic post. Life sucks and then you die! Is this all there is?

Let me change tone. The Bible is not fundamentally a book about why we die, but about how we can live. God cares deeply about our suffering. Jesus has shared our human experience and endured greater pain than we could ever imagine. He was rejected, tortured and crucified for no human reason other than he was a threat to the religious establishment. And yet God had a purpose in this awful death… through one death to save many lives. Jesus paid the price for our rebellion (sin) so that we could live. He overcame death to give real hope to all who will trust him.

He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.  (Romans 4:25)

He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.  (1 Peter 2:24)

For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.  (1 Peter 3:18)

Not only is there hope for individuals, but through the death and resurrection of Christ there is hope for this world. God promises a new creation. There’s a future for people struggling with chronic sickness and terminal illness. I don’t expect to be saved from death for, even if I am healed of my cancer, I will eventually die of something else. God’s word offers me a better and enduring hope beyond death. The final scenes in the Bible point to the wonder of what is to come. The language is a little unusual, dripping with images from other parts of the Bible, but the basic idea is clear. God isn’t done with us yet! He has better things in store for those who belong to him…

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”  (Revelation 21:3-4)

stormWhat great words. What a tremendous hope. This momentary life is not all there is! There is hope and peace beyond the storm. Jesus has come back from the dead to reveal what lies ahead for all who will follow him.

By the way, I got to speak at church again this last weekend. I spoke on Genesis 3 and explored the issues of sin, suffering, death, and the hope that God offers. If you’re interested, you can download the talk and have a listen!

Gospel ink

Tattoos used to be the just for bikers and sailors. Now they’re for everyone! Walk up and down the beach on a summer’s day and count them. Check out the tattoos on the arms, legs and bodies of the rugby players. It’s like they’re wearing line-art skins under their jerseys. Musicians, artists, athletes, public servants, computer geeks, tradies, stay-at-home mothers… everyone’s getting inked!

Last year I thought seriously about getting some tattoos. Yeah, I did! Maybe I was having a mid-life crisis, but I saw it as a way to communicate some really important things about myself. If it matters that much to me, then surely I’d be willing to write it on my arms was my line of thinking. There’s a tattoo shop near where we live, so I paid them a visit, checked out some designs, worked out some costings, even asked about booking a time!

We were planning a move to Darwin and tattoos are more common than crocodiles up there. I figured that my uniform for the Territory could be shorts, t-shirt, thongs, and tattoos! We were heading north to start a new church, so I thought that I could use tattoos as part of my advertising strategy! The plan was for two tattoos. One on each arm. Three words each.

SAVED BY GRACE and COMPELLED BY LOVE

There’s so much packed into each of these phrases. They sum up what God has done for me and how this motivates me. Each phrase is taken from verses in the Bible. Let me quote them in full:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)

For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. (2 Corinthians 5:14-15)

Both these sets of verses mean so much to me. The first makes it absolutely clear that the only way I can be right with God is by what he has done. So many people make the mistake of thinking that a Christian is a religious person who tries to earn their standing with God by living a good life. Absolute rubbish! Being Christian is about what God has done for us, not what we do for God. It’s a God-given righteousness, not a self-righteousness. And God makes this possible through Jesus Christ dying on the cross to pay the price for our rejection of him. We are simply called to trust (put our faith) in what God has already done on our behalf. A Christian is one who is saved by grace.

tattooThe second set of verses shape the way I respond to what God has done for me. Love is the compelling motivation to change how I live. This love is Christ’s love for me, not my love for him. Jesus effectively swapped places with me, dying my judgement instead of me. The price is paid. There’s nothing owing on my account. It’s as though when Christ died in 30AD I died with him. The invoice is wiped and God no longer holds anything against me.

Following the logic of this connection with Christ, not only have I died with him, but I’ve also been raised with him. I’ve been given a new life and a new purpose for living. The death and resurrection aren’t simply facts of history, they’re motivators for a whole new personal history. I’ve been given my life back so that I can live it for Jesus, rather than selfishly living it for myself all over again.

These two phrases sum it up for me. Saved by grace – I’ve been rescued from my sin through the death of Jesus. Compelled by love – having dealt with my sin, Christ is calling me to live for him.

Should I get these words inked on my arms? My mum will say no! Maybe, I should take a poll! I must confess, I’m a bit nervous given my infection risk with chemotherapy. I’m not even supposed to get a scratch at certain points of the chemo cycle. So, it’d probably be irresponsible. And I can’t help thinking, what if they spolled one of the words rong?!

Counting my blessings

I’m about to preach to myself. In fact, I’m about to preach at myself. Every now and then I need a good talking to, and now is one of those times. Listen if you want. But if you don’t want to hear what I’m going to say to myself, then just stop reading!

I’m not happy. My breathing is uncomfortable. The pain in my chest cuts like a knife… especially when I cough or sneeze. Yawning hurts like crazy. My joints ache, my head hurts, my stomach complains, my skin flakes, my rashes burn, my nose bleeds, my mood changes, my patience runs thin, as does my hair, and yet, I am blessed!

IMG_0947How many people in our world or throughout history have had anything like the medical care that I take for granted? The drugs I’m given are the products of years of research, and millions of dollars of investment, from some of the smartest minds in the world. And they work. They attack the cancer, they shrink the tumours, and they destroy the bad cells. It hurts, and I hate it, but it’s a good thing. And I’m blessed to have such amazing treatment available!

I have specialists and GPs (one very special one!) and nurses who care for me. I have a family who loves me and watches over me. I have friends who call, write, visit, or support in practical ways. There must be so many who suffer alone, without care, without compassion and without hope. I do feel somewhat lonely and sad, but deep down I know that I’m blessed to experience the care and love of so many.

It might not seem like it, and I know that I can so easily forget it, but the reality is that I’m truly blessed. I have a hope that comes, not from anything medicine or people can offer, but from the trustworthy promises of God. In Jesus Christ, God has forgiven my selfish independence and accepted me as his own child. He has started my life over again, and assured me that nothing can separate me from his love. Nothing! As it says in Romans…

35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36 As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.  (Romans 8:35-39)

This is the reality of my blessing. It’s incomparable. It’s astonishing. It’s undeserved. And it’s available!

As I preach to myself, so I pray…

Heavenly Father,
Let me see things as they truly are.
Let me not be blinded by my selfishness.
Let me hold fast to the Your Word.
Let me count my blessings.
Amen

Making the most of the cross

The second sermon I ever gave was a cracker. People told me! It was logical, engaging and humorous. I succeeded in explaining, illustrating and applying the Bible in a way that captivated the listeners. My girlfriend (now wife) even started to believe that I might have some hope of becoming a preacher! But, it’s time for public confession. I basically pinched the whole talk, idea for idea, point for point, from John Chapman.

I don’t think I was the first to do this, and I’m certain that I wasn’t the last. You see, I’d looked over the Bible passage again and again, and I couldn’t see any way to make it clearer than Chappo. So why not simply copy his talk?

Chappo’s passionate desire for people to understand the truth, and his confidence in the Bible to reveal it, came through so clearly in his preaching. He still has this same passion and confidence, and it comes across in his recent book, Making the most of the Cross. How many people are still writing books after their 80th birthdays, and dedicating them to their friends in the retirement home? Well, at least one! And I thank him for it!

This book takes us to the very core of the Christian message – the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Everything stands or falls on these events. Without them, there is no Christianity. If Jesus didn’t die, or if he died and remains dead, then there is no real hope for humanity, either in life or in death. This is no take it or leave it topic. It’s worth investigating seriously, whether we’re a child or an octogenarian. But don’t leave it until you’re 80 if you’re not already there!

There are two main sections in Making the most of the Cross. The first explores the significance of the death of the Lord Jesus. The second considers the facts and meaning of the resurrection. You could tackle the book in two parts, but the real benefits will come from going even more slowly and considering the many different aspects and implications of these events.

The death of Jesus has been described as a jewel with many facets. Each facet gives us a different window into the significance of the cross and its profound implications for us. All facets need to be seen so that we don’t underestimate or skew the meaning of the cross. For example, Chappo helps us to see that…

  1. Jesus’ death brings salvation
  2. Jesus’ death is a substitute
  3. Jesus’ death is a ransom
  4. Jesus’ death turns away God’s anger
  5. Jesus’ death brings the defeat of Satan
  6. In Jesus’ death, the just God justifies sinners freely
  7. Jesus’ death is the unifying force in the Christian community
  8. Jesus’ death brings forgiveness and cleansing

John Chapman grounds every chapter of his book in the text of the Bible. The Gospel accounts are the primary evidence for what happened to Jesus, and how Jesus understood what was happening. The rest of the New Testament supports this, giving additional insight into their meaning. Sometimes the Old Testament is quoted to assist us in understanding a particular background to Jesus’ death or resurrection. In fact, reading this book helps us to see more of how the whole Bible is focused on Jesus and only makes sense in the light of what he has done.

Given the brevity of this book, there is much more that could be said about the significance of the cross. But, this book provides a very good primer. If you are keen to take things deeper then let me recommend The Cross of Christ by John Stott, The Atonement by Leon Morris, and Where Wrath and Mercy Meet edited by David Peterson, among others.

To claim that Jesus was raised from the dead and is alive today, 2000 years later, is nothing short of extraordinary. What is more, Christianity stands or falls on the truth of this claim. It’s not an optional accessory. It’s the heart and soul of it all! Chappo outlines briefly the evidence for the resurrection, including the empty tomb, the eyewitnesses, the amazing transformation of the disciples, and their lasting impact on others (even to this day). But he doesn’t stop here. He goes on to highlight the significance of Jesus being raised, how the resurrection vindicates Jesus in his death, reveals him to be God’s appointed eternal ruler, the judge of all people, the pioneer of life beyond the grave, the pattern of resurrection to come, and the very real hope for you and me that death is not the end.

One thing that impressed and encouraged me about Making the most of the Cross is the suggested prayer, usually just a sentence or two, printed at the end of each chapter. This gives the book a personal edge that encouraged me to relate to God and not simply fill my head with ideas and information. The death and resurrection of Jesus is life-transforming. It has changed my life forever. But the truth is, I need to keep being reminded of these things. Perhaps you do too! I found these words ringing true…

Sometimes the circumstances of life may cause us to wonder if God has forgotten us. Everything seems to be going wrong. But the death of Jesus is above our circumstances. Nothing can take away the fact that Christ died for us. No matter what happens to you or to me, the death of the Lord Jesus says, “I love you”. Nothing can change that. Be in no doubt that God loves you. Jesus’ death remains as a beacon of God’s eternal love for us. (p14)

Teach us to number our days

IMG_4961Dear family and friends,

Thank you again for your ongoing support and encouragement. We continue to be buoyed by your prayers, visits, messages, gifts, and kindness. They matter just as much to us now as they did in the initial days of crisis.

After 6 cycles of chemo some of you have been asking, “How many have you got to go?” Our answer is simply, “We have no idea!” If the Alimta/Avastin chemo continues to shrink the tumour, or at least prevent it from growing, and if I can tolerate the toxic effects, then it could be a while. We’ve been viewing data that shows some patients with my specific gene mutation doing very well on Alimta for many months. This means that life may continue to be shaped by the ups and downs of chemo cycles for some time yet. We are still hoping to get access to the targeted drug, Crizotinib, once the chemo starts to fail, and we’re praying that the government or drug company will release this to us (ideally subsidised or free of charge).

I’m pleased that the two latest (maintenance) cycles have been easier to tolerate. This has meant that I’ve been able to do a bit more. Over recent days days I’ve even been spending time on the exercise bike, while watching episodes of iFish, and wishing I was somewhere in Northern Australia landing barra and GTs! I’m starting to do some light weights, situps, and a bit on the rowing machine too, under strict instruction from my youngest! Nothing too intense, but they say it all helps.

Over the next few weeks I have the opportunity to speak at church again. I’ll be giving a couple of talks based on Genesis chapters 3 to 9, God willing. These chapters of the Bible deal with the mess we make of our lives when we push God aside. They address issues of suffering and death, and consider God’s purposes in these things. I’m anticipating that I’ll feel their impact more intensely and personally than I have previously!

Let me say, one of the hardest things about this struggle with cancer is not knowing what the future holds. Silly really, because we have never known and we will never know… we just think we do! The daily reminder of my own mortality intensifies the urgency and importance of good decisions, making the most of my opportunities, and using my time wisely. I can’t simply put things off until tomorrow, or next year, or some time in the indefinite future. If they matter, really matter, then I need to get onto them now. I need to make them a priority. How much time gets frittered away doing nothing of lasting value? These words in the Psalm keep coming back to me:

12 Teach us to number our days carefully
so that we may develop wisdom in our hearts.
13 Lord—how long?
Turn and have compassion on Your servants.
14 Satisfy us in the morning with Your faithful love
so that we may shout with joy and be glad all our days.
15 Make us rejoice for as many days as You have humbled us,
for as many years as we have seen adversity.  (Psalm 90:12-15)

I used to think I had all the time in the world, enough time to get around to anything and everything I wanted to do. But then we grow older and life speeds up. Time starts to slip away. They say a mid-life crisis is being confronted with the reality that you can’t and won’t do everything you had planned in life. If so, then a terminal illness is this plugged into an amplifier!

My prayer is that God will teach me to number my days, to make the most of each day he gives me, and that I will thank him for these days whatever they may hold. It’s very easy to dwell on the negatives, to get miserable, to become filled with self-pity. But it doesn’t help. All it does is distract me from the true source of satisfaction and joy. This Psalm offers me some sound advice: talk to God, let him know how I’m feeling, ask him to be compassionate with me, call on him to satisfy me with his faithful love and enable me to find real joy… every day and whatever my circumstances.

Let me encourage you also to consider these words, to take them to heart, and to ask God to teach you to number your days.

With love, Dave (and Fiona)

Will I be the biggest loser?

My 13 year old is concerned that I should be more active, drinking less coffee, not snacking on chocolate, and shedding the kilos. He is now well trained as a ‘personal trainer’ after watching just about every episode of The Biggest Loser. Hence, he thought he’d write a fully integrated program for me, and then make sure I stick to it! I’ve attached it here, just in case it might be of benefit to any of you too!

Deserted by Lady Luck?

Saturday night was pretty cold in Canberra. I blame the cancer and chemo for the fact that I feel the cold more this year. So much so, that I splurged on buying a down-filled jacket to wear to the rugby. It was a clearance sale! My youngest called me a sheep when I wore it. That is, until my wife informed him it was filled with goose down. Now I’m the goose! Not that I care… I was warm, and happy, watching the Brumbies play the Tahs at Canberra stadium. I love getting out and watching the games live, even if it is on the chilly side.

I’m a bit of a rugby tragic, so I subscribe to a few rugby news updates. Sunday’s edition of The Roar Daily Email contained an article called, Lady Luck deserts Lealiifano. It seemed a fair call really. The game was over. It was done and dusted. Christian had led the way to an emphatic victory over the Tahs. He was inspirational. And he’d been steadily building a claim for the Wallabies five eighth position. Then, with seconds left in the game, his leg gets trapped under another player. His ankle is fractured and dislocated. Out for the rest of the season.

The excitement of beating the Tahs, cementing the Brumbies at the top of the Aussie conference, and climbing another step closer to finals rugby, is overshadowed by the pain of seeing Christian on the stretcher, sucking madly on the green happy whistle. My joy is overtaken by sorrow, and the solemn reminder that there are bigger things in life than winning games of rugby.

A freak accident, yes. A common casualty in a tough collision sport, yes. A serious setback to plans, goals, and aspirations, yes. But deserted by Lady Luck? What does that mean, anyway? Fate turned bad? The gods of sport turning their faces away from Christian? Is that the way it is?

Well, I know Christian disagrees. I disagree. Life isn’t controlled by the random turn of the dice. It’s not the meaningless result of cause and effect, of time plus chance. In fact, the logic of the headline could be taken to imply that Christian’s success on the rugby field was merely the outworking of luck as well. What about his strength, speed, agility, skill, training, teamwork, leadership. What about the years of blood, sweat, and tears?

I’ve spoken with Christian Lealiifano (I’m the Brumbies team chaplain – not just a stalking fan!) and we both believe there’s a God who is involved and who cares. He’s working out his purposes through all the events of life, the ups and the downs, the good and the bad. Even through a season ending injury. Even over the loss of of our second flyhalf in a few weeks. Even when both of them, Matt and Christian, are trusting in Jesus and seeking to honour God with their lives. It doesn’t mean they understand it! It doesn’t mean they have an answer to ‘why’! But they do know it’s not blind fate, it has a purpose, and God can be trusted.

Suffering and trials can be a challenge to our beliefs. They can cause us to question and doubt. But they can also play a role in transforming us for the better. They can sharpen our focus in life and cause us to reconsider what matters really matter. My experience through recent serious trials and challenges has been that God has taken centre stage more clearly. I see evidence of him working his greater purposes, in me and in others, through the the suffering.

