50 not out – thank God!

photo[1]Had my birthday on Sunday. 50 not out! To be honest, late last year I seriously doubted I’d see this day. As the news of cancer hit us like a tsunami… as we sat drawing up my will… as I talked seriously with some of my kids about life without their dad… as I collapsed in the x-ray room, unable to breathe or support my own weight… as I struggled to think about all the things Fiona would need to know… as my whole life seemingly passed before my eyes, with people travelling from everywhere to see me… I didn’t hold a lot of hope of seeing my 50th birthday.

But God has been very kind, and I not only reached my birthday, but I thoroughly enjoyed it! It was cool to be bombarded by facebook messages, emails, cards and greetings from friends all over the world. It was a great joy to share an afternoon in our backyard with a number of our friends. Fiona was awesome, she had gone to so much trouble to give me a special day – and it was! Our church sang Happy Birthday to me and gave me an incredible cake! It was a fun day. 🙂

In fact, this has been a special weekend in other ways as well. Saturday night was the annual Brumbies Presentation Dinner – a black tie affair! I couldn’t remember ever wearing a dinner suit before and I thank the two men who offered me all the bits and pieces I needed. It felt kind of cool to be all dressed up like James Bond for a night, with a pretty girl on my arm! The dinner is a night to celebrate the season and give awards to the best players. Over the years some of the best players I’ve ever seen have taken out the awards. Notably George Smith winning Players’ Player on 9 separate occasions!

awardThe shock of the evening was the announcement that I’d won an award – Best Left Right Out of the Team! No, I was given the Garry Quinlivan Service Award in recognition of service to the Brumbies. It’s an absolute honour to receive this award named after Quinzo. He’s a living legend at the Brumbies, having given his everything in serving the players since the club began. It’s been my privilege to serve as their chaplain for ten seasons. Most of the time my efforts are well hidden, behind the scenes. I don’t do it for money or recognition, but it was lovely to receive this show of appreciation.

Some weeks back I asked Marcus, our lead pastor, if I could preach on this Sunday. “But it’s your birthday”, he said. “What would you want to preach on your birthday for?! You’d better check with Fiona, and your oncologist!” I count it a special gift from God to have been able to preach from the Bible at church on my birthday. I debated whether I should, because I didn’t want to do it for my sake, just because I like preaching. But deep down I wanted to be able to share God’s word with those I love. It’s the greatest gift I had to offer them.

I love teaching God’s word to others and I love sharing in people’s lives, so it was a delight to look at this part of the Bible. 1 Thessalonians 2:8 especially stands out:

Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well.

These words are an encouragement to me to make a priority of both truth and relationships. It’s hopeless to be a preacher who is doctrinaire and disinterested in people. It’s dangerous to be a people-pleaser who is cavalier with the truth. Genuine knowledge of God shows itself in real love for people. Real love for people will be shaped and guided by the truth. Real love leads to humbly making the truth known to others.

God’s love, revealed in the gift of Jesus Christ, is the truth that keeps me going. It’s a message of hope and life and a future beyond death itself. I know it will seem to some as wishful thinking or religious superstition. But I ask you to give the message about Jesus’ life and death and resurrection your serious consideration. If it’s true, then you have nothing to lose and absolutely everything to gain.

I don’t know how many more birthdays I’m likely to see. I do pray there’ll be many more to come, but the message of Jesus gives me hope beyond birthdays. These words by John Newton express what I believe and where my hope lies:

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

T’was Grace that taught my heart to fear.
And Grace, my fears relieved.
How precious did that Grace appear
The hour I first believed.

Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come;
‘Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far
and Grace will lead me home.

The Lord has promised good to me.
His word my hope secures.
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.

Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

When we’ve been here ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun.
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’ve first begun.

Scanxiety

I discovered a new word the other day…

scanxiety
n. the tension which builds particulary amongst those who have or have had cancer as they move towards their regular check up scan, hyperscanxiety being the period as they await results!
Usage: His scanxiety, though suppressed, grew as he awaited his next scan in the certain knowledge that hyperscanxiety would cut in as soon as the scan was over as he awaited the results!

I can relate! Just returned from the hospital following another CT scan. I’m becoming well acquainted with this machine! It’s a couple of months since my last scan and we’re pretty keen to know what’s been going on in the interim. Especially as we’ve backed off the serious chemotherapy in this time.

Scans are my reality check. They provide the best evidence for what’s going on inside. The experts can compare scans to determine whether the tumours are growing, shrinking, spreading, or just staying much the same. Whatever’s going on, they provide objective information on which to base decisions about my treatment. This is so important, because the externals can give a false picture. Having had less chemo and having returned from a couple of weeks in the Queensland sun, people have been saying “You’re looking so well!” Maybe, but this doesn’t mean I’ve been getting better! That remains to be seen.

I’ve experienced my share of anxiety in the face of scans, but overall I think I look forward to them. Not totally sure, but I’m keen to know what we’re dealing with. Even though the scans remind me of the harsh reality that I have cancer, I’d prefer to deal with the facts. I don’t want to be flying blind. And I know that worrying won’t do me any good. I’m not going to get a better outcome by becoming more anxious. If anything, it’ll make things worse.

God’s word provides me with good reasons for not being anxious and a good alternative when anxiety creeps in. Jesus said these words to his followers in the famous ‘Sermon on the Mount’:

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? (Matthew 6:25-27)

Paul wrote to the church in Philippi:

6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, 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)

These are excellent reasons not to be overcome by scanxiety or any other form of anxiety. Worrying is a normal response to fear and uncertainty, but it’s what we do with those worries that matters most. We are invited to pray – to share our worries with our Father in heaven. God knows me more precisely than any scan will reveal and he has my life in his loving hands. Rather than placing my hope in CTs and doctors and chemo and special targeted therapies, I will put my hope in God. I will hand my anxieties over to him. I will tell him my wants and desires, and trust him to meet all of my needs. I will ask him to guard my heart and my mind in Christ Jesus.

It’s a tough gig being a dad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where seldom is heard an encouraging word

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The blessing of thanks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you for reading this. May God bless you.

 

Telling the truth in your 80s

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

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

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

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

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

I can do all things through God who strengthens me

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

I can do everything through him who gives me strength.

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

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

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

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

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

I can do everything through him who gives me strength.

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

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

So what can I do? What should I do?

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

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

Why we need more churches

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

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

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

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

Practical reasons why we need new churches

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

Theological reason why we need new churches

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Healing – medicine or miracles?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An open letter to Sam Harris

Dear Mr Harris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sincerely,

Dave McDonald

Beam me up Scotty!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Compassion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If I were God I’d end all the pain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John writes in response to the words of this Psalm:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What caused the cancer?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gospel ink

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

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

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

SAVED BY GRACE and COMPELLED BY LOVE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Counting my blessings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As I preach to myself, so I pray…

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

Deserted by Lady Luck?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a will won’t do

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

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

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

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

Jesus famously taught…

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

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

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

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

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

3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade — kept in heaven for you. ( 1 Peter 1:3-5)

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

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

Making the most of the rest of your life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rhythm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

%d bloggers like this: