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)

QandA – Dawkins and Pell

As I watched QandA last night on television, I was reminded that Australia is a great country to live in. Professor Richard Dawkins, probably the world’s most famous atheist, debating Cardinal George Pell, head of the Roman Catholic Church in Sydney. Religions in conflict. Worldviews clashing. Freedom to speak your mind. This would never happen in some parts of the world. People are threatened with censorship, imprisonment, beatings, even death if they challenge another’s beliefs. Australia is a great country to live in because we are free to disagree. We are free to argue and persuade and critique and defend our beliefs. May it ever be so.

The debate itself left me somewhat disappointed. My chief concern was that Biblical Christianity was not well represented. Cardinal Pell made some curious comments about ‘atheists’ going to heaven, a place of purification for people not ready for heaven, bread and wine turning into the body and blood of Jesus, and the like. Dawkins was also bemused by Pell’s equivocation about a real Adam and Eve.

At times both Pell and Dawkins seemed to argue the case in areas beyond their expertise. Dawkins conceded that he was not a physicist as he sought to explain, in ‘layman’s terms’, how something can be created out of nothing. Pell got drawn into justifying scientific standpoints, when he was clearly unclear about the details. He had obviously done some homework in preparation for the debate, but it reminded me of a student swatting up a few exam questions, knowing they would likely come up. Dawkins was challenged with the ‘why’ question about existence. The question of meaning and purpose. His response was to ridicule the question as a ‘non-question’. At this point he had assumed his conclusion that there is no God. If you postulate a creator God, then the ‘why’ question is very meaningful indeed.

As could have been expected, Pell was challenged about his personal views on global warming, about the church’s attitude toward homosexual marriage, and there were snickers when he spoke of ‘preparing boys’ for their first communion. Sadly, religion was pitted against science, on the assumption that faith is incompatible with a scientific worldview. This wasn’t a debate of Christianity versus atheism. It was much murkier than this.

My biggest concern was that the very heart of Christian faith was largely ignored in this debate. While being promoted as an Easter edition of QandA, the events of Good Friday and Easter Sunday were not properly addressed. Sadly, it was Dawkins, not Pell, who most accurately described the meaning and significance of the cross for Christians. The Cardinal didn’t focus people’s attention on Jesus. The evidence of the empty tomb and the witnesses who claimed to have seen the risen Jesus didn’t rate a mention. All in all, it was most unsatisfying.

My hope and prayer is that this debate will stimulate discussion, thinking and investigation. There must be better answers than what we heard last night. What does the Bible actually say? Who was Jesus? How is it that one man has left a mark on billions? Are we simply the product of time plus matter plus chance? Is death really the end? Is there evidence that Jesus rose bodily from the dead? Is there more clarity available?

And for Christians, let’s open our Bibles and read. And let’s listen to what others are saying, to understand their arguments and concerns, and to seek to understand them. Let’s take the time to truly know more of what we believe and what others believe. Let’s take the opportunities to talk rationally and clearly about the genuine hope that we have. Let’s seek to point people to the one we follow, Jesus Christ. As the first follower of Jesus, the apostle Peter, said:

But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect…  (1 Peter 3:15)

Deliberate Simplicity

deliberate_simplicityThey say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but I confess to buying and reading this book because of its cover! Deliberate Simplicity – How the Church Does More by Doing Less is a catchy title and the image of the paperclip on the cover captures the essence of functional simplicity. This book aims at getting the church and its leaders to be intentionally aiming to fulfil our mission in the simplest ways possible.

Last year I focused on reading books and resources aimed at clarifying and refocusing our ministry. We seemed to be doing a lot, but it wasn’t always clear why we were doing what we were doing, or how some of the things we did related to other things we did. Life and ministry were feeling cluttered and busy, and I was keen to stocktake, prune, reorganise and rebuild for the future. I’m sorry that I didn’t know about this book then.

Deliberate Simplicity identifies six factors that describe the successfully Deliberately Simple church. These are:

Minimality – keep it simple.
Intentionality – keep it missional.
Reality – keep it real.
Multility – keep it cellular.
Velocity – keep it moving.
Scalability – keep it expanding.

Browning identifies these six things as his new equation for the deliberately simple church. He contrasts his approach with that of ‘traditional’ churches, mega churches, and other sorts of churches. At times there seems a measure of arrogance or smugness with his approach, like he has discovered the key to doing church properly, or that his ways reconnect with the church of New Testament times. However, despite the ‘we’ve got it right’ feel about the book, it does contain many helpful perspectives on church, and it offers a helpful diagnostic tool for refreshing our ministries. Let me share a few ideas that I found helpful from the different sections of this book.

Minimality

Deliberate Simplicity aims at restricting the activities of the church instead of expanding them. The goal is to prioritise what’s important and get rid of extraneous junk. Browning’s church values small groups as the centre of church life, so they deliberately remove things that get in the way of small groups functioning well.

The book rejects the way that many large churches have moved toward a professionalism that only allows for the most gifted and talented to be actively involved in ministry. In contrast to the ‘Search for Excellence’, they proclaim that ‘good enough is good enough’. The desire to have everything well resourced, carefully measured and planned can make churches too complicated. In contrast…

We keep asking, “What is the simplest thing that could possibly work?” We try to have just enough to facilitate our mission. Just enough money. Just enough time. Just enough leaders. Just enough space. Just enough advertising. We don’t want to stockpile assets.

They also aim for doctrinal simplicity, majoring on the majors, and not being dominated by peripheral teaching. While it’s true that there are doctrines central to Christian faith, and others are less so, we need to be careful here. I don’t know the teaching agenda of Browning’s church, but being too selective can easily lead to neglecting scripture that is difficult or awkward, and to merely preaching our hobbyhorses.

Intentionality

By making an up-front investment in unusual clarity, a Deliberately Simple church reaps the benefit of spending less time and energy trying to figure out what it’s trying to do and more time doing it.

This quote resonated with me. I look back over many years of ministry and think about how many things we’ve done that have been a waste of time, or a tangent to the main game, and how much has been absolutely central. I think some of our busyness and distractedness came about because we hadn’t adequately clarified or communicated our mission.

Peter Drucker says that every organisation needs to be able to answer two questions: What business are we in? and How’s business? We can’t answer the second unless we are clear on the first. Some of the books I’ve read on ‘church’ suggest that the answer to the first question is subjective, particular to each and every church. I disagree. The church belongs to God, and we’re called to be on about his business, not ours. The answer must come from the Bible. We’re called to discern God’s plans and purposes for his church, and then to put that into effect in our own context. The power of the vision lies in its divine origin. The role of the leaders is to align and engage the church with God’s vision.

Browning’s church is intentionally mission-focused. He sees the church existing for the sake of those who aren’t in it, and he prioritises outreach (care for those on the outside) over nurture (care for those on the inside). A big part of the pastor’s job is to keep the church focused on the outsider, because it is more natural and comfortable to look after our own needs first.

Reality

Many look at the church and see something that seems artificial, hypocritical or contrived. Why is that? If God is real, if the gospel is real, then why don’t Christians get real in how we go about church? Deliberate Simplicity is aiming for WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get). Our personal and public presentation should be sincere.

People need to understand that it’s not about religion. It’s about a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. It’s about loving God and loving people. Church should be come as you are. It should be an environment of grace. Posing and artificiality need to be rooted out. Church should be less like the formal living room, and more like the lived-in family room.

The reality of Christian faith and experience should come across in what we do and how we do it. Church shouldn’t be cluttered with fluff. At Browning’s church, straightforward messages are given in a normal tone of voice and in conversational style. I like that! Our sermons aren’t lectures. We’re not presenting papers to a symposium. We’re not reading someone else’s work. So let’s get real about how we communicate God’s word. My belief, is that we need to let God’s word work on us first, and thenwe are much more likely to communicate in a real way to others.

Multility

I didn’t recognise this word, and neither did my spell-checker. Browning defines it as…

mul•til•i•ty  n:  a commitment to multiples of something, instead of a larger version of that thing

He believes that more is better than bigger. This is a methodological commitment that differs from the megachurch approach. He illustrates this strategy by reference to the McDonalds restaurant franchise that keeps reproducing more of the same-size outlets in new locations, rather than up-sizing the outlets. He advocates a multi-location church, with multiple smaller centres, and multiple teachers and leaders, as the pathway for growing the church. His church has many such parts throughout the US and many other countries. He calls it a church, but I think I’d call it a denomination!

The rhetoric of this approach says more instead of bigger, ministries instead of programs, empower instead of control, prosumers instead of consumers, decentralised instead of centralised, and yes instead of no. Who can argue with that?! I’d be an idiot not to follow this model, wouldn’t I?!

There is much worth digesting in this section. It’s important to ask questions about our churches and our culture, about our ability and what we’re attempting to do, and about what is working and not working as we look at our church and others. As our churches get bigger, so they also need to get smaller. We need to keep people connected and engaged, to make it harder to be a passenger, and easier to be a participant.

Velocity

Many traditional churches don’t seem to change at all, and they take forever to do anything. By contrast, there’s a real energy in the Deliberately Simple church. They’re committed to growing, and growing quickly. They are always aiming for more – more people, more groups, more congregations, more people serving more people.

And they plan for this to happen. They keep asking questions like What will be need to do to double this congregation? This means they’re preparing for the future rather than simply catching up with the present. They see the need to let leaders lead, to streamline the organisation for action, to step out in faith, to be ready to respond to opportunities, and to keep the church from institutionalisation. These are risky ideals. But risks are needed.

I believe we need a greater sense of urgency in our churches. We move so slowly sometimes that it doesn’t seem like we’re moving at all. We act like we have all the time in the world. But, the truth is we don’t! We need to number our days, to seize our opportunities, to live as though each day is our last.

Scalability

Can the church think forward and outward instead of inward and backward? Can we start thinking about those we are to serve instead of how they can serve us?

The deliberately simple church is called to look beyond itself, to increase its reach and influence, to multiply and grow.

Browning uses the image of a network of ‘terror cells’ and flips it to describe the church. He calls us to create a ‘global unterror network’. His mandate for leaders is to create organisational structures that support consistent, small-scale, organic, growth in our churches. This contrasted with church structures where small congregations and groups exist to support hierarchy and bureaucracy at the top.

Perhaps controversially, he argues for rapid leader deployment. His model is IDTS (identify, deploy, train, support) rather than the traditional ITDS (identify, train, deploy, support). There’s a momentum in this approach that gets people engaged in ministry quickly. The one deployed is the one who understands the need to be trained. In my experience, we sometimes run training courses, qualify and equip people for ministry, but then fail to deploy them. Or else people get bored by the training and fail to take the next step into service. There’s much to be said for training on the job.

And so?

So what do we make of this book? It’s a stimulating read, littered with good ideas, helpful critiques and pithy quotes. But, I found it annoying too! I came away feeling like Browning thought he’d rediscovered the ‘right’ way to do church, especially when he described his church as being similar to the early church in the Book of Acts. I’m left with many questions about how things really work in practice, and whether there are substantial differences between what they are doing and many other churches.

I was left unsatisfied that the ‘equation’ of six factors really defines a Deliberately Simple church. It was hard to clearly distinguish between ‘multility’ and ‘scalability’. And I think six things isn’t simple enough. Our church once had a five point vision. We reduced it to four points, to make it more memorable and functional. Our last change was to get it down to three points, and I think people are starting to get it! But I do commend this book to church leaders. We could all do with little more deliberate simplicity.

Journey with cancer – Easter update

Dear family and friends,

This week marks 4 months since I was admitted to hospital with cancer and it’s certainly been quite a ride! We are so grateful for your ongoing prayers, support, encouragement and practical help from so many of you. It would be a very lonely experience without you.

I’ve just completed my fourth and final ‘full’ round of chemo – on carboplatinum, alimta and avastin. While this has knocked me round pretty seriously each time, I’ve been able to push on knowing that if it’s hurting me, then it should be hurting the cancer even more! Scans after the 2nd cycle showed that it was working, with the tumour shrinking substantially, and we are hoping for more of the same the next time around.

I go back for further scans on 16 April. They will do a CT of my chest and abdomen, so as to measure any reduction or growth of the tumour. They will also do a brain scan – just to check if I have one – so as to rule out any spread of the cancer! Please pray that the cancer will not have spread anywhere else in the body, and that the lung tumour will have shrunk even further.

The results of these scans will determine the best form of treatment to undergo next. Recent conversations with our oncologist suggest that they will simply drop out the carboplatinum and continue the other chemicals on a continued 3 weekly cycle. The idea is to try and keep the cancer from growing or spreading and, potentially God willing, to poison it out of existence. We don’t know how long this will continue, but we will have periodic scans to monitor what’s happening. Our hope and prayer is that these ‘maintenance cycles’ will have less severe side effects, and enable me to do a bit more.

On the family front, we continue to be encouraged. We thank God for our kids and continue to pray that God will help them to trust him through these events and circumstances. We’re all looking forward to a few days together at the south coast over the Easter week. A change of scenery, the beach, some surf, and some fish n chips, won’t do us any harm!

I’ve enjoyed getting back involved with some ministry at church and at the Brumbies. This has mainly involved meeting with people to encourage them, work through issues, or to discuss Christian beliefs. Ironically, having a life-threatening illness seems to open more doors than it closes. It has also been good to meet with some of the pastoral staff in a ‘mentor’ type capacity. After we get back from the coast I’m very excited to be giving my second talk for the year, on the topic of ‘Connecting’. You can tell I’m a frustrated preacher! Writing this blog is also becoming more and more enjoyable. Initially, I wasn’t keen to do it. In fact, I didn’t want to do it at all! But it’s been exciting to be able to encourage people, provoke their thinking, and support others in similar circumstances, through this medium.

Over the past few days, I’ve been involved in a few conversations about the heart of Christianity. Some have wanted to say that Christianity is just one religious phenomenon among others, that it’s not much more than good ethical teaching. Some have spoken of Jesus as an influential and important figure of history, but don’t believe we need to make anything more of him. I understand these perspectives are widespread and common,  but I worry about these assessments. I don’t think it’s fair to Christianity (or Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, or any other religion) to put all ‘religions’ in a bucket and assume they are different expressions of the same reality. Nor do I think it takes Jesus seriously to consider him ‘just a good man’ or an amazing moral teacher. A closer look at the New Testament reveals Jesus making claims to be God and the only way for people to know God personally. If I was to make these type of claims for myself today, then I think people would rightly see me as either crazy or dangerous – certainly not the ultimate good man.

Yesterday, I was having lunch with a mate, enjoying the beautiful sunshine. He and I believe very different things about God and Christianity. But we agree on one thing especially – the importance of keeping an open mind and being open to persuasion. In fact, it is very refreshing to be able to have honest conversation without covering over our differences. Can I ask you this week, is your mind open to the possibility that there is a God? Would you be willing to take a fresh look at the evidence for Christianity, at the claims and teaching of Jesus? Would you have a think about why Christians bizarrely call the execution day of Jesus, Good Friday? Would you consider the importance of this early * Christian record describing the events and meaning of the first Easter?

3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also… (1 Corinthians 15:3-8)

* The creed of verses 3-5 is normally dated before the year AD 35 by Christian and non-Christian historians alike.

The truth or otherwise of Christianity is inextricably linked to events of history. It cannot be detached and left in the realm of ideas or philosophy. If Jesus died for our sins, and if he was raised on the third day, then it makes all the difference. But, if there was no resurrection, if the whole thing has been made up or misunderstood, then we need to take these words seriously:

13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. (1 Corinthians 15:13-19)

Christianity is based on verifiable events. Historians engage seriously with this stuff. They check out the sources, both Christian and and non-Christian sources. They assess the possible explanations, consider the impact of the events, and weigh up the evidence. I’m encouraged that world-class historians take the person of Jesus and the Gospel documents very seriously as facts of history. The question is, what do they mean and what difference does it make?

I believe the answer is as big as the difference between life and death for all eternity and something that big has to be worthy of serious investigation.

As I reflect on life and death this Easter, my prayer continues to be that God will take away my cancer – that I will be fully healed. But I want you to know that I thank God that he has already taken away something far worse than my cancer. He has healed me from my sin, from my selfish hostility to him. And while the price of chemotherapy is very high, the price of my spiritual cure is unbelievable – that Jesus should give his life for me, dying in my place, on that first Good Friday.

My prayer for you is that this will be the best Easter you have ever known.

Love from Dave

Sticky teams

I’ve been a pastor in an independent church for some time now. We don’t own any property, but we’ve been meeting regularly in community centres, clubs, schools, and universities. Our church is free of many of the trappings and restrictions of traditional churches. We’re not big on ceremony. We’re not into dressing up to go to church. You don’t have to be a card-carrying member of a particular denomination to get involved. In fact, a lot of what we do is being worked out ‘on the run’ and could probably described as pretty amateur.

Our church culture and community doesn’t have a lot of history. We’ve had to invent a few wheels and learn a fair bit from trial and error. It’s not that we’re making up new doctrines or teaching. We’re not abandoning the traditional understanding of the Christian faith. In fact, we’re very keen to be shaped and directed by the Bible in all we believe. It’s more to do with how things are done around here. 

Many of my friends in ministry don’t have to think too much about leadership structures in their churches – they simply are what they are. They’re Presbyterian, so they have elders, sessions, presbyteries and committees of management. Or they’re Baptist, so they have deacons and congregational meetings and pastors and water! But how do things work when you’re independent?

Last year, I made a particular focus of reading widely on issues of leadership and church life. I read, so as to better diagnose our own condition and to digest ideas and input for moving our church forward. One book that was very stimulating and resonated with many of our issues and concerns was, Sticky Teams by Larry Osborne.