I’ll be praying to God for Christian, and Matt, and other players recovering from injury. Not just for a complete and speedy recovery. Not just for patience, a positive outlook, and hard work on the rehab. But, that God will work out his good purposes in their lives, that they will know and trust him though the ups and the downs, that God will build character in each of them. And I’ll be praying that they’ll be an encouragement, an inspiration and a blessing to those around them. If you’re one who prays, please join with me. If you’re not, can I recommend starting?!

But there’s no point praying to Lady Luck. She won’t hear you. She can’t help you. And she’ll only distract you from the One who can!

What a will won’t do

This morning Fiona and I were discussing wills. We’d had my will drawn up while I was in hospital, when things were looking pretty grim. We reckoned it was important to get my affairs in order. But, it’s no less important to attend to Fiona’s affairs, so we figured she should draw up a will too.

It’s a bit morbid writing wills, thinking about who we want to get what when we die. Mostly it’s about possessions… the house, cars, bank accounts, superannuation, life insurance, all the books, fishing tackle, camping gear, my ‘limited edition commemorative 2004 championship-winning embroidered and framed Brumbies jersey’… and some other stuff!

However, the big concern is not our stuff. It’s deciding who’ll look after the children if we’re taken from them. We want to make sure our children will be in good hands. We want people who’ll care for them, protect them, teach them, encourage them, discipline them and, most of all, love them. We want people who share our priorities and values and beliefs.

At the end of the day, it’s not about preparing to financially compensate our kids for losing their parents. It’s not about giving our children financial security. There’s no such thing really. We do our children a huge disservice if we teach them that life can be measured by money in the bank or possessions in the hand. We rob them of the joy of trusting God to meet their needs if we influence them to covet a potential inheritance.

Jesus famously taught…

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? (Matthew 6:25-27)

On another occasion, Jesus got caught up in a domestic dispute over an inheritance and he had these words of warning…

13 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” 14 Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” 15 Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” (Luke 10:13-15)

What a great reminder. Our lives are not to be measured by how much we earn, or save, or have. We’re not the sum total of our mortgages, bank accounts, or life insurance. Economic measures have their place, but they don’t define who we are or what we’re worth.

As Christian parents, who believe in life after death with God for all who trust in Jesus, there’s a far more significant legacy we want to leave our children. One that can’t be measured by an accountant, or distributed by a solicitor. We want them to look forward to an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade.

3 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, 4 and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade — kept in heaven for you. ( 1 Peter 1:3-5)

This is not something we can give our kids, but God can! We can point them in the right direction. We can remind them of God’s generous offer of eternal life. We can model sitting loose to stuff, not trusting in hollow promises of financial security, and trusting in God for all our needs. As Jim Elliot wrote before losing his life, he is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.

We can’t write these things in our wills, but we can pray that God will write them on the hearts of each of our children.

Making the most of the rest of your life

John Chapman, or Chappo as we like to call him, is one of my heroes. Back in 1989 I had the privilege of being trained by Chappo to become a preacher. He’s a master communicator, one of the best preachers I’ve heard, and he also knows how to share his craft with others. He’d give his young apprentices, including yours truly, what we affectionately called ‘the blow torch to the belly’. If he didn’t like your talk, he’d tell you! And then he’d deconstruct and reconstruct the talk, and eventually it would morph into a much better one. It wasn’t always pleasant, but he worked hard with us, and on us, because he was passionate about what we were doing. Our job was to communicate, clearly and truthfully, the importance of Jesus Christ. Chappo’s job was to make sure we did it well.

John is now well into his 80s and he remains just as committed to communicating the good news about Jesus. He doesn’t do as much preaching these days, but he still makes the most of his opportunities. Making the most of the rest of your life is Chappo practising what he preaches. This is a book about Chappo’s favourite topic – Jesus!

It’s taken me a while to pull this book off my shelf and read it. I shouldn’t have waited so long, because it’s a great book and it took me less than an hour to read the whole thing. I’d assumed it was only for old people, and that wasn’t me! But the key thing about being ‘old’ is not your age. It’s being forced to accept your mortality. Getting older means you don’t have as long to live anymore. I’m not that old (I haven’t hit 50 yet), but God has certainly confronted me with my mortality recently. Chappo writes:

Life in a retirement village has been a new experience for me. The paper man comes every morning at 4.30am and the ambulance at 9.15am. Sometimes it brings people home, but not always. Your mortality presses in.  (p9)

There’s nothing morbid about this book. Chappo has a cheeky sense of humour and it comes through in his writing. He writes with clarity and energy, and this is a book brimming with life and hope. Greater hope than you could ever imagine. A hope that motivates Chappo to write and share with others… while he still can, and while we can still read it (and it is printed in large type)!

You may think it is strange that I’m writing about making the most of the rest of our lives. Humanly speaking, I don’t have all that much left. The average male in Australia lives for 79 years. That doesn’t leave me much time.

On the other hand, if there is life after death, if eternity is really eternity and I have the greater bulk of my life to look forward to, then it makes all the difference.  (p9)

For Chappo, life beyond the grave is far more than wishful thinking. It’s the promise of God. He bases his confidence in the words of the Bible, and the historical person of Jesus. It’s the death and the resurrection of Jesus that provides the hope of resurrection beyond death for others. This is not the cartoon-like picture of someone in a white dress hanging out in the clouds playing a harp. Nor is it the idea of a disembodied soul floating around in heaven. It’s the hope of having a resurrected body, living in a new creation, made by God. Perhaps this still sounds a little weird, but I reckon it’s worth an hour of your time reading Making the most of the rest of your life to begin an investigation. If it’s not true then I guarantee you’ve still spent a better hour than anyone watching Biggest Loser. If it is true, then you’d be the biggest loser if you didn’t bother to check it out.

The guts of the book are spent describing who Jesus is, and what he said and did. Chappo takes us through Mark’s Gospel, explaining, illustrating, and applying as he goes. He has the knack of showing how Jesus makes sense of everything in the Bible and how he impacts life here and now. I’d recommend reading the book first, and then getting hold of a Bible and reading over Mark’s Gospel for yourself. Perhaps you could read the relevant section in Mark’s Gospel and then compare it with what Chappo writes in the book.

Chappo’s aim with this book is to persuade people to put their trust in Jesus, and to do this before it’s too late. He addresses some of the reasons and excuses we might have that prevent us from taking such a step. And he offers a prayer – some words we might want to borrow – to let God know if we decide to put our lives in his hands. Finally, he shares a few tips for people who’ve made the decision to go with Jesus.

So who’s this book for? It’s for you, if you want to get to the heart of the Christian message. Read it for yourself. Discuss it with friends. Buy one for your grandparents. Share it with friends in the retirement village or nursing home. Get a copy for your kids – that’s right – it’s only 50 or so pages, it’s large easy-to-read type, and it explains Christianity so clearly. It’s a great book for anyone really!

I’d like to recommend it to another group of people as well. If you’re a novice preacher, if you want to communicate the Bible well to others, if you need help becoming less boring, clearer, and more relevant in your ministry… then read this book! Making the most of the rest of your life is a great example of how to connect the ancient text of the Bible with real life and real people today. Grab a copy and read it!

Rhythm

Five months have passed since I was first admitted to hospital and I’m now in my 5th cycle of chemo. Life is so different to what it once was. It’s not entirely predictable, but it’s begun to take on some rhythm and routine. My life currently revolves around three weekly cycles. I gear myself up for the next chemo and then prepare to go downhill over the following week or so. Days 5, 6, 7 are usually pretty tough. Aching joints, pains, nausea, constipation, fatigue, skin rashes, headaches have become the new normal! But then the side effects fade away and I rebuild. Sometimes in the third week I can even forget that I’m unwell.

The good news is that my new ‘maintenance’ chemo regime seems to be more tolerable. I haven’t had the same severity of symptoms. The roller coaster hasn’t dipped so low. I’ve even continued my daily coffees! My appetite hasn’t dropped – this has has created a new problem with me putting on too much weight. But there are still bad days, even really bad days, and I need to be prepared for these.

I’m learning to plan ahead and work with these rhythms. Some days are good for catching up with people, some not so. We’ve been able to arrange some days away as a family. I’ve been able to plan to preach on certain weekends. We’re looking forward to a few friends coming to visit on some (anticipated) good days ahead! Unfortunately, the Brumbies schedule hasn’t followed my routine. I haven’t been able to build consistency in my involvement with the team. I get to be at some games live at the stadium, and other times I’m stuck at home, grateful for Foxtel!

