So much to be thankful for

Having lived for a number of years with a terminal illness, there is much about the current crisis that is very familiar. Some with cancer have been asking the question whether people are now experiencing what they experience—living under the cloud of death, always fearing that the next scan or blood test will reveal the means of the end.

And yet, in the midst of these tensions, challenges, dangers, and threats, I find there is so much to thank God for. Good government, generous financial relief packages, careful strategies for isolation, the support of neighbours and friends, excellent medical resources, current good health, a loving family, a beautiful view, a comfortable bed, computers and phones, and FaceBook and Zoom, and coffee and family.

Is there any hope? Yes! Absolutely. In washing hands and social distancing, in good health care, in ICUs and ventilators, in flattening the curve, in the search for a vaccine, in government grants, in business bailouts, you name it. But our deepest hopes will only be realised as we look to the the one who made us, became one of us, died for us, and was raised again.

Good Friday reminds us of the sacrificial, costly love of God. When I see the body bags and catastrophic death tolls, I am tempted to doubt God. But when I look again at the crucifixion of Jesus I’m reminded just how much he cares. He could have left us alone forever to live with our mistakes, but instead he became one of us to offer us forgiveness.

What are you grateful for this Easter?

 

Meeting in the middle

It’s been more than a week of lockdown. How are you finding things? It’s challenging. It adds strain and stress. We can tend to go a little stir crazy? Confined spaces can add to the tension. Little annoyances can grow and we can get irritated more easily. But there’s also opportunity. Forced change. New ways of doing things. Creative synergies. Playing the hand we’ve been dealt.

As I look at the news, I’m conscious of how well off I am. And so many of my friends. And, to be honest, so many in our country. My friends in New York are facing trauma, the likes of which they haven’t seen since 9/11. My friends in Northern Italy have had their worlds turned inside out and upside down from disease, death, and fear. It will take months to see beyond it, and a lifetime to recover. Many never will. And this isn’t the shanty towns of South Africa, the slums of India, or the garbage dumps of Manila. Industrialised, wealthy, technologically advanced societies are being brought to their knees.

Here in Bonny Hills things are just a little quieter than usual. A few less on the beaches, but perhaps a few more in the surf—isolating in the green room! People are friendly. I heard from a mate, who yesterday lost his job, that he is loving the time with his family, enjoying the kids pulling together and working as a team. He shared about creative street parties from people’s own yards, tin can and string video conferencing, and lots of other fun stuff. He was thankful for the times.

It’s like that isn’t it. Devastation at one end and fresh delights at the other. Horror contrasted with renewed happiness. We are being pushed to rethink what matters matter most. What should we throw away? What should we hang on to? What do we take for granted? And where do we need to offer thanks and gratitude?

On the home front, we are working at our upstairs downstairs routine. Fiona continues to work at the practice. She is also working from home, tackling the challenges of new systems, new technologies, and tele-health. I’ve set up a study-studio, gone a bit zoom crazy, and spent long hours exploring how to pastor a church without leaving the house.

fionadinnerOur son Marcus, came out of quarantine over the weekend and was cleared of having the coronavirus. He returned from Indonesia as the borders were closing and flights were being cancelled. We thank God for the timing. He has now joined me in the house. davedinnerMarcus now helps with the cooking and we deliver the meals downstairs. Last night we met in the middle, sharing dinner together on the stairs. Thanking God for my family.

 

Preparing for church online

austin-distel-gUIJ0YszPig-unsplash copySome of us go regularly to church. Fewer of us think about what we’re going to do when we get there. We’ve been on autopilot for too long. Our current crisis gives us the perfect opportunity to pause and think about what we’re doing, how we do it and, most importantly, why we do it.

Hebrews 10:24-25 gives us the following motivation to turn up to church regularly.

24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

These verses are an important challenge to all who think it’s sufficient to be a Christian who keeps to themselves. I hear people say, “I follow Jesus. I don’t need the church.” Problem is, that Jesus leads the church, so we are either following Jesus with his church or we’re really justing heading in our own direction.