The basic idea of Sticky Teams is to achieve unity in alignment. Getting people on the same page, with the same goals, and headed in the same direction. In particular, it focuses on getting the church, the staff, and the governing body of the church united in vision and purpose. A number of our leaders read this book and they had various reactions to it. Some were sold on the ideas, while others were more reflective and circumspect. The value lies in working through these things together.

Unity is fundamental to the church. At heart, it’s not something we can create for ourselves, but something achieved by God himself. As it says in Ephesians 4:4-6:

4 There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called— 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

God unites Christians together spiritually, but then he calls us to live this out practically. It’s not enough to pay lip service to unity. It raises real challenges for how we treat one another, and how churches are to function. See the previous verses in Ephesians 4:1-3:

1 As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. 2 Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. 3 Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.

Osborne values three types of unity in the church – doctrinal unity (what we believe), respect and friendship (how we treat each other), and philosophical unity (how we do things around here). The importance of philosophical unity is often overlooked, but it is critical to getting people headed in the same direction. It is often harder to achieve than the first two.

There’s nothing academic about this book. It’s been worked out in practice and we’re invited to learn from the experience of the author. It offers many practical tips and great ideas that we might easily take for granted. For example, as we seek to build unity in our church leadership teams and meetings, consider if these issues might be making it hard:

Does our venue help or hinder our meetings?
Are we ignoring the relationships of the people on the team?
Are we meeting often enough or too often?
Is there a constant turnover of people or is it a closed group?
Are there too many members on the team to be productive?

If you want to avoid politics shaping the agenda of your church’s governing body, then there are lessons to be learned here. One gem, is the importance of looking for leaders, not representatives. Representatives are more likely to see themselves as lobbyists for their particular area. This can reinforce the silo mentality, polarise areas of the church, and hinder progress through controversial issues. Leaders should be people of spiritual maturity, who fit well into the team relationally and organisationally, and who are aligned with the vision of the church. And remember that CVs always look better than people, and that character matters more than ability.

Osborne offers helpful insight to how an organisation changes its shape and function as it grows. He illustrates this with a sporting analogy:

The changes we had to work through at each stage of growth resembled the changes an athlete must make every time he or she switches from playing one sport to another.

Growth produces predictable changes in the way leaders and leadership teams relate and carry out their functions, changes that are remarkably parallel to the changes an athlete must go through to transition from running track, to playing golf, basketball or football.

How does this translate? He sees a solo leader or pastor as being like a track athlete, who works with others, but basically performs alone. As things grow they become more relational, like a game of golf, where buddies work together doing much the same thing. As we grow further, we resemble more a basketball team, where complementary roles and positions are vital to making things work. With significant growth, multiple staff, congregations, departments and so on, the organisation resembles more the complexity of an American Football team. The important thing is that we must change as we grow, and we must help people navigate these changes.

There is so much detail in Sticky Teams worth digesting. But it’s also worth highlighting its overall shape and structure. There are three parts. The first highlights the problems, the second seeks to get people on the same page, and the third aims to keep people aligned. We mustn’t stop with the first bit. Diagnosing a problem is not enough – we need to prescribe a way forward. This book works to help us stay united through clarity about where we’re going, equipping people to get there, and communicating what is expected.

Sticky Teams can be treated as a workbook or a manual. It’s worth picking up again and again, reading and re-reading, with a highlight pen or a pencil. I suggest it’s best read in community with others – there are discussion questions at the back of the book. Remember, it’s not the Bible. It’s not fool-proof. And it’s not the only way to think about or do things. But it’s aim is to get us thinking and doing, and not to leave us stuck in the vortex that simply repeats the same old failures year after year.

Clumsy Christians

My experience of Christians is that many of them – including me – are really quite clumsy. Not literally stumbling or falling over ourselves, but often doing the social equivalent. We put our feet in our mouths, we make others feel uncomfortable, we have a knack of saying the right thing at the wrong time, and vice versa.

It may be the exuberant charismatic Christian who just assumes that everybody else is on the same page as them. It might be the type who drops Christian jargon and ideas into every conversation. It could be the awkward, shy, ‘uncomfortable to be around’ Christian. Or even the one who seems embarrassed to be, or at least to be known to be, a Christian.

I suspect that whether you’re a Christian, not a Christian, or not sure what you believe, you can at least identify with my experience. That is, we Christians can be quite clumsy. In fact, as I read back over this, I’ve used the word Christian eight times already – am I just proving my point?!

Of course, there are all kinds of reasons why some people gel together and others don’t. Like attracts like. We feel comfortable with our ‘tribe’. We get nervous around people we don’t understand. We fear the unknown. We want to be accepted, and fit in, and have people understand us – and sometimes we just try too hard. These things can be the same across all sorts of groupings – political, sporting, work, ethnic, hobbies, you name it. Sometimes it’s just really awkward to bridge the gap.

But, to be honest, these factors don’t get to the very heart of my clumsiness. I think there is something more profound that often makes things awkward for me in relating to others – and that is, what I believe. You see, I sincerely believe in many things that others will find quite unusual, maybe even absurd. Let me offer a list to start with:

I believe in God.
I believe he made everything.
I believe that he made everyone – including me and you – to be able to relate with him.

Apparently, most Aussies still believe something like this. But then my Christian beliefs start to get a little more uncomfortable, more pointed:

I believe we all push God to the periphery of our life, if not shut him out altogether.
I believe we get what we ask for when we choose to reject him, and it’s serious – separation from God in this life and beyond.
I believe that without God, we are without hope.

These beliefs are foundational, but they’re only the prelude to the most important message I want people to know and embrace:

God has not left us without hope.
He sent Jesus into this world so that we can know him.
Jesus was crucified to show us the depths of God’s love for us, to  personally pay the cost of our rejection of God, and to overcome all barriers separating us from God.
God physically raised Jesus to life, opening the door for us to have a genuine relationship with him, and real hope for life now and in eternity.

I know that when I speak with some of my friends about these beliefs they will glaze over. They won’t understand. They’ll put me in the weirdo box.  “He seems an otherwise normal bloke. How can he possibly believe this stuff?” Santa Claus, flat earth, tooth fairies, Harry Potter, religion, Jesus, resurrection!

Some probably think I’ve been brainwashed into believing a fiction, that I am willing to base my life on a myth or fantasy or fabrication. Some explain it to me as, “You’re into religion, but I’m not.”  Some of my friends might even feel a bit sorry for me. I don’t know!

Let me say this. I hope that none of my friends dismiss the Christian message simply because of my clumsiness. I pray they’ll put up with some of my mistakes, my awkwardness, even my selfishness, and hypocrisy… and look beyond me to Jesus.

As I read more and more of Jesus in the Bible, so I get to know the one who came to bring reconciliation, to break down walls and hostility. He is the one who made religious people uncomfortable, and yet welcomed the outcasts and despised. Jesus connects people to God. He breaks through our tribes and divisions. He builds genuine community. I’ve seen and experienced this in profound ways, that cross all kinds of barriers and boundaries. In fact, this community and depth of relationship has been one of the real joys of my Christian experience. My desire is to enjoy this more and more – not by keeping things ‘in house’, but by sharing the reality with others.

I’ll keep making mistakes. I don’t want to, or plan to… I just will!

Please, don’t be put off by my Christian clumsiness.

Don’t waste your sport

dont-waste-your-sports

I’ve always loved sport. Playing it, watching it, watching my kids play, cheering on my favourite team or athlete. Sport is one of the great pleasures God has given us to enjoy. Playing sport keeps us healthy, entertained, connected with others. But like so many of God’s wonderful gifts, we can get into trouble when we start to replace the giver with his gift. If my passion for rugby, or fishing, or golf, or cycling began to overtake my passion for my wife, then I’m sure you’d agree that I’d developed a big problem. My worry is that we can do this with God and not even notice.

Last year I picked up a helpful little book called Don’t waste your sports, by an American author called C.J. Mahaney. Yes, I am a fan of small books! I’d like to spotlight this book for a few reasons. It addresses the young person feeling their way in the world of sport and grappling with their identity and self-esteem. It has wise words for parents about how we encourage and shape our kid’s lives and values. It will challenge the elite athlete with their aspirations and goals.

As a ‘would have been/could have been’ sports person, as a father of some very capable athletes, and as a chaplain to elite sports people for over a decade – I’ve found this booklet to make a wise contribution to an issue we rarely consider. Mahaney introduces his booklet with these words:

Athletes, this booklet is for you. Parents and discussion leaders, this booklet is also for you. It’s for anyone who wants to learn, or help others to learn, about what it means to let a right knowledge of God shape the way we practice and play our sports.

Sport seems to be able to bring out the best and the worst in people. One of the most moving images I’ve seen in sport was a paralympic race when a competitor fell, the others stopped, picked him up and they all finished the race together, arm in arm. Of course, this is contrasted with an arrogant pride that we see in some of the most highly paid and acclaimed sports people.

It’s important for us to remember that God is our creator, we are his creatures, and he has given us his good creation to enjoy responsibly. This booklet is anchored on a Bible verse that puts our lives into perspective.

So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. (1 Corinthians 10:31)

Whether it’s cricket, tennis, basketball, motor racing, rugby, swimming, athletics, surfing, soccer, AFL, darts… each of them is a gift from God. They can be enjoyed and used to bring honour and glory to God, or they can be used to replace God and to seek to bring honour and glory to us. These are the extremes.

This booklet offers helpful direction to those wanting to honour God with their sport. We should start by thanking God for his gifts and the opportunities he gives us. Thank him for the fun it brings, the rest, the refreshment, the opportunity to keep in good health, and the joy it brings to ourselves and others.

Humility is the key to glorifying God with our sport. Mahaney suggests what this might look like on the field:

The humble athlete recognises his limitation.
The humble athlete welcomes correction and critique from coaches and teammates.
The humble athlete acknowledges the contributions of others.
The humble athlete is gracious in defeat and modest in victory.
The humble athlete honours his coach.
The humble athlete respects officials.
The humble athlete gives glory for all his athletic accomplishment to God.

I’ve noticed that Aussies can be rather cynical of Christians in sport. We don’t quite know how to respond when a South Pacific team kneels down to pray after a game, or when a rugby player points to heaven when he’s scored a try, or when a winning athlete thanks God during an interview with the press. But this booklet is talking about more than the public displays of faith in God. It’s about addressing our hearts, who we are, what we are living for, who and what matters most. When we lose touch with God we go searching for replacements and, where I come from, sport is a prime candidate.

So, don’t waste your sport. Recognise God’s gift to you, thank him for it, and seek to play, watch, support and use your sport in a way that honours him.

Beyond the darkness

I spent Tuesday in hospital getting my final ‘full-dose’ chemo treatment. Apparently, limiting this treatment to 4 cycles is the optimum and, if the cancer is not advancing, then they intend to keep me on a 3 weekly ‘maintenance’ chemo plan. This is supposed to reduce the impact of side effects, while preventing the cancer from growing or spreading further. The medical expectation is that the cancer will grow again at some point, and then I will be offered other options. We are hoping to be able to access a specially targeted drug, called Crizotinib, which is showing very good results in people with my specific cancer mutation. This should be available if there is evidence that the tumour is growing again – a bit of a Catch 22 really! But all this lies ahead of us.

This morning I received an email from a good friend overseas. In fact, he sent it three times, so I am guessing he really wanted me to take notice! This is part of what he wrote…

The comment you sent to me via Facebook about dark times and tears made me realize the deep personal struggle you are going through. Just wanted to encourage you to dip into that more as you write, because it counts for a lot. My feeling is that most people live in that realm, whether they have cancer or not. While the analogy doesn’t directly apply, I think it conveys the point: life is more Daily Telegraph than Sydney Morning Herald… or worse still!

I’ve been reflecting on this a bit. My desire is not to continually focus on myself as I write this blog. But I am seeking to be a blessing to others and that means being honest about the ups and downs. Not that everything needs to get said, and not that everything should be revealed in a public forum, but I will share a bit about the dark times.

On my first day in hospital, hearing that I likely had cancer a was huge thing. No one wants to hear the words tumour or cancer, and certainly not about themselves or someone they love. Tears welled up instantly, feelings of massive loss, fears for my kids, and my wife… they all flooded in. Seeing the tears in the eyes of my family and the friends who came to visit added to the pain. We were dealing with a bombshell and it was so hard.

My time in hospital was supposed to be pretty straightforward. Drain the fluid, be out in a few days. I even remember telling our church staff that I should be right to speak the following weekend! But it didn’t go to my plan. I got sicker and weaker. Instead of my health improving, I just seemed to go backwards. At times I couldn’t even walk to the bathroom, or adjust my posture in bed. It was an effort to breath, painful to yawn and cough (let alone sneeze), and hard to talk with people when hooked up to oxygen. My digestive organs decided to shut up shop and 10 days of constipation resulted in violent vomiting. Immediately after one vomiting episode I was taken for a chest x-ray (why it had to be right then I do not know!) where I collapsed, resulting in an emergency team rushing to my aid. I started to think I wasn’t going to make it out of hospital.

My ignorance of medical things also added to my fears. On one occasion I saw my chest x-rays while they were being processed. I only had one functioning lung – the other had collapsed! I honestly thought, this meant I didn’t have much hope. For some reason, I assumed that I needed two good lungs to be able to breathe. Fiona set me straight on this and also pushed me to work hard on breathing exercises to get the lung re-inflated!

On one occasion they changed my drugs and this led to hallucinations. I don’t think I’d experienced this before. Dreams that you can’t turn off, even with your eyes wide open. It was a long, lonely, scary night being faced with weird and frightening experiences coming one after another.

Perhaps, the hardest experience in hospital was my first contact with the oncologist and his team. Up until their visit, things had focused pretty much exclusively on the surgery and the chest drains, and I hadn’t had to think too much about the cancer. This changed dramatically, as I was quickly told that that my cancer was incurable. I didn’t understand why they weren’t offering me hope of a cure (or for that matter why I needed to be told this on a first consult and without Fiona present), but this news was devastating!

Being faced with my mortality has led to some very sad times. In my weakness, sometimes I have become sullen, grumpy, melancholic, perhaps even depressed. I’ve often grieved what I may never be able to do, the loss of time with family and friends, not being able to do a lot of the fun things people do with their kids, or thinking of life events I may never be a part of. There have been times when I’ve felt a burden and useless, and thoughts have turned to thinking people would be better off without me. I’ve been reduced to tears – uncontrollable sobbing, overwhelmed, sometimes crying out in agony, God please help me! Fiona has been fantastic at urging and helping me not to slide into self-obsession or depression. And I’ve asked a couple of friends to keep an eye on me too.

I don’t want to go on and on in this vein but I must say that there’ve been some times when the struggle has been deeply spiritual. God has seemed very remote. His plans and purposes for me have been very unclear. I’ve had days where I’ve seriously questioned his existence, or the truthfulness of the gospel message. Does God love me, care for me? Can I trust him with my life, my death, my future, my family? Isn’t it a bit weird to base my confidence on the Bible, written so many hundreds of years ago? Did Jesus live? Was he crucified? Did he actually rise again from the dead? Is he alive today? Such ideas can seem pretty weak and foolish, and not exactly a confident platform to stake my life on.

I’ve found myself going back to the Bible and reading things over again. I’ve looked at interviews with leading historians and Biblical scholars. I’ve weighed up some of the critiques and arguments of sceptics and naysayers. And I’ve searched my heart. And in doing this, I’ve been encouraged to keep trusting in God and his promises.

Over the years a few Bible verses have spoken to me in the midst my struggles and doubts. Let me share a couple. The first is the response of a father, hoping that Jesus can help his son, where he says in Mark 9:24, “I believe; help my unbelief!” I’ve often identified with this man. Those who’ve told me it’s the strength, or otherwise, of my faith that will determine whether God will act (or even can act) need to reread this verse and see Jesus’ compassion in response to the man’s wavering. It’s not my faith that compels God to act. Rather it is God’s faithfulness to his character and promises that leads me to keep trusting in him.

Another part of the Bible I’ve found helpful comes from an incident after the resurrection. Jesus had recently appeared to many of his followers, but Thomas wasn’t with them, and he was unpersuaded that Jesus had really been raised from the dead. We read of this in John 20:24-29.

24 Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.”

26 Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them.Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said,“Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”

Hence, Thomas becomes the disciple famous for doubting. Maybe you can relate to this too. But it’s the next comment from Jesus that has always given me encouragement and hope. Jesus understood it was hard for Thomas to be persuaded, but he also acknowledged that it would be hard for all who came after him. We sometimes say seeing is believing, but when we’re dealing with history before cameras and video, it becomes more a case of reading or hearing is believing. This doesn’t make it less true, it just means that our evidence is in a different form to that offered to Thomas. We get it as a record from the first eye, ear and hand witnesses, that has been recorded and passed on to us. Just because I wasn’t there doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

29 Jesus said to him,“Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

I’ve also gone back over some of the Psalms from the Old Testament. Many of these are are open and honest accounts of people who are struggling to trust God in their difficult circumstances. Sometimes they question and challenge God. Sometimes they plead with God to do something about their circumstances. Sometimes they call for justice or mercy from God. What has struck me personally is that the writers are not afraid to let God know their thoughts and feelings, even when they are unhappy with God. They grapple with their struggles, but then they remind us of the way forward. Hope is not ultimately found in improving their condition or circumstances, but by resting in the trustworthy promises of God.

Soon after I became aware of my cancer a friend encouraged me to read over Psalm 62 again. I take heart from what this part of the Bible teaches us about God. It honestly shows the writer overwhelmed by how God appears to be standing back and allowing him to suffer, and yet it takes us back to the character of a God who can be trusted because he is both strong and loving. Have a read…

1 My soul finds rest in God alone;
my salvation comes from him.
2 He alone is my rock and my salvation;
he is my fortress, I will never be shaken.

3 How long will you assault a man?
Would all of you throw him down—
this leaning wall, this tottering fence?
4 They fully intend to topple him
from his lofty place;
they take delight in lies.
With their mouths they bless,
but in their hearts they curse.

5 Find rest, O my soul, in God alone;
my hope comes from him.
6 He alone is my rock and my salvation;
he is my fortress, I will not be shaken.
7 My salvation and my honor depend on God;
he is my mighty rock, my refuge.
8 Trust in him at all times, O people;
pour out your hearts to him,
for God is our refuge.

9 Lowborn men are but a breath,
the highborn are but a lie;
if weighed on a balance, they are nothing;
together they are only a breath.
10 Do not trust in extortion
or take pride in stolen goods;
though your riches increase,
do not set your heart on them.

11 One thing God has spoken,
two things have I heard:
that you, O God, are strong, 
12 and that you, O Lord, are loving.
Surely you will reward each person
according to what he has done.

If God were strong but not loving, then he would be nothing less than a danger to everyone. If he were loving but not strong, then he could offer us sentiment but no help. The Bible affirms he is both strong and loving, infinitely so, and it is here that we find our true hope. I need look nowhere else. My experience of God is that he is both strong and loving. And I see this most clearly and persuasively in the death and resurrection of Jesus, where he paid the cost for my rebellion and offered me life for eternity.

When all else fails

You’ve probably heard the saying “When all else fails, pray!” I’ve heard it said many times and I’ve even seen it printed on a bumper sticker. What a stupid idea it is! If prayer works, if we can actually speak to the God of this universe, if he cares for us and desires to give us what we need, then why wouldn’t we do it first? Why make it a last resort? Why ignore prayer until we’ve exhausted all our other options?

And of course, if prayer doesn’t work, if we’re just speaking into the air, if it’s nothing more that mystical wishful thinking, then why bother praying at all? We may as well use our time more productively.

So how do we know if prayer is of any use? Does God hear our prayers, does he care about our requests, and does he respond to the things we ask? The answer to this doesn’t lie simply in my (or your) personal experiences. To be honest, for me, sometimes it seems like God does hear and respond, and at other times he seems awfully silent. Rather, the answer is to be found by looking at what we know about Jesus. Jesus believed in prayer, and he made a priority of praying. I take it that no one knows God better than Jesus, so he’s worth observing on this matter.

Firstly, Jesus, himself prayed to God. In his life on earth he was dependent upon his Father in heaven. When he was absolutely flat out and people were demanding more and more of his time, he took time out to pray.

Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. (Mark 1:35)

Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed. (Luke 5:16)

Secondly, Jesus showed his dependence upon God by praying at key times in his life and ministry.

When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:21-22)

One of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God. When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them, whom he also designated apostles. (Luke 6:12-13)

So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face. Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.” (John 11:41-43)

Thirdly, Jesus spent time praying for others.

But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers. (Luke 22:32)

My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. (John 17:20)

Finally, as Jesus came to the climax of his life and mission, as he faced crucifixion and then hung upon the cross, he prayed.

Jesus went out as usual to the Mount of Olives, and his disciples followed him. On reaching the place, he said to them, “Pray that you will not fall into temptation.” He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” (Luke 22:39-42)

Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots. (Luke 23:34)

Jesus called out with a loud voice,“Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last. (Luke 23:46)

These examples show us that Jesus believed that prayer was real and important. He knew  God, the Father, more intimately than any of us and he spoke with him and depended upon him. Prayer, for Jesus, was not always getting what he wanted, but humbly submitting to the will of his Father, even in the face of his own death upon the cross.

What’s more, he encouraged his followers to pray, and to pray with humility.

And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. (Matthew 6:5-8)

Jesus taught his disciples how to pray, providing them with a model that focused on the will of God.

This, then, is how you should pray:

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. (Matthew 6:9-13)

Jesus reminds us that God can be trusted to give us what is genuinely good for us, in answer to our prayers. We may not get the answer we want, but we can trust God to give us what we need.

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened. Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! (Matthew 7:7-11)

I have learned to trust Jesus, especially on the matter of relating to God. For this reason, I will continue to pray, bringing my requests before my Father in heaven.

In recent times I have been moved to pray more for others. I’ve been asking God to work in the lives of family and friends, and even complete strangers. To comfort and encourage people. To heal people or take away their pain. To make himself known to people, to break through their cynicism, or to answer their questions or doubts. I’ve been challenged and encouraged to pray that God will bring honour upon himself in the way he deals with me and others. And I’m learning, day by day, to trust that his answers will be the best ones.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThese last few months, I have been deeply humbled to know that so many have been praying for me and my family. People we’ve never even met from all over the world have been interceding for us. We don’t deserve this attention. But then, God wants to hear these prayers, even more than we are prepared to ask them. So please continue to pray.

And if you’re not persuaded there is a God, or that you can have a relationship with him, or that he hears our prayers, or that he wants what is truly best for you… I recommend you pray… just start talking! And check out the evidence in the Bible, starting with biographies of Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke or John.

God, if you’re there, then please make yourself clear to me. If you can hear me, then please let me know. Please answer my doubts. Please help me to know the truth about Jesus, about myself, and how I can have a real relationship with you.

Who’s holding the umbrella?

As a ministry apprentice in the mid 80s, I was introduced to the idea of ‘holding the umbrella’ for others to do ministry. My pastor modelled this idea in his own leadership. His desire was not only to see people trained, but also to create opportunities for them to exercise their gifts and talents in serving God. This he did over many years with literally hundreds of people. I have sought to emulate this in my ministry.

Around this time I was given a copy of a book by Bill Yaeger called Who’s holding the umbrella? My friend, who gave me this book, had visited Yaeger’s church, seen his ministry in action, and described the man as “a cross between General Patton and Bill Cosby”. The book shows him to be a no-nonsense, hard-core leader, who has a deep commitment to people. It remains one of the most helpful and influential books that I’ve read on the topic of leadership. Written in 1984, it’s now been out of print for sometime. However, you can still find used copies of Yaeger’s book online, and its well worth your time and money to get hold of one. Most of the language throughout the book is masculine, but so much of his wisdom is equally applicable for men and women serving God in ministry roles.

Yaeger’s thesis for leadership is that it is doesn’t require a particular personality type to be done well. But rather it is born of conviction – quiet qualities that burn like a ‘fire in the soul’. He introduces the idea of the umbrella man as:

… a term I use for the leader who gives himself to the ministry of Christ in such a way that he equips believers and provides abundant opportunities for them to serve. His ministry is spread out like a canopy or protective umbrella, under which others can grow and flourish – and eventually become leaders themselves. (pages 20-21)

The outline for leadership in this book is anchored in the teaching of the Bible, and the leader is called to make the Bible central to all he does. He is to be a servant who puts others before themselves. He is to be a shepherd who oversees and protects. He is to be an equipper who provides for and makes room for the ministry of others. As he does this, Yaeger doesn’t believe that he will ever work himself out of a job. Rather, his umbrella will just keep getting bigger and his opportunities for service will keep increasing.

Unlike a lot of newer books on leadership in the church, Yaeger does not assume the content of ministry. He emphasises the importance of Word ministry, leading through preaching and teaching. He establishes priorities, beginning with equipping every member of the church to be able to witness to the saving work of Jesus. He focuses on discipleship, that means teaching, equipping and training people to be able to use their gifts in service. He determines how they should use their staff, program and facilities to achieve their vision and goals. He also works out how to deal with decay, removing the things that are crippling the church.

Yaeger is not afraid to ask hard questions of leaders. Are they accountable and to whom?   Is he responsible and does he act responsibly? Can he handle authority without becoming authoritarian? He talks about the strength of humility and the importance of principled rather than expedient leadership. Leadership should be inspirational, leading by example:

When you have to get men into a tough situation, you can’t send them there, but you can take them there.

Selecting suitable leaders is an important task for the umbrella man. Seek out motivated people, with proven godliness and spiritual maturity. Prospective leaders should be emotionally stable, servants not prima donnas, and not have critical spirits. They should have the gifts and abilities required to lead others in their area of ministry. He spotlights the following list of requirements for Christian leader effectiveness, and each of them are worth exploring further:

  1. faithfulness
  2. availability
  3. teachability
  4. self-motivation
  5. industry
  6. innovation
  7. productivity
  8. like-mindedness
  9. interaction
  10. seasoning
  11. stewardship
  12. devotion
  13. camaraderie

Yaeger is a strong advocate of standing by and supporting your leaders. The good umbrella man will be prepared to back up his leaders. He stresses that workers need to know that their tasks are worth doing. They should be respected so that they are encouraged to serve with dignity and joy. A word of appreciation and recognition is a breath of life. Communication is an absolute necessity for staff  and leadership relationships, and this needs to start with the leader. Regular meetings are essential for people to stay connected, and he identifies the value of teams getting away together regularly for what he calls staff attacks (he doesn’t like the idea of retreats)!

These days many books have a very short shelf life. Some of them are such rubbish that they don’t deserve to stick around. This book is different. It combines the wisdom of the Bible with the practical experience of a leader seeking to lead others faithfully. Whether you are a Christian leader starting out, or a seasoned senior pastor, its well worth a read. See if you can track yourself down a copy.

On my way to heaven

Have you ever been given a gift by someone you’ve only just met? Last year my friend and colleague in Christian ministry was given two copies of the same book by a person they didn’t know. It was a short book written by the guy’s recently deceased minister, Mark Ashton. The book was called On my way to heaven. My friend had no idea why he was being given one copy of this book, let alone two! That is, until he returned to Australia and a few days later discovered that I had been diagnosed with a ‘terminal’ cancer. He realised, in God’s providence, that he’d been given a copy for me too!

This is another little book that punches well above its weight. It’s only 24 pages long, and printed in large type. (Makes it easier for me to keep reading and reviewing books!) I would assume that the title of this of this book will be very confronting to many. Either because it presents us again with our mortality. Or, perhaps, because it seems so presumptuous – how can anyone be sure they are headed for heaven? Isn’t this is an arrogant claim?

On this latter point, the answer is very clear in the Bible. A Christian is not a religious person, trusting in their moral performance to be offered a place in heaven. Rather a Christian is one who has received forgiveness from God for having ignored him or pushed him away. This forgiveness is a completely free gift from God, that can be received by all who put their trust in Jesus to lead them and rescue them from God’s judgment. The New Testament makes it clear that the death and resurrection of Jesus, events that took place in human history, have a direct bearing on you and me today. Jesus died to pay the cost for our rejection of God, and God raised him to life to destroy the power that death has over us. A Christian is not a ‘self-righteous’ person, but one who has been given a pardon by God.

On the former point, Mark Ashton wants to do exactly this – get us to think seriously about where we’re headed. The one thing we can be assured of in this life is that one day it will come to an end. It may be later, or it may be sooner than we’d like. But it will happen. It often surprises me how much time and energy people (including me) spend distracting themselves with the unimportant and the trivial. We get all focused on ourselves, our hobbies, our bits and pieces, our aspirations for wealth or achievement or recognition, and we give little or no time to considering the profound question of what happens when we die. Please, if you you are avoiding this question – don’t! It’s too important!

Ashton was diagnosed with an incurable cancer of the gall bladder in 2008, informed that he had only months to live, and he passed away in 2010 at the age of 62. His book offers us a window into his thinking, his struggles and his faith over the final months of his life. I was deeply moved as I read how he faced death as a Christian believer.

The core of this book is Ashton’s conviction that resurrection awaits him. This is the basis of his hope and it is grounded in the evidence of the early witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus. He does not dread death, or seek to extend his life at all costs, but rather sees resurrection as a prospect to be welcomed.

He doesn’t gloss over the hardship of sickness. Throughout his life he, like most of us, expected to recover from whatever sickness or injury he experienced. He’d rest up until he got better. But he came to know that he wasn’t going to get better, the cancer wasn’t going to go away, and that he was dying day by day. This is something I’ve also been coming to grips with. Physical pleasures such as eating, exercising, or resting, no longer offered the enjoyment they once did. He came to appreciate that they were God’s gift for a time, but not for all time. His love, affection, and appreciation for his wife and family was deepened over this time, but be also came to grasp that relationship with God gave meaning to them all.

Ashton is honest about his failures and foibles in life. He gently points out that funeral eulogies rarely present an honest picture of the person’s life. They end up magnifying the good points and excluding the bad (and maybe this is appropriate). But he leaves us in no doubt that he wants to be remembered not as a flawless saint, but as a forgiven sinner.   God enabled Mark Ashton to be focused on others as he faced his final days. This is his prayer:

It is my prayer for my family and friends, that my death will be for them all a great strengthening and clarifying of their relationship with Jesus. Amen. (p24)

I agree!

Don’t waste your cancer

I mentioned to a friend at the Oxygen conference last year that my father had cancer and was receiving treatment. He then asked if I’d read a little booklet by John Piper called Don’t waste your cancer. I hadn’t heard of it and, to be honest, I found the idea of the book a bit too intense. Maybe he picked up on this because soon after the conference he made contact with me to apologise if he’d been insensitive in speaking of it.

What I didn’t realise at the time was that I also had cancer growing inside me. I don’t think I’d even begun to put myself into my father’s shoes, to understand what he was going through. ‘Cancer’ was just a word – mind you a scary word. If I’d got hold of Piper’s book and given it to my father back then, it would have been rather academic, simply passing on the ideas of someone else. Of course, things are very different now. I’ve read the book, and passed it on ‘carefully’ to one or two others, including my dad (who is now in remission).

This was the first book that I read after being released from hospital – helped by the fact that it is only 15 pages long! It crams 11 chapters into its tiny size, but each one packs a punch, and really needs to be considered slowly and carefully. I don’t think this is a book for everyone. It’s useful and true, but I think to make the most of this book, you need to have begun to experience something of the pain and tragedy that gives rise to it. This is a booklet for Christians with cancer or some other serious condition, for their families and carers, for Christian doctors or medical staff, for pastors, and for people who want to seriously encourage those struggling with their suffering in a context of faith.

Let me offer you a snapshot of the booklet by outlining the title of each chapter:

We waste our cancer…

  1. if we don’t hear in our groanings the hope-filled labor pains of a fallen world.
  2. if we do not believe it is designed for us by God.
  3. if we believe it is a curse and not a gift.
  4. if we seek comfort from our odds rather than from God.
  5. if we refuse to think about death.
  6. if we think that “beating” our cancer is staying alive rather than cherishing Christ.
  7. if we spend too much time reading about our cancer and not enough time reading about God
  8. if we let it drive us into solitude instead of deepen our relationships with manifest affection.
  9. if we grieve as those who have no hope.
  10. if we treat our sin as casually as before.
  11. if we fail to use it as a means of witness to the truth and the glory of Christ.

In some ways I’m not ready to review this book. I’m still working through each of the points. It’s one thing to give intellectual assent to an idea and another thing altogether to live it out. But I have come to appreciate the tough love in many of these reflections.

God has been pushing me to look forward to heaven. When life is so good here and now, it is hard to consider eternity with him as something better. He has been helping me to move through the pain and grief, to focus less on myself, and to appreciate him and all that he’s given me. God has been helping me to love what is good and hate what is evil, even as I see it in my own heart. I’m realising more and more that my hope lies not in medical advances, but in the death and resurrection of Jesus. I’m reminded that grief is normal, appropriate and healthy, but that I can grieve with a hope grounded in God’s promises.

The five dysfunctions of a team

My wife thought that my last book review was a bit random in a blog that had focused so far on our personal journey! But my plan is to include diversity and focus on a range of issues. In particular, I’m keen to spotlight books on a range of topics that I believe will be helpful to others. As I’ve spent nearly all my working life as a church pastor, I hope to review a number of books on topics such as ministry, leadership, teamwork, theology, church and the like.

One of the most readable and helpful books I’ve found on the topic of teamwork is Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A leadership fable. I read the book cover to cover in one sitting at my favourite coffee shop. In fact, I remember wishing that all books were written like this one. Hook you in with a story, keep you wanting to know what happens next, develop the key points throughout the story, and then summarise the theory at the end. More importantly, I was hooked because I could see myself in the story. I could relate each of his points to our staff teamwork (or lack thereof). I knew that this was a book that I would keep buying and giving others to read. I got hold of a video of Lencioni teaching on the topic and we had a staff retreat to discuss our teamwork. I purchased the workbook and have used it in team contexts. I’ve given the book to rugby players and coaches, pastors, headmasters, CEOs and other team leaders. And I’ve recently ordered the Manga version!

The easiest way to summarise the content is by quoting from a brief article on Lencioni’s own website:

Dysfunction #1: Absence of Trust

This occurs when team members are reluctant to be vulnerable with one another and are unwilling to admit their mistakes, weaknesses or needs for help. Without a certain comfort level among team members, a foundation of trust is impossible.

Dysfunction #2: Fear of Conflict

Teams that are lacking on trust are incapable of engaging in unfiltered, passionate debate about key issues, causing situations where team conflict can easily turn into veiled discussions and back channel comments. In a work setting where team members do not openly air their opinions, inferior decisions are the result.

Dysfunction #3: Lack of Commitment

Without conflict, it is difficult for team members to commit to decisions, creating an environment where ambiguity prevails. Lack of direction and commitment can make employees, particularly star employees, disgruntled

Dysfunction #4: Avoidance of Accountability

When teams don’t commit to a clear plan of action, even the most focused and driven individuals hesitate to call their peers on actions and behaviors that may seem counterproductive to the overall good of the team.

Dysfunction #5: Inattention to Results

Team members naturally tend to put their own needs (ego, career development, recognition, etc.) ahead of the collective goals of the team when individuals aren’t held accountable. If a team has lost sight of the need for achievement, the business ultimately suffers.

As our staff team explored these ideas together we recognised each of these dysfunctions in varying degrees. We wouldn’t have said that we lacked trust in each other, but the fact that we avoided conflict showed we did. We’d describe ourselves as a team, but in some ways we were functioning as a bunch of individuals who got together now and again. It would often take forever for us to make changes or implement ideas, and yet we’d claim to be focused on getting things done.

This book has been around for a few years now and my guess is that many of you will have read it and found it helpful. But if you haven’t got into it, then let me give it a rap by sharing a few stories.

A senior pastor friend was sharing with me about how his staff team was fragmented, with one person in particular only interested in his own agenda. Everyone was uncomfortable with the dynamic that had set in, but no one knew how to address it. I sent my friend a DVD of Lencioni speaking on this topic and a copy of the book. The team watched the video and it was like having a consultant critique the team, and highlight the dysfunctional behaviour. The book then offered a framework for moving forward.

Another friend heads up an international software company. To describe the employees as a team is probably pushing it because the people don’t spend much physical time together. Some of them do, and a couple of them were creating chaos by refusing to communicate with each other. My friend was required to fly across to the other side of the world to resolve a spat between highly intelligent professional people who were refusing to talk with each other! So I gave him a copy of the book to read on the plane. He found it gave him a framework to tackle the issues and break the impasse.

Sometime back we were interviewing people for a job as an associate pastor. I stressed that team work was important to us, and asked each applicant to take a look at the Five Dysfunctions and discuss them with me. I was determined to find a team player. One of the applicants seemed very unimpressed with the model and I chose not to offer him the job. Interestingly, he got another job, but quickly decided that he didn’t really want to be a part of that team and went off on his own.

Our church is somewhat complicated. We have multiple congregations, various age-specific ministries, dozens of leaders, small groups, and a large staff team. Team work is vital. A challenge to us has always been engaging the staff and key leaders together in team work when the focus in on areas outside their direct responsibility. This book, and another by Lencioni called Silos, Politics, and Turf Wars, has been so helpful in drawing people together. It has reminded us that a win in the youth area is a win for the whole church. A struggle to ‘connect’ people into the church community has a direct bearing on every other area of church life. Everything is connected and you need a strong team to make it work. Lencioni kept pushing us to value each member of the team.

Teamwork is something that ought to be a hallmark of a church, or a ministry staff. And yet sadly, many of us know too well the pain of relationship breakdowns, competition for resources, and clashes of vision and priorities (our church included). I recommend getting a dose of Lencioni!

Of course, the best of this wisdom is but a pale reflection of the teaching of the Bible on teamwork. God has called people into relationship with each other, to be part of a body, a community, a team. As it says in 1 Corinthians 12:24-27:

24 … God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honour to the parts that lacked it, 25 so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. 26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.
27 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.

Journey with cancer DV 20 Mar 2012

Dear family and friends,

Today is day 14 of my 3rd chemo cycle. The cycle starts with a day in hospital attached to a drip with nasty chemicals being pumped into the body. Then a roller coaster for the next 3 weeks, before you do it all over again. In theory, and based on previous cycles, I should be feeling pretty good and getting back into a semblance of normal life. But here is the problem – patterns, statistics, predictions, and even past experience, do not determine the future.

I ‘should’ be out and about, busy with work, and getting back into some gentle exercise. Instead, I’m lying in bed (with a laptop) trying to get rid of a chest infection and praying it doesn’t develop into anything worse. In fact, the past couple of days have made me rather fearful – fearful that I would end up in hospital again with pneumonia, fearful that I might compromise the chemo, fearful that something worse might happen.

Fiona reminded me last night that these things can often be two steps forward and one step back. Sometimes even the other way round for a while. I would do well to keep putting into practice the word of God that I believe:

6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7)

We are being reminded again and again that only God knows what’s around the bend and he calls us to trust him. There is a Latin phrase, deo volente, or DV, which means ‘God willing’. In days gone by it was common for Christian people to use these words as they spoke of their plans. You don’t hear it much these days, but I’ve begun using it more and more as I appreciate that it is God who is working out his good plans and purposes. In fact, this whole experience of getting cancer has highlighted how much I am not in control of my life and circumstances.

Back in December everything pointed to us moving to Darwin to begin the second major chapter of our lives. We had people on board with us, support structures and finances in place, a house to move into, kids enrolled in schools, tenants for our house in Canberra, a successor in my role at church, belongings in transit, and excited about the future. And then… a visit to the hospital changed everything. These verses from the Bible came to mind very powerfully:

13 Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” 14 Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. 15 Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.”
(James 4:13-15)

My life has been given to me by God. He calls me to make plans and to consider the circumstances and to do things wisely. But he also calls me to act with humility, to know that I belong to him, and that I can rely on him to do what is in my very best interests. Even when I would prefer things not to be happening! We’ve been learning this more and more.

But does this mean that all our preparations last year were going against God’s will, that somehow we were being disobedient and straying off the path? No, I don’t believe so. Our desire was to contribute to growing followers of Jesus in the Northern Territory. This desire was placed in our hearts by God and as we read the Bible we were reminded that this is pleasing to God. We sought wise council from many, and took years to come to our decision as a family. There was and is a big need, and we were drawn to respond. That need continues to exist and we pray that our passions to move north will be filled by others, or yet that I will be healed and one day serve God in that place, DV.

So is it possible to see the hand of God in what has happened? Absolutely. God has been at work in our hearts and minds, moving us to depend upon him more deeply than ever before. He has encouraged us, and literally thousands of others to pray. He has raised questions in the minds of friends that have nudged them to consider what we believe about God. He has deepened our empathy and love for people suffering under similar and worse circumstances. He has used our words to encourage others far and wide in their own struggles. He has caused us to appreciate our family and friends and church all the more. He has reminded us to number our days.

We can see God’s kindness in many of the details. My cancer was discovered because a doctor friend had the awareness to rush me to hospital when I complained of numbness and breathlessness. It was a time when all our family were at home. I had finished my final series of preaching at church. The church had already gone through a careful process of choosing my successor. It didn’t happen while we were on the road to Darwin. We still had our home in Canberra to move back into. Our friends have taken extraordinary care of us. Our church has continued to provide for us, and have welcomed my continued ministry among them. We’re receiving top shelf medical attention. I’m even allowed a tv in the bedroom! And there is so much more!

Let me tell you about the weekend just gone. It was a special time for our family (only we missed Matt). Fiona and Grace both entered large teams in the Cancer Council’s Relay for Life. They set up camp at the AIS athletics track and walked for 24 hours to raise money and awareness for cancer research and support. I wasn’t that keen to go – who wants to be surrounded by people with cancer? But the relay had a carnival vibe about it, with music, dancing, stalls, fancy dress, and lots of people having fun in the sunshine (& rain). Some ran lap after lap, others walked as best they could. I did a few laps at different times of the day, and must have been the slowest walker on the track each time.

FamilyThe first lap was exclusively for people who had cancer (either now or previously) and for carers. I wore a sash saying ‘survivor’ and members of my family wore sashes saying ‘carer’. It seemed strange to wear the sash, as though I should’ve had to go into remission to ‘deserve’ it. But, I have cancer, I am alive – so I guess I’m a survivor! As we walked the lap it was very moving to be clapped by hundreds of people lining the track, including many friends in Grace and Fiona’s teams. I shed a few tears that I kept well hidden behind my sunglasses! I was glad that I’d gone along.

We joined in another event on Saturday – a commissioning for friends of ours, Klaus and Grace & MorphJudith and family, who are heading overseas. As we were making our plans to plant a church in Darwin, they were planning further afield in Germany. It was a thrill to share with them as they count down the days to leaving. Klaus is German, and it is his great passion for his kin to know the good news of eternal life. As one friend reminded me on later, we had two celebrations over the weekend – one of life here and now, and the other of life for all eternity. Our prayer is that people will value their lives here and now, but not so much as to ignore God’s wonderful invitation of life forever with him. Some people seem to think that Christian faith is ‘life-denying’. Our experience is the exact opposite. Jesus came so that we might have life in all its fulness – now and forever.

Thank you again for your encouragement and support. The chemo roller coaster is a tough one, but made much easier in the knowledge that people are praying and helping us in so many ways. There is one cycle to go and we don’t know the plan after that. It could be more of the same, or part thereof. It could be something radically different. Our desire is for the treatment to completely destroy this cancer, and for us to be able to make new plans for a life beyond cancer, deo volente.

With love,

Dave (and Fiona)

A complaint is a gift

complaintAs a church pastor, I can tell you there are few things more discouraging than complaints. We tend to feel under attack and immediately break into defence mode. “How dare they criticise my preaching!” “What would you know about the pressures of trying to organise and run a church?!” “They complain about us not being friendly, but they don’t make an effort!” “It’s not my fault!!!” Maybe we could do with a fresh perspective.

A complaint is a gift, written by Janelle Barlow and Claus Moller, is a helpful challenge to rethink complaints. I read the first edition of this book over a decade ago and found it liberating and empowering. Since this time the forum for complaints has gone ballistic. A tweet, facebook comment, or blog post can destroy a product or business. Word-of-mouth can go viral, quickly becoming ‘world-of-mouth’ in a matter of minutes – just witness the current Koni video. The second edition of this book (2007) takes account of these kind of changes, incorporates ‘complaints’ and feedback from the first edition, brings us up to date, and introduces suggestions about how to make complaints, how not take them personally, and how to use the internet constructively.

What is a complaint? Fundamentally, it is a statement about expectations that have not been met. But more importantly, it is an opportunity for the organisation, business, or church in our case, to make some helpful changes. This book calls upon us to redefine complaints as gifts. This will require us to separate the message from the medium. We must distance the content of the complaint from the emotion of being blamed. In other words, we shouldn’t take things so personally!

This will mean gaining empathy for the disappointed people and rethinking how complaints can help us to move forward as a church. The very fact that they made the effort to complain indicates some level of commitment to us. Many will only grumble to others or simply walk away. We’d do well to put ourselves in their shoes. Imagine that what they are complaining about had happened to you. How would you react? What would need to happen for you to be satisfied?

This book warns against a strategy of reducing the number of complaints. Complaints can be avoided by closing down lines of communication. But all this does is bury problems and maintain the poor state of affairs. Instead, we need to create opportunities for feedback. We can do surveys from time to time, but they will never adequately reflect the levels of dissatisfaction. Such people are unlikely to wait for the next survey to air their complaints. Maybe they’ve already walked away in frustration.

Churches, like businesses, depend heavily on word-of-mouth advertising. The way we handle complaints will work for or against us. People are much more likely to believe a friendly recommendation than formal advertising. If we handle complaints well it can be a powerful source of positive word-of-mouth. On the other hand, the more dissatisfied people become, the more likely they are to spread bad news. I couldn’t tell you many times we’ve had people turn up at our church, saying things like “I used to go to… but I left there because…” And I’m sure there are plenty who’ve left our church, headed elsewhere, and told a similar story. So much movement and pain could probably have been avoided if we’d done a better job of listening to complaints.

While written with the business sector in mind, this book has value to a much wider audience. The issues raised are relevant for personal relationships, resolving conflict, and improving communication. At a time when people are craving connection, pleading to be heard and understood, churches and their leaders would do well to take notice. While some will read the book and be motivated by the desire to increase profits, pastors should read it with a regard to people’s souls.

A complaint is a gift (2nd ed.) is divided into three parts.

The first part, Complaints: Lifeline to the customer, examines the strategy for developing a positive mindset toward those who complain. It helps us to understand what is going on when someone complains, and how they are likely to respond when they are not satisfied.

The second part, Putting the complaint as a gift strategy into practice, focuses on how to handle complaints well. It develops an 8 step gift formula for keeping our words and actions consistent with our beliefs that the complaint is a gift:

  1. Say “thankyou.”
  2. Explain why you appreciate the complaint.
  3. Apologise for the mistake.
  4. Promise to do something about the problem immediately.
  5. Ask for necessary information.
  6. Correct the mistake – promptly.
  7. Check customer satisfaction.
  8. Prevent future mistakes.

The final part, Dishing it out and taking it in: the personal side of complaints, is new to this edition. It is a helpful addition, broadening the scope and value of this way of thinking into other areas of life. There is good stuff here for strengthening marriages and other personal relationships.

This is probably not a book that many church leaders would think to add to their libraries. You probably wouldn’t buy it to help resolve conflict with your neighbour or a work colleague. I doubt you’d be impressed if I recommended it for strengthening your relationships with your spouse or children. However, this book offers practical help for all these scenarios.

Of course, there is another book that has contained this wisdom and more for centuries. It hasn’t been revised or improved, but then it doesn’t need to be. Check out these gems:

He who listens to a life giving rebuke will be at home among the wise. Proverbs 15:31

A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. Proverbs 15:1

A mocker resents correction; he will not consult the wise. Proverbs 15:12

Whoever gives heed to instruction prospers, and blessed is he who trust in the LORD. Proverbs 16:20

Pleasant words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones. Proverbs 16:24

However, it’s not just the head that needs to change, it’s our hearts. The temptation is often there to take things personally out of pride, or to get defensive because we want to look good before others, or to blame others because we don’t want to confront our own selfishness. What we really need is for God to renovate our hearts and minds, to transform us from the inside out. When you read the gospels about Jesus, you can see how he modelled and taught that genuine humility is the key to relationship with others. Christians have a special reason to listen and respond well to others. As it says in Philippians 2:

1 If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, 2 then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. 3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others 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:

6 Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
7 but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

High points of marriage?

Some time back, Fiona and I attended a marriage enrichment workshop with other couples from our church. We were all encouraged to graph the high points and low points of our marriages. To be honest, I can’t remember exactly the point of the exercise. Perhaps it was to remind some of us that there have been highs as well as lows!

Well, I was thinking about this again recently, and there are three experiences in our relationship that stand out above all the others. They’ve drawn us closer together as a couple, we’ve come to appreciate each other more deeply, and they have enriched our relationship beyond all expectation. And they’ve each been hard – harder than we would have imagined we could bear.

The first took place 15 years ago. We’d just planted a new church, moved into a new house, and Fiona was expecting our third child. We decided to grab a holiday to catch our breath a few months before our baby was due. We were camping in a tent up the coast, and the next thing we knew our daughter was born – at 26 weeks, weighing 900 grams, and not much bigger than a can of coke. She spent the next three months in neo-natal intensive care and we made two or more trips to the hospital everyday. On many occasions we weren’t sure if she was going to make it. The social workers told us that events like this can damage marriages, pull couples apart and often result in divorce. It was hard – SO hard. But for us, it drew us together and deepened our love for each other.

The second experience is more recent. We were travelling on our long service leave, having just experienced the breathtaking wonder of the Kimberley and the Pilbara regions. Travelling across a remote cattle-station, we suddenly found ourselves – 4wd and camper – sideways, out of control, and rolling like a dice. The scene was awful. Our 12 year old had been thrown from the vehicle, my wife was badly hurt, and we were so far from anywhere or anyone. After ambulances, flying doctor, cross-continent travel, two surgeries and a shoulder replacement for Fiona, our family returned home with everyone alive and mending. It’s still hard to relive the experience of the accident. And the rehab and struggles continue for Fiona. But there is no doubt these experiences enriched our marriage, and our family. Petty conflicts, annoying habits and foibles, concerns for ‘possessions over people’ – were shown to be so stupid, so insignificant. We treasured each other, and thanked God that we still had each other. And realised that we needed to keep looking after each other.

The last situation is happening now. It’s been documented already in this blog. We were only days from leaving Canberra to start over in the Northern Territory. We’d been planning, building a team, getting excited and exciting others, and getting ready to begin a new church with a fresh vision in Palmerston. And then, out of the blue, no warning, no preparation – we discover that I have cancer, and all our plans go out the window. Hospital, sickness, surgery, weakness, fear, grief, sadness, tears, panic, and more. Let me say, in all truth, that I have never loved my wife as well as I should. But the last three months have helped me to see what a precious jewel she really is. She has been my deepest friend, carer, lover, pray-er, advocate, nurse, doctor, organiser, empathiser, researcher, communicator, caring mother to our children… and so so much more. And I know she too has been hurting so deeply at times. The journey has a long way to go, but I thank God that we journey together.

Why do I share these three high points? Not so that we can plan for things to go wrong and then reap some magical benefits from our suffering. We can’t and don’t plan these things. But we have both learned, and it’s been confirmed through our experiences, that God works through our weaknesses and struggles. He gives us grace when we so desperately need it. He enables us to experience real joy in the midst of suffering. Not a superficial happiness, but a deeply contented joy that is not dependent on our circumstances.

Fiona and I have never been very good at reading the Bible together as a couple. But over the last three months we have done this quite a bit. I’d like to quote a few verses that have taken on a greater significance for us recently. Firstly, from 2 Corinthians 1:8-11:

8 We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. 9 Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. 10He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, 11 as you help us by your prayers. Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favor granted us in answer to the prayers of many.

And from 2 Corinthians 12:9-10:

…but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

The key thing in each of our experiences is that God has been at work. In the darkest of hours, God has always been there. He has picked us up, and carried us, and cared for us. He has reminded us of the foolish arrogance of thinking that we can do better on our own. He has taught us humility and patience, and these are among the hardest lessons to learn. (And we’re still in preschool in these matters!) God has given us a unity in our relationship – not by focusing on ourselves and our own needs, nor by simply focusing on each other, but profoundly by getting us both to focus on him.

Dave