Though I still get frustrated and impatient with my limitations, I am learning to go with the flow a bit more. There are times to rest and times for activity. When the energy levels allow, then I’m keen to get out and about, to catch up with people, to talk. When I ache, or feel weak and unwell, then my goals are more limited. Perhaps, this is the time to reply to a few emails, make a phone call, read a chapter of a book, or write another post. My family know there are times when I can do things and times when I can’t. They’ve been very patient with me and shown great care and concern.

There are some areas where I haven’t adapted well to my new rhythms. It’s important to build gentle regular exercise into the routine, but it’s not really happening. I’m keen to be reading the Bible and praying regularly with Fiona, but we’re haphazard at best. We want to be spending more time talking things through with our children, reading and praying together, but we get distracted by all that’s going on.

I’ve been a ‘twice every Sunday’ church attender most of my life, but now I can’t even make it every week. And I’m often too exhausted to back up on a Sunday evening after going along in the morning. Preaching twice on a Sunday recently was a big challenge! But, I’ve discovered that I approach church a little differently now. Previously, I’ve been focused on my sermon, or the details of leading the church. Now that I preach only rarely, I find myself more relaxed at church. And because I’m not spending as much time mixing with people during the week, I look forward to Sunday interactions even more. I’m more conscious of wanting to make my time count with people and to talk about the stuff that really matters!

The shape of my ministry has certainly changed. I’ve spent years and years focused on the spoken word and now find myself spending more and more time on the written word. My desire remains for people to discover the joy of knowing God and to discover the difference that Jesus makes to life. It’s wonderful to hear when something I’ve written has been an encouragement to someone. I thank God that blogging has pushed some people to ask questions, to explore issues, and to begin conversations about the big issues of life (and death).

As I write this, I’m spending a couple of days away with our church staff team. It’s great to be a part of the conversations, the planning, the prayer, the brain storming. But it’s also a reminder of how much has changed. I’m not working hard these three days, pushing the agenda, pulling everything together, focusing on action plans and outcomes. I’m no longer the senior pastor! I’ve gone from a leading ministerial portfolio to being a backbencher! Last year I was captain coach and now I’m an interchange player! I don’t resent this. In fact, it’s a relief (especially given my health and resources) not currently having the buck stop with me. It’s important to have the freedom to be involved as I’m able, and to not be involved when I’m unable. And I thank God that our church is in good hands with our new senior pastor!

There are challenges ahead as I explore what I can and can’t do. Who am I now? For so long I’ve been the leader, my job description has been defined, my responsibilities have been clear, and I’ve known what I have to do. Now I find myself asking new questions. How do I fit in? How can I complement the others on the staff team? What can I do given my limitations? What will make the biggest impact? How can I keep serving, learning, growing? Are there things that God has in store for me, which would never have been possible except for this cancer? They’re difficult questions to answer, because I don’t know what the future holds? But then, who does? We make our plans, but the Lord determines our steps.

Preparing for a wedding, or a marriage?

I’m taking my 45th wedding today. Or, as I like to put it, today I’ll be marrying my 46th woman… and my 45th man! You should be able to figure it out :). It’s a beautiful Canberra Autumn day, the sun is shining, it’s not too cold, and the wedding is happening in a park by the lake. Fantastic!

The service is planned, music selected, talk written, prayers organised, vows crafted, certificates prepared, poem orchestrated, and Bible readings chosen. I’ve had my shave, selected my tie, ironed my shirt (actually my wife did that!), arranged my suit, got my notes, register, certificates, Bible, L plates (props!)… ready to go… licensed to marry!

People love weddings. The beauty, the pageantry, the joy, the love, the tears. They are very special occasions. So much time, money, and effort goes into making this special day one to remember for a life time. And why not? This is a huge day.

But herein lies a problem. I think people often have a blind spot when it comes to weddings. Let’s compare how much goes into preparing for the wedding day with how much goes into preparing for the years of marriage that follow. Tens of thousands of dollars on the wedding and reception. Every waking hour for months stressing over the reception arrangements. Fittings for dresses and suits. Pouring over wedding catalogues. The agony of culling guest lists and organising seating arrangements. Getting the flowers just right. Choosing the best photographer (and later discovering they rule the day). Hours at the hairdressers. Trying to please the mother and the mother in law. The weight-loss program, so as to look fabulous on the day, to fit in that dress, or that suit. All that, and much more, just for ONE day!

And what about preparing for the marriage? “What do you mean?”, I hear some say. What I mean is, preparing to transition from being single to being married. Learning about yourselves, and each other, and what you would like to make of your marriage. Learning to communicate. Working out good ways to resolve conflict. Discussing your families of origin. How you want to rewrite the script and do things differently. Exploring your views on children, how many, and how soon, parenting strategies, roles and responsibilities. Discussing issues of intimacy and sex. Sharing your fears, hopes, dreams, expectations.

How much time is put into laying a foundation for a lifetime together? What is the rock that you will build your marriage on? Do you share the same spiritual convictions? Who will matter most in the marriage? Will it be you, or will you put your partner first, or will both of you seek to put God first? These are big issues, and they surely matter much more than matching the groomsmen’s ties to the bridesmaids dresses?!

As I prepare for another wedding, my prayer for the couple is that they will be prepared for their marriage. I will be encouraging them to…

3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others (each other) better than yourselves. 4 Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5 Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.  (Philippians 2:3-5)

Looking to Jesus offers the best hope that a marriage can have. My marriage, my children’s marriages, my friends marriages, the couple whom I will marry today. Jesus is to be our foundation and rock. He is to be the model for the husband, for me, as he lays down his life for his bride, the church, his people.

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her…  (Ephesians 5:25)

What a challenge this is! If only I, and other husbands, would take this to heart. It certainly doesn’t come naturally to me. And so I should keep praying:

Dear God, please help me to love Fiona, as Jesus has loved me. Help me to overcome my selfishness, my pride, my impatience, my greed, my laziness. Please empower me to care for the beautiful wife that you have entrusted to my care. Please strengthen me to show love, to be loving, to love from the heart. Please enable me to minister to my wife, not for what I can get, but always to give and to bless. Please enrich our marriage and keep us growing together, until death do we part.

Looking back through my marriage register is a bitter sweet experience. So much history, and such a mixture of emotions. It mixes the tears of joy and the tears of broken hearts. One couple celebrating their 20th wedding anniversary. Many marriages going strong. But some of them have broken apart. Some have been parted by death. Others fractured by unfaithfulness. Some might say they have drifted from their foundations. Maybe one or two might wish they had worried less about the wedding and put more into preparing for the marriage.

Every time I take a wedding it causes me to pause, reflect, and consider my own. Not the wedding so much – that was nearly 29 years ago – but the marriage. I’m praying for 29 more years together! If we make that it will be a miracle, and I’m not just referring to God removing the cancer from my body. It will mean God continuing to work in both our hearts, to keep us looking to Jesus, and putting each other before ourselves.

Please God, may it be so!

Simple Church

Simple ChurchSimple Church begins with a story about Pastor Rush who, I was convinced, was modelled on me! He’s aptly named because he’s always rushing from one thing to the next. Preaching, visiting, planning (occasionally), emails, emails, emails, meetings, business, admin, family, sports, evenings out with work, days away with conferences, more conferences, patching up problems, helping people resolve conflicts, preparing on the fly, constantly tired, stressed, adrenalin driven, and every week having to do it again! Sound familiar to some of you?

Simple sounds very attractive. I long to get rid of the clutter! Simple is where it’s at. It’s the latest trend. Look at Apple, Google, designers, marketers, book titles… and now churches! This book offered something I was craving. It promised to be my ‘ministry stress detox diet’ and I was keen to take it in! It launched me reading widely on ‘church’, not just about the theology of church (as I’d read a lot of good stuff on what church is), but about how we put things into practice.

Let me start by saying what I didn’t like about Simple Church. 

Firstly, it was too long. How simple can something be if it takes over 250 pages to explain it? At times I found the book annoyingly repetitive and protracted. What I’d really like to see is a condensed version of Simple Church. One that comes to about 20 or 30 pages in length. I’m a big fan of little books! There is a revised edition of the book out now. It includes lessons learned since the first edition. But it’s longer rather than shorter!

Secondly, the constant references to statistical data left me a bit cynical and tired. In fact, I started to skip these sections once I realised their findings were entirely predictable… ‘our research shows the simple church is better on all counts than the complex church!’

Thirdly, I was left thinking that there’s a fine line between simple and simplistic. People could be tempted to think that church is all about process, and if we get the process right then church will be successful. The trouble is, we could have a very successful process that does nothing to build the church for eternity. It may be successfully simple. In fact, it may be successful by a whole range of human measures, and yet fail by God’s measure. As it says in 1 Corinthians 3:10 “…each one should be careful how he builds.”