Hebrews 10:24-25 is also a challenge to our consumer mindset. We’re used to shopping around to find something that meets my needs, appeals to my likes, or reinforces my interests. The emphasis in these verses is on what you give, not what you get. They promote initiative, looking to serve, and being there for others. “Ask not what your church can do for you. Ask what you can do for your church.”

The challenge of these words lies deeper still. Notice the first sentence. It doesn’t say, “And let us spur one another…”. Rather it says, “And let us consider how we may spur one another…” In simple terms, this means you should pause and think about what you go to church for. Consider how you will contribute. Consider what will be encouraging. Consider who you might encourage, who might be doing it tough, sick, alone, struggling, fearful, anxious, even terrified. Don’t make church about recharging your batteries for the week. Rather, make it about recharging one another’s batteries every week. And if we all do that, then your batteries should stay fully charged.

How will this work? You’ll need to pause and think before you drive off to church. In today’s terms, consider how to make the most of turning up to church online. If your online church tends to be a one-directional download experience, then you will need to consider how you can encourage others at other times and in other ways. And all the more as these days are difficult and dangerous, in spiritual as well as physical ways.

Here are some tips to consider as you prepare for church online:

  1. Tune in properly. Get prepared for church and turn up. Get out of your PJs (especially it you go to afternoon church). Arrange a place to focus on whatever is happening with church. Plan ahead. Will you put it on the TV or large computer screen and sit as a family or couple? Will you wear headphones with a microphone to increase the audio precision? Don’t plan to multitask. Give your time wholly to church for the 40 minutes, an hour, or however long you will be meeting. Don’t multitask. Get off FaceBook, unless that’s where you find your church live feed. Leave the dishes until afterwards. Don’t be surfing the net or checking emails. Most importantly, take a minute before hand to pray that you’ll be able to encourage others and be encouraged yourself.
  2. Participate properly. Have a Bible with you. Look up the Bible reading and references during the talk. Have a notebook and pen and take some notes during the sermon. Download the talk outline if there is one. If there are kids activities, videos, participation exercises, then supervise your children to get involved. Encourage the same habits you’d like to see when we get out of lockdown. If there’s a time for singing, then join in. It might seem a bit awkward, so mute your microphone. You will probably need to anyway, because everyone trying to synchronise singing over the internet just isn’t going to work well. I recently watched the recording of our zoom church from last week and very few people were actually singing. I was the number one culprit. So join in by singing along at home. At least lip sync.
  3. Join a small group. Connecting with others is difficult in larger churches, so it is a great idea to join in a small group for prayer, Bible, mutual encouragement, fun and maybe food. Hopefully, your groups can continue to meet online and connect through Zoom, Skype, or some other platform. If you’re not in a group, then let me urge you to join one. This might well be the best means to put into practice the call of Hebrews 10:24-25 to “not give up meeting together ” but “encouraging one another another”. If your church doesn’t have small groups, then ask your leaders if they will help you get one going, and offer some guidance for what to do when you meet together.
  4. Reach out to people during the week. Don’t wait for the Sunday meeting or online church to come around. Look out for each other. Have one another’s backs. Stay socially connected. Use FaceBook, Messenger, WhatsApp, Instagram, FaceTime or some other social media. In fact, did you know smart phones can also be used as phones. That’s smart. There’s never been a better time to call and encourage one another than now. You can even read a bit of Bible together, chat about the message from Sunday, and pray together. Wouldn’t it be awesome if we came out of our COVID isolations better connected than we’ve ever been, just waiting to give each other a holy kiss, a hearty handshake, or a big fat bear hug.
  5. Keep on giving. If you go to a church where you support the ministry by putting money in the plate, then it might seem you’re off the hook now. And times will get tough. For you, for others in church, and also for your ministry staff. So if you can keep giving to support the ministry of your church, please do. The easiest way to do this is by setting up automated transfers from your bank account. Ask your church what they would find most helpful. And be generous.
  6. Come up your own ideas and share them with others.

 

 

Sneak a look at church online

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This is not a post for my friends who are pastors. They’re working overtime thinking about church online. This is for you, whether you go to church or you don’t. This is especially for those who don’t currently belong to a church and might be open to a sneak peak at church while we are all in lockdown. This is the first of a two part blog series. The next one will be focused on how to make the most of church on line for those who go regularly.

What should you look for? What do you have to do?

Confession time. I’ve never been a fan of TV, video, or streaming church. I still bear scars from my days of taxi driving when I’d get home fully-wired in the early hours of a Sunday morning, having driven for 15 hours straight, unable to to sleep, turning the tele on, and there they are. The likes of Jimmy Baker, Benny Hinn, Jimmy Swaggart. Urgh! Talk about cringe. I’m an Aussie—we don’t do that stuff. Not to mention the appalling teaching, false promises, fraud, and corruption.

I’ve never been a fan of people online shopping for church either, whether it’s early morning TV, or podcasting your favourite preacher. It’s tough enough in ministry without having my preaching compared with the likes of the ‘great ones’. I reckon church is about the people. It’s about gathering and connecting. It’s about humility and learning together. It’s about caring for others, meeting needs, spurring each other on, supporting one another in crises, praying for one another. It’s about shared joys, shared grief, shared ministry. It wasn’t meant to be a consumer experience, a form of entertainment, or even a place to get fed or topped up for the week.

Enough ranting. If you’re looking for church now, you can’t drive around, and don’t try the yellow pages. Look online. Google ‘church’. I suggest a few search words will be helpful. Try typing in your location and “church” to start with. God forbid this COVID crisis goes on for ever, and it might just be that you want to stay in touch with the church after it’s over. Hey, you might even recognise some neighbours or make friendships with others in the church community.

I also recommend adding the words “Christian” and “evangelical” to your search box. Don’t take anything for granted. You might be thinking Billy Graham or tele-evangelists when you read the word ‘evangelical’, but in Australia it means something else. It’s a good shorthand for the church being on about Jesus, the Bible, and seeking to shape what they do with God’s will. In other words, it’s about fair-dinkum church versus a whole bunch of other stuff. By contrast, if you were to type in ‘liberal church’ there’s a pretty good chance you wouldn’t get much about Jesus or the Bible at all, so don’t waste your time. It’s probably worth seeing what comes up when you type in “Jesus”, “Bible”, “Prayer”, “Beliefs”, and more.

However, far better than asking Google, is to ask a friend. Do you know someone in a local church? Call them. Ask them about it. See if you can check it out. If they’re not willing to help, or they say “You wouldn’t want to come to my church!”, then take that as a free warning!

Now there are two main ways churches are currently getting organised online. The first is fairly passive from the participants perspective. They livestream or play a recorded ‘service’ from their church website, or FaceBook, or YouTube. There may be some minimal interaction with comments in the sidebar, but you can stay pretty much anonymous.

zoom churchThe second approach is purposefully interactive. This might be a preferred option among smaller churches. but some larger ones have mastered the tech and give a pretty good experience. This is what we’re doing at my local church: Salt Community Church in Bonny Hills, NSW. We use a teleconference program called Zoom. People can log into our church meeting by typing in a meeting ID assigned to our church meeting. It works best from a computer, tablet, or smart phone with a built in camera. People can see you on their screens and you can see them. Our church have loved the experience of everyone seeing each other after a week of isolation.

Now you might be thinking you’d like a more anonymous way of checking out church and the streaming option seems safer. And I guess you can sit back and no one needs to know you’re there. But I suggest another approach. Say you wanted to check out the church and you log into zoom. Someone will need to give you the meeting ID. You can turn off your video, mute your microphone, and only engage with others when you’re ready.