And fourthly, this book makes all kinds of assumptions about the place and purpose of the church without grounding them clearly in the Bible. There is very little engagement with the Bible, and the foundations of the book seem more sociological than theological. The risk is that this book could simply help a church, with appalling theology, do what they do even better, rather than changing what they do! So I recommend getting a good grasp on God’s design for the church in the Bible, before you get too heavily into Simple Church. A good starting point would be detailed study of the books of Ephesians and Hebrews, combined with reading Understanding the Church by David Jackman.

Now that my gripes are out of the way, let me say this is a very useful book. It’s provided the paradigm for our ministry team to evaluate how we’re travelling as a church. It’s given us a template for thinking about the shape of the Christian life, how we are growing followers of Jesus, and how we encourage this in our church.

The authors, Rainer and Geiger, define a simple church as a congregation designed around a straight-forward and strategic process that moves people through the stages of spiritual growth. (p60) Each part of this is significant. It’s designed, thought out, structured, not just thrown together. The process is straight-foward, clear, easy to grasp, known to the leaders and the congregation, and doesn’t keep changing according to the latest fad. The process is strategic, tied to the purpose and vision of the church. It moves people, logically. Church programs are means, not ends in themselves. They provide ways to help people grow together spiritually. The overall plan is for the church to cooperate with God in seeing people’s lives changed for eternity. In considering ‘stages’ of spiritual growth, we shouldn’t consider discipleship as a sequence of steps or courses to be completed. However, we want to see people progressing as Christians and growing together into maturity, so we should consider what we are doing as a church to help this happen.

If your church feels cluttered, with a busy calendar, too many programs, and a lack of overall vision or purpose, then Simple Church offers a plan for a makeover. If you’re intending to plant a church and you want to avoid getting lost in your own mistakes, then Simple Church may help you create a template to follow. It could help by getting you to consider the following four important areas:

The leadership and the church are clear about the process (clarity) and are committed to executing it. The process flows logically (movement) and is implemented in each area of the church (alignment). The church abandons everything that is not in the process (focus).  (p67-68)

The book devotes a chapter to each of these areas, and these four chapters provide the substance of the book. The chapter headings show the thrust of the argument:

Clarity:  Starting with a Ministry Blueprint
Movement:  Removing Congestion
Alignment:  Maximizing the Energy of Everyone
Focus:  Saying No to Almost Everything

Clarity
The task of creating a simple church begins with clarifying what discipleship is and how it will happen in our church. Let the Bible inform our picture of what growing Christians and a growing church should look like. Then we work out what needs to happen for the church to grow disciples. Specifically, in the terms of the book, what processes need to happen? Of course, narrowing down processes will be somewhat artificial, but it has the value of clarifying where we will be headed. We don’t start by assuming our pre-existing church programs. Rather, we ask what programs will facilitate this process of disciple making.

For our church this has meant identifying three steps in the process: connecting, growing, and serving. We desire to see people connecting with God and each other through the gospel of Jesus. We desire to see people in the church growing together into maturity through applying God’s Word in their lives. And we desire to see people using their time, resources, and gifts in serving the church and the people around us (especially in helping people connect and grow).

Movement
Once the process is designed, it needs to be implemented. This involves placing programs alongside the process. If you are auditing your existing programs in line with your clarified process of disciple making, then this may be rather confronting. There may be areas of the process that are completely unaddressed. You may have programs that you can’t fit in anywhere. You might discover the need to refocus some of your programs to reach your goals.

We’ve followed the example of other churches by specifying some programs as integral to our process. For example, we run a regular ‘connect’ course that is designed to be an entry point for connecting people into our church. It is designed to introduce them to the message of the gospel, to the vision of our church, and to people at church. This helps some people to decide that our church is not for them and others to be clear about what they’re jumping into. Once people have decided that they want to be part of the church, we then encourage them into ‘growth’ groups which provide a relational context for people to grow together spiritually. Then, as we get to know people in growth groups, we can encourage them to ‘serve’ in ministry teams throughout the church. We have many service options including kids ministry, youth work, music, welcoming, international student outreach, and much more.

Alignment
The next step is to get the whole church aligned with our process. This means the leaders, the programs, the calendar, the announcements, the congregations, everything and everyone. People and programs need to be held accountable according to our agreed process. Staff should be recruited and deployed according to the process. Understanding and unity are increased through such alignment. And we avoid clashes and clutter.

Simple Church has pushed us to consider what programs are critical to disciple making, and to make these programs our focus. But we still have a long way to go in creating alignment across our church and its various programs.

Focus
The book says, and others with experience tell me, that focus is where it gets ugly! Rainer and Geiger write:

OK, this is where the change is REALLY felt. Please notice that here is the only time in the entire book we used all caps to emphasize a point.  (p240)

People appreciate clear processes, purposeful programs, and the unity created by people moving together in the same direction. People love clarity, focus, and simplicity. But if you try to axe their favourite program because it doesn’t contribute to the process, watch out! We grow very attached to the things we create and maintain. We’ll probably disagree that our program is part of the clutter! So, lots of love, care, skill, and communication will be needed if we’re going to get all our programs aligned to our process and purpose. And it might take some time.

Change can be very difficult. It involves loss and grief and uncertainty. Some things disappear while others take their place, and not everyone is happy. But if we’re failing as a church to grow followers of Jesus, if we’re simply going through the motions, propping up the programs, and feeling constantly, mind-numbingly, busy, and without clear purpose… then change is essential. Of course, we can make these changes without ever reading Simple Church. And there are other good tools available to help us. But if we’re stuck in a bit of a rut, and we’re keen to see our churches growing followers of Jesus, then it might just be worth a look!

Patience

Patience has never been my strong suit. You’ve probably heard about the person who prays, “Lord make me patient, and do it now!” How does God answer that one?!

I just want to be better… now! I want to get off the chemo and onto drugs that don’t hurt… now! I want to be fit again… to run, lift weights, throw a football, climb stairs easily, catch waves, join my friends on bike rides… NOW!

The family are off being active and I’m just climbing out of bed after a nanna nap! Do I take panadol for the chest pain, the sore head, and the aches in my joints? Or do I hop back into bed and hope it will go away? Do I push through the pain barriers? Or do I rest and let the body catch up? I’ll tell you, there are no easy answers.

Most of my life I’ve maintained a reasonable level of fitness. Running, swimming, walking, riding, lifting. I’ve never been a top class athlete, but I’ve never felt disabled either. That is, until now. And I don’t like it!

This year I’d planned to be active, really active. I was going to be a barra fishing, pig shooting, motorbike riding, four-wheel driving, pastor in the NT! We were looking forward to a physical, outdoors lifestyle. And now I’m stuck inside, hiding from the cold, unable to shake a cold. So what on earth does God have to teach me?

Patience… I’m a slow learner! And I usually have to learn the hard way. There’s lots I need to learn, but patience has to be right up there.

I need to be reminded that this world is not the way God intends it to be. I’m not the way God intends me to be. It’s not how things started, and it’s not how they’ll finish. God has big plans and he’s not done yet. The Apostle Paul reflects on the chaos and suffering he sees in this world and he helps us to get things back in perspective – God’s perspective.

18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19 For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.

22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.  (Romans 8:18-25)

I don’t have to be satisfied with how things are… because God is ok with me longing for things to be better. I don’t have to pretend that the world really is wonderful… because God reminds me that it’s been subjected to frustration. There’s no point putting on a brave face and doing all I can to improve my lot… because God has put into place his plan to renew all things. So what does he ask of me?

To put my hope in him, and to wait, patiently.

The Biblical way to dodge death

As I opened the Canberra Times over breakfast this morning, I was intrigued to read an article on the Bible. Stories about the Bible are rare in the papers, but this one’s rather special. The Bible belonged to Lance Corporal Elvas Jenkins. He placed it in his shirt pocket and it took a bullet for him at Gallipoli on May 7, 1915. It’s a great story. The lead shrapnel bullet from the shell of a 75mm field gun went through the Psalms and lodged in the Gospels! The Bible literally saved his life… that is, until he was killed a year later while heading a reconnaissance party on its way to the Battle of Somme. Now, nearly a hundred years later, this little Bible has come to rest in Canberra!

Very cool to be saved by a Bible tucked into your shirt pocket, and a testimony to God’s kindness to him that day. But then, it could have equally been a tobacco tin that saved him, or a pocket watch, or something else that could withstand the shrapnel. These days, I guess it would be more likely a kevlar jacket, or some other piece of high-tech armour. So why get excited about this pocket Bible saving his life that day?

I think it’s because of the strong associations with something bigger and more profound. The Bible has saved many people, countless people, from death. Not the ‘dodging bullets’ kind of death (only to die later), but from spiritual death that is separation from God for eternity. Arguably, the most famous words in the Bible, give us this life-saving message:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.  (John 3:16)

The Bible offers real hope to the dying. The evidence of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus shows us that death doesn’t have the final say. Life beyond the grave or the crematorium isn’t just an empty wish, but a rational expectation based on the evidence of Jesus Christ who has made it possible. It’s worth grabbing a Bible and reading one of the four Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke or John – to find out more.

(You can read the Canberra Times article here.)

Sticky Church

Last year, I purchased the ‘wrong book’, and read it by accident – and I’m so glad I did. Sticky Teams had been recommended to me as a helpful book to consider our organisation and direction as a church, but I mistakenly ordered Sticky Church by Larry Osborne instead! It took me a while to appreciate that this was a different title by the same author. And it proved to be even more important in thinking about how we were doing church.

As a senior pastor/team leader/preacher I’ve applied myself to the crafts of leadership and communication over many years. There may be 100 or more books on my shelves touching on these areas. But I’d probably only read 3 or 4 books on the topic of small group ministry, and none that had really explored the strategic importance of a well integrated small group ministry in a growing church. Sticky Church has begun to fill this void and pushed me to explore other material in this vital, and yet overlooked, area of our ministry.

The book begins by tackling the matter of how we grow our churches. While many churches work hard to get people in through the front door, they leave the back door wide open and people don’t stick around. By contrast, Osborne’s church does no marketing, gets plenty of visitors and inquirers, and focuses on building genuine connections with those who come. In short, small groups are seen as the key to closing the back door, by building real relationships in a context of ministry, Bible, prayer, and life experience.

For the statisticians among you, think about this one:

Imagine two churches that each grew in attendance from 250 people to 500 people over a 10 year period.

Church A is a revolving door. It loses 7 people for every 10 it adds. To reach 500, it will have to add 834 new members of attenders.

Church B is a sticky church. It loses only 3 people for every 10 it adds. To reach 500, it has to add 357 new members or attenders.

On the surface, both churches appear to have doubled. But the revolving door church had to reach reach 834 new people to get there, while the sticky church only needed to reach 357.

Obviously, doubling attendance is a lot easier for the sticky church than for the revolving door church. No surprise there. But here’s the kicker: After ten years, the church with the big back door will have 500 attenders and 584 former attenders! And every year after that the spread between the number of ex-attenders and the number of current attenders will grow larger.

No matter what that church does to expand the size of the front door, it’s going to be hard to keep reaching people when the predominant word on the street is, “I used to go there.”  (p17-18)

Osborne is committed to having 80% or more of church attenders actively involved in small groups. He sees the groups as the hub of the ministry. And he sees this model as fully scalable. The same principles that make a church sticky with a hundred or so in attendance, continue to work as the church grows into the thousands. Osborne’s church, North Coast Church, is a mega church in Aussie terms and may lead some of us to tune out as to the relevance to our contexts. However, it took them five years to reach 180 attenders and another five to reach 750, and they worked hard at the small stuff along the way.

Sticky Church presents a model of sermon based small groups, where the preaching on the Sunday is followed up in people’s homes throughout the week. We can argue about the ups and downs of groups being sermon based, but let’s not miss the primary observation. Osborne writes:

It doesn’t matter if the groups are sermon based or not. Ours weren’t initially. All that matters is that a significant percentage of the congregation begins to meet in small gatherings outside the church building to share life and study the Bible together.  (p49)

I read over this book a couple of times, gave copies to all our pastoral staff, and used it as the basis for evaluation and planning at our staff week away last year. Here are some comments, relevant to our situation, that I pencilled into the inside cover of my book for our discussions:

How do we convey the value and importance of groups to the life of our church and the spiritual vitality of our members?

  • teaching ‘one another’ the word of God
  • developing authentic relationships and Christian community
  • encouraging people to share their lives and faith with others (in the groups and beyond)
  • helping more people take up opportunities to serve in the life of the church and our outreach
  • decentralising leadership and care of one another
  • experiencing more personal prayer in relationship with others

Growth in churches is often crippled by what Osborne describes as the ‘holy man myth’. This is the idea that pastors have a more direct line to God. They are seen as the ones who must teach, visit, pray, counsel, and do pretty much everything. Especially if we’re paying them to do it! Aside from the poor theology driving this myth, the harsh reality is that one man simply can’t do all these things. My observation is that if a church or its ‘holy man’ thinks he must do everything, then we are not likely to see the church grow beyond 100 to 150 people. Healthy small groups are a valuable means for decentralising the ministry, and empowering people within the church to use their gifts in service of one another.

This book promotes sermon based Bible study in small groups. Our church had only done this occasionally, usually for a specific purpose such as focusing the whole church on a theme. People expressed appreciation for the guidance and resources, but we’d never managed to keep it going. From my perspective it was hard enough getting the sermon done well, let alone adding the preparation of small group material. I’d seen others committing to it over the years, week in week out, and in some cases preparing their whole series of Bible study notes before the preaching even began. I would just sit back and marvel at how they could pull it off. I’d leave it for the Phil Campbells, Steve Crees, Craig Dobbies… it wasn’t for me!

But, Sticky Church has pushed us out of our comfort zone to develop a sermon linked small group Bible study strategy. We haven’t managed to write a series in advance yet. Mostly the studies are produced and distributed week to week, ‘just in time’ for leaders to work over material and prepare for their groups. They are sermon linked, rather than based, because we don’t want people just rehashing what the preacher said on Sunday. We want people getting back into the text, doing some work themselves, and applying it in their lives. Some groups like to follow the sermon with the emphasis on further exploration and application. Others have opted to precede the sermon with the study, aiming to get people more engaged in the observation and investigative processes, raising their questions, and whetting their appetite for a sermon to follow. Horses for courses, but I think that in our context we will benefit from a greater commitment to applying the Word in the context of relationship with one other after the sermon. So I’d tip the scales towards sermon first – small group studies afterwards.

There are a few things that have moved us in this direction. Feedback from some of our leaders has shown that they have worked hard on preparing Bible studies from scratch and devoted little or no time beyond this to leading and caring and promoting the ministries of others in their groups. Some haven’t even seen this as their role. (This probably says more about our poor communication of expectations and encouragement of leaders in their roles). Just focusing on preparing and leading studies is commendable at one level, but if we are seeking these groups to become ‘little church’, where people are being fed, encouraged, caring for one another, and encouraging each member to be connecting with people who don’t follow Jesus… then the leaders need to be helped to embrace a larger job description. Not simply preparing and leading studies, but leading people, and this takes time. If we can resource the leaders with material, this will give them a leg up. Some leaders follow our material pretty much as provided, while others use it as an aid for their own specific preparation.

We’ve also seen the positive benefits of having the entire church learning together the same or similar material. In fact, on the occasions we have been able to integrate youth and children’s material with the adult preaching and small groups, we’ve had great feedback from families. By linking to the sermons, people have had the benefit of the preacher’s hard work combining with the group working through understanding and application of the Bible together. As we put our sermons on line, people who miss church are able to download the talk before attending (or even leading) their small groups. This seems to be increasing people’s engagement with the Bible and with working through its implications for life.

Osborne’s church has worked to keep their groups aligned with the mission of the church. They are not seen as optional accessories, but integral to the church fulfilling its purpose. They desire to 1) enlist new followers into God’s kingdom; 2) train them how to live the Christian life; and 3) equip them and deploy them into service. Small groups are vital to this process.

There are some interesting particulars how about how North Coast Church groups function. People sign up for a term at a time, and are then asked to provide feedback at the end of each term, which includes indicating whether they will be remaining with the group the following term. Osborne says that providing a clear way out of groups has led to more people staying in. Groups are not divided into two as numbers increase. In fact, he has a whole chapter on Why dividing groups is a dumb idea. He notices that some people take forever to click with a group that works for them, and then we cruelly split their group and they’re lost again. Their answer lies in two strategies: starting new groups for new members, and hiving off leaders rather than dividing whole groups. We’ve basically adopted this approach and begun to see the advantages of moving newcomers through an introductory ‘connect’ course into a small group with the people they’re already getting to know.

There is some good stuff on finding and developing leaders. Look for spiritual and relational warmth in prospective leaders. Avoid hyperspiritual God-talkers and single-issue crusaders. Look to apprenticing leaders within existing small groups, or else find people with few preconceived ideas or baggage about how groups should be run and prepare them to play on the team. Grabbing a leader who did things differently in their previous church, without engaging them with the vision of your church, can spell disaster! And it’s better to ask for recommendations, rather than asking for volunteers.

I also appreciated the creative rethink on how we go about training leaders. The emphasis is on preparing leaders on the job, for the job. Keeping the information flow with resources, encouragement, tips, suggestions, and ensuring that groups are well connected with the wider ministries and mission of the church is vital in equipping our leaders. This hasn’t been our strength to date, and we’re seeking to improve. Osborne also addresses the different needs of rookie and veteran leaders. This is something we should probably consider more.

Finally, the last section of the book includes tips for preparing sermon based studies. For mine, this is not the high point of the book, but it’s worth reading as we review our approach and strategies. And there are a number of appendices that show how North Coast Church puts their model into practice.

I’m very glad that I stumbled onto this book. Not simply because of it’s great ideas and practical common sense, but especially because it reminds me that if we’re expecting our small groups to be the hub of our ministry, and a primary pastoral care context, and the leaders to run with this vision, then we must invest more in helping them to work well.

Suffering sermons

For years now, my family have had to put up with being my ‘go to’ sermon illustrations. Especially when the kids were younger, and didn’t know much about it. I’ve heard that some preachers pay their kids for the privilege of speaking about them in talks. I’d have gone broke a long time ago! Anyway, my wife was very excited recently to hear me being used as the introduction to a couple of very encouraging, insightful, Biblical and helpful sermons on the topic of the why and how of suffering. These talks were given by a good friend, Rob Smith, in Sydney earlier this year. We commend them to you. Rob doesn’t speak from an ivory tower on this topic. He is well acquainted with personal suffering and, most importantly, he has soaked himself deeply in the Bible. You can download and listen to his talks at…

Rob Smith: The how and why of suffering #1
Rob Smith: The how and why of suffering #2

Journey with cancer 18 Apr 2012

Dear family and friends,

This has been a heavy week. CT scans on Monday of chest, abdomen, pelvis, and brain. Maintenance chemo on Tuesday with Alimta and Avastin, no more Carboplatinum. Appointment with our oncologist this morning, to interpret scans, check how I’m going, and confirm plans looking ahead.

I say it’s been a heavy week, because it has been focused on the disease and it’s been a reality check. We’ve been able to (largely) forget the seriousness of the cancer in recent days, especially as we spent a lovely family time at the beach over the Easter week. But then, we come out of holiday land and back home to face facts. And some of the facts aren’t too good. We keep being reminded that the treatment is not considered curative and that the best we can hope for is to slow down the progress of the cancer, while seeking to minimise the bad effects of treatment. Of course, this is still good. I do thank God for the availability of quality medical care, access to good information, the support of others who understand all this stuff (especially my wife), and the hope that comes from the treatment available.

People often ask what they can pray for me. There are lots of things: patience, good use of my time, strategic ministry opportunities, the capacity to love and serve my wife and children, the strengthening of my (and my family’s) trust in God, availability of the targeted Crizotinib drug (currently only approved in the US, and made available in Australia within certain trials or after evidence of cancer progression from standard chemo), and other things. But high on the list I keep asking people to pray for complete healing. That God will, either by medical means or a complete miracle, free me from this disease.  Many of us have been praying this for 4 months now, and I keep hoping that it will either keep shrinking every day, or that one day I will wake up and it’ll all be gone!

This week has been tough because we’ve been reminded that the cancer is still there. The CT shows a very small reduction in the primary tumour and no evidence of any new tumours or spread to the brain. However, it has highlighted a couple of nodes with evidence of cancer, and we are unclear as to whether this is new, whether they have increased in size since the last scan, or whether they were present earlier without being clearly detectable. I think I was hoping for a profound reduction in the cancer. Perhaps for them to say that it’d almost disappeared!

So far the new chemo regime seems like it will be more manageable. Although it is normally 2 or 3 days after treatment that the side effects start to get bad, and they can last for more than a week after that, so I shouldn’t make too many predictions here! My ‘muck in the lungs’ problem is still evident, but I’m about to take a fourth course of antibiotics and it does seem to be slowly getting better. Please pray that it gets completely cleared up.

I’ve been a bit miserable over the last few days. For some reason last night I was picturing my own funeral in my mind, with Fiona and the kids deeply saddened at my passing. This led to a few tears and me being rather melancholic today. My kids are too young for this, I thought. I want to enjoy more time with them yet. I need to make a priority of investing in my family, filling their minds with the promises of God, and depositing good investments into their memory banks. Of course this is true whether I have a months, years or decades. And I need to keep reminding myself that God will look after them. He is an expert at it, with or without my help!

IMG_4963And we’ve had some good times recently. The family escape to Broulee was nice. We spent time lazing in the sun, walking the beaches, the kids surfed each day, everyone but me swam in the ocean (I wimped out, blaming my chest infection and reduced immunity), we read books, watched Sherlock, completed a WASGIJ (a back-the-front jigsaw), and Marcus caught a couple of fish. It was especially nice to have Matt home with us for a week or so before returning to uni.

On Sunday I gave my second sermon for the year on Connecting with God and each other, based on Ephesians 2-3. It was exciting to be able to open God’s Word with the church again, though it left me exhausted after repeating the talk at night. We also had a wonderful time over lunch catching up with 3 families who are long term friends, including a special friend who became a Christian in the first year of our ministry here in Canberra. I hope to be speaking again in a few weeks, as we begin a series in Genesis.

The following prayer featured in my recent talk on Sunday. I am keen to be praying this myself, and I recommend it to each of you also.

 14 For this reason I kneel before the Father, 15 from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name. 16 I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the saints*, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. 20 Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.  (Ephesians 3:14-21)

(* saints doesn’t refer to dead Christians who have done special things they’re remembered for – it refers to living Christians in this prayer)

Thank you again for your support. We are continually humbled to hear of people praying all over the world, some every day. We love getting messages of encouragement via cards, email, facebook, now twitter :), and especially in person. Please feel free to drop in and share a coffee!

With love,

Dave (and Fiona)

Humilitas

It’s hard to know how to review John Dickson’s book, Humilitas. With humility I suppose, or at least without humiliating myself! It’s hard because I’m not much of an expert on the topic, and it’s doubly hard because the author is a good mate whom I greatly admire. I’ve always been stimulated through reading John’s books. I confess to having envied John’s capacity as a preacher, didgeridoo player, author, and general all round talent. But mostly I just like having the occasional catch up, coffee together, and being encouraged by an old friend.

Well, Humilitas is not what I expected! I’ve grown accustomed to John writing books on the life and teaching of Jesus, books that answer difficult questions, and books seeking to persuade others to follow Jesus. I quickly discovered that this is a different type of book, pitched at a different audience. This is not so much for the enquirer into Christianity, as the one who is seeking to grow as a leader and build stronger relationships with others. (Not to suggest these are mutually exclusive, by the way.) I’d expect to find this book sitting comfortably alongside books by Ken Blanchard or Max de Pree in the leadership section of your local bookshop… if there are any local bookshops still in existence!

I found Humilitas a good read and completed it in a couple of sittings. John is self-effacing as he writes, only too aware of the sitting duck he has become in presuming to teach on humility! He writes with grace and style, colouring his work with historical and contemporary examples of humble men and women. Indeed, I loved reading some of my favourite anecdotes from A Sneaking Suspicion now providing powerful illustrations of humility in action! But this is not a repackaged, ‘slap together’ paperback by a prolific author. It shows evidence of serious research over many years, much of it historical, laying a foundation for an academic and yet highly practical work. As I was reading this book, I also listened to James O’Loghlin interviewing John about the topic on ABC radio. It helped bring the book to life even more. You can listen to the interview online.

John writes of humilitas in the positive sense of humility, rather than its negative sense of humiliation. He provides his own working definition that he expounds throughout the book…

Humility is the noble choice to forgo your status, deploy your resources or use your influence for the good of others before yourself. More simply, you could say the humble person is marked by a willingness to hold power in service of others. (p24)

Three thoughts are inherent in this definition of humility. Firstly, it presupposes your dignity. The humble person begins by being aware of their worth and abilities. Secondly, it is a choice. Otherwise it would simply be humiliation. And thirdly, it is social, as it’s shown in putting others before yourself.

John argues persuasively that humility is a necessary ingredient to truly successful leadership. He demonstrates that it’s common sense to cultivate humility in our personal and professional dealings with others. He highlights the aesthetics of humility, not as an ornament to be worn, but as an inner virtue that is attractive to others. The historian in John comes to the fore as he reveals how humility wasn’t always a prized virtue in the ancient world. In fact, self-congratulation and boasting (that would often be despised today) was much more common and accepted in the ancient world. However, something happened to change this perspective, such that humility is widely recognised as a beautiful and desirable virtue today.