Anyway, if someone has shared this with you, then I hope you will accept their invitation and take the time to check out their church. You won’t need to dress up, you won’t be asked to say or do anything, and you get the opportunity for a sneaky look. Who knows, maybe you’ll love what you see and hear and want to keep coming. And maybe one day you’ll turn up and get to meet the people in person.

Cheers.

Our praying PM

Our leaders are working flat out in their command centres. The stakes are as high as they’ve ever been. We’re at war. War with a virus. Everyone is being called to high alert. Our way of life is being challenged and changed on a daily, if not hourly, basis. Devastation fills our screens. Predictions and projections are catastrophic beyond comprehension.

My personal conviction is that we need to fall into line, not simply with our government and health authorities, but to care for each other. We need genuine concern for one another. We’ve all had a taste of what happens when people act to protect their own interests—it results in the needy, the elderly, the sick, and the housebound, being unable to buy basic necessities such as toilet paper, sanitiser, disinfectant, and staples like rice and flour. We’ve witnessed the panic buying of gym equipment, freezers and fridges, meats, and now alcohol. I’m just grateful Australia doesn’t have the panic buying of guns, that we see in other places.

We’ve seen some remarkable things in politics recently. Cooperation across ideological and political divides. Working together for the good of our nation. Federal, states, and territories in this together. I believe that a little humility goes a long way. Now is not the time for the narcissists to strut their stuff. Now is the time to model calm, restraint, care, cooperation and love for our fellow humans. Now is the time to acknowledge that we we need help managing ourselves, our families, our communities, our countries, let alone this world with its disasters, diseases, and deaths. I believe that now is the time to call on our Father in heaven. Now is the time to pray. God knows, it can’t hurt can it? If there is a God, and he made this world, and we keep ignoring him and living as though he’s not there, then it doesn’t make sense to ignore him and live as though he’s not there and doesn’t care. Isn’t it more logical to turn back and seek his help? Wouldn’t it be wise to ask his forgiveness? If he’s concerned for the people he has made, and wants our best, and can offer us help, then what do we have to lose by coming back to him? In humility, of course,  and prayerfully dependent.

So, I’m thankful for our leaders. And especially for our Prime Minister, who encouraged us to pray, and who asked us to pray for him and other leaders, as he also prays for us. I’m so grateful to know that we have a prime minister who knows he’s not God, and who humbly prays to the One who is.

Upstairs downstairs

IMG_6393Hello from quarantine. I haven’t been overseas, and I don’t think I’ve been exposed to the virus, but my pre-existing lung condition and daily treatment for lung cancer have put me on high alert. In some ways, I’ve been slow to grasp what is going on here. The practice of distancing is a personal and a public health strategy. It’s not just about stopping me getting sick, it’s about reducing potential channels for the spread of this virus. I tend to be a bit of a social butterfly, often out and about, time in coffee shops, catching up with people, hanging with people from church and at church, and trying to catch up with a couple of mates. Now it’s lock down. I’m not simply at higher risk of illness, but if I kept up my normal social behaviours then I would also be at at risk of becoming a super spreader. So, lockdown it is.

IMG_6391The coronavirus has changed how we live at home. I live upstairs and Fiona lives downstairs. I’m spoilt for comfort in my quarantine. We’ve made a kitchenette and created a ‘flat within the house’ for Fiona. We are keeping strict physical distance. Separate beds, separate bathrooms, separate kitchens, separate entrances. We are using gloves and disinfectants. I cook dinner and leave it on a tray on the stairs for Fiona. It’s already challenging and stressful. But it’s Fiona’s initiative and it’s motivated by love for me.

Fiona is on the medical front line in this war on the virus. Three days a week she drives off to the front line. The rest of the week she is following up on patients, tests, and results. She gowns up with oversized men’s shirts from the op shop. She covers her hair with a shower cap. She puts on gloves and a mask. And she is courageously putting herself at risk for the welfare of patients. Now telemedicine