John presents a strong case for the impact of Jesus changing people’s perspective on humility in the first century. Mind you, he argues as a historian, and not as a preacher, Christian apologist or evangelist. This is not to say that Christians have a monopoly on humility – they certainly don’t! He writes…

My point is not that Christians alone can be humble; rather, as a plain historical statement, humility came to be valued in Western culture as result of Christianity’s dismantling of the all-pervasive honour-shame paradigm of the ancient world.

Put another way, while we certainly don’t need to follow Christ to appreciate humility or to be humble, it is unlikely that any of us would aspire to this virtue were it not for the historical impact of his crucifixion on art, literature, ethics, law and philosophy. Our culture remains cruciform, long after it stopped being Christian. (p112)

The latter chapters of the book reveal the some of the practical benefits of humility for life, love and leadership. I will simply refer to the chapter headings to highlight the trajectory of his arguments:

Chapter 7 – Growth: Why humility generates abilities.
Chapter 8 – Persuasion: How character determines influence.
Chapter 9 – Inspiration: How humility lifts those around us.
Chapter 10 – Harmony: Why humility is better than “tolerance”.
Chapter 11 – Steps: How it’s possible to become (more) humble.

I was anxious to dip into the final chapter and come away with some tips on becoming (more) humble! Something I need, I’m afraid to say – in fact, we probably all do. John leaves us with six thoughts to consider. Firstly, we are shaped by what we love. If humility doesn’t appeal, then we are hardly likely to become very humble. Secondly, reflect on the lives of the humble. Jesus, is undisputedly humble and reading the New Testament Gospels offers an excellent insight into humility in action. And, John mentions other more recent examples, people such as Mahatma Ghandi and Nelson Mandela, along with some notorious counter-examples! Thirdly, John suggests conducting thought experiments to enhance humility. Perhaps, another way to put this is, is to exercise our empathy muscles, so as to consider how we will relate with others in advance. Fourthy, act humbly. This doesn’t mean we should pretend. Faking it would hardly count as humility! Rather, humility becomes easier and a more natural response the more we put it into practice. Fifthly, he suggests we invite criticism. It’s not easy, and we won’t do it naturally, but seeking feedback from people you respect and trust is very worthwhile. And sixthly, forget about being humble. He quotes C.S. Lewis on this point:

If anyone would like to acquire humility… the first step is to realise that one is proud. (p183)

I found myself wanting to add another thought to this list. Pray. God wants to transform us into the likeness of his son, Jesus. The Bible teaches that to become more and more like Jesus involves becoming increasingly humble. So I recommend we ask God to grow an attitude of humility within us. In fact, I must confess to often praying something like: Dear God, please make me more humble, but without humiliating me. A dangerous prayer, perhaps!

This is a helpful book. It’s not a religious book, and it should appeal to people of many walks of life, cultural contexts, and different philosophical and religious persuasions. It’s a book I would recommend or offer to others, especially those in positions of leadership. As a Christian it whet my appetite to learn more of what God says about humility. To look more closely at the life and teaching of Jesus Christ, and what others have said about him, inside and outside the Bible (especially in the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippians). In fact, I would like to see a follow up or addendum to Humilitas. Perhaps John could produce a study guide, or discussion questions, or a specifically Christian booklet, that would take us deeper into the the Bible’s teaching on this important topic.

Body Image

Having cancer doesn’t do much for one’s body image. Shortly after coming home from hospital I visited a friend’s pool with my family. I’d undergone 2 surgeries and had some good looking scars where the tubes went between my ribs. I’d lost about 13 kilos, but without becoming trim and taut. It was like my muscles had melted and disappeared, and those that were left had slipped down my body and become fairly useless. I didn’t much like what I saw in the mirror. And neither did my youngest. Sitting beside the pool he said to me, “Just as well you’re married dad. Otherwise you’d never get anyone to marry you, looking like that!” Mmmm! 😦

And a strange thing happened on Saturday. We’d been out watching the Brumbies demolish the Rebels in an awesome game of rugby, and I came home planning to check out the highlights on the television. As I was watching the wrap up after the game, the camera showed one of the Rebels players speaking with a bloke wearing a Brumbies hoodie on the field. I looked closely trying to work out who it was. And then I realised… it was me! I didn’t recognise myself on the TV. A serious lack of hair. An unwanted increase in girth. And I seemed to have aged 10 years in 4 months.

Today I felt like a human pin cushion. One injection for blood tests. A cannula to pump radioactive fluid into my veins for CT scans to the torso and brain. A needle full of vitamin B12 to help me make blood cells. 29 acupuncture needles to strengthen my immune system and alleviate pain. Another 9 tiny needle tabs to continue the benefit of the acupuncture. All that in one day!

And the killer chemo drugs, the ‘weed killer’ they pump into my body. The steroids, anti-nauseals, antihistamines, pain killers, vitamins, iron tablets, herbal medicines, laxatives, reflux tablets, and more. My kitchen resembles a pharmacy. The only drug I enjoy is the one that comes out of the shiny machine in the corner!

It’s not just the treatments, or people’s comments, or looking at myself in the mirror. I know that things aren’t what they once were. Shortness of breath, aches and pains, muscular weakness, nanna naps during the day, waking up during the night to visit the toilet, and the list continues. I keep hoping things will get better, but they might not. Somethings improve, and others get worse. And I’m not going to reverse the ageing process. None of us are!

There are some things I can do. Eat less, or at least cut out some of the ‘comfort’ snacks. Exercise more, without compromising my capacity to recover from chemo and fight the cancer. Not get hung up about what I look like, although I am under instruction to have a shave every day!

Our culture makes things harder for us. We are obsessed with image. We idolise youth and we’re constantly being tempted by strategies to make ourselves look and feel younger. But, why can’t we face the reality? People get sick. People grow old. Bodies wear out. One day we’ll die. We don’t like it, and nor should we, but we can’t change it.

The Bible candidly reminds us of this reality. One day every one of us will die and meet our Maker. We’re called to live in the light of this reality, not to try to hide it or avoid it. The ageing process reminds us to consider God while we can, to enjoy God as we live this life. Not to ignore him, or put him off until it’s too late. As it says in the book of Ecclesiastes:

 1 Remember your Creator
in the days of your youth,
before the days of trouble come
and the years approach when you will say,
“I find no pleasure in them”—
2 before the sun and the light
and the moon and the stars grow dark,
and the clouds return after the rain;
3 when the keepers of the house tremble,
and the strong men stoop,
when the grinders cease because they are few,
and those looking through the windows grow dim;
4 when the doors to the street are closed
and the sound of grinding fades;
when men rise up at the sound of birds,
but all their songs grow faint;
5 when men are afraid of heights
and of dangers in the streets;
when the almond tree blossoms
and the grasshopper drags himself along
and desire no longer is stirred.
Then man goes to his eternal home
and mourners go about the streets.
6 Remember him—before the silver cord is severed,
or the golden bowl is broken;
before the pitcher is shattered at the spring,
or the wheel broken at the well,
7 and the dust returns to the ground it came from,
and the spirit returns to God who gave it.
(Ecclesiastes 12:1-7)

These words were written hundreds of years before Jesus. The author reflects on the meaningless emptiness he sees in life. Life’s experiences can be wonderful, they can be awful, but either way death bringing everything to a halt. We come and go so quickly, like a mist or a vapour. Death is the big full stop to life.

Jesus frees us from this depressing analysis. Life is no longer without meaning or purpose, because we see clearly that death is not the end. The resurrection of Jesus offers purpose and hope, both for this life and the life to come. We don’t have to panic and fight the decay of our bodies at all costs. This life matters deeply, but it’s not all there is.

The Apostle Paul speaks of our bodies as being like a tent, a temporary dwelling. He contrasts this with the image of a permanent home, a heavenly building, a resurrected body:

1 Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. 2 Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, 3 because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. 4 For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. 5 Now it is God who has made us for this very purpose and has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.
6 Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. 7 We live by faith, not by sight. 8 We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.  (2 Corinthians 5:1-8)

Jesus can free us from being obsessed with how we appear, with trying to stay young at any price. He can lift us beyond the depressing observation that one day we will be dead and gone, and ultimately forgotten. More than this, he reminds us that life is not all about our self image or how others see us. What matters much more is how God sees us, and what God is doing in and through us. If we’re willing to put our trust in Jesus, then we can be confident that…

Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. (2 Corinthians 4:16)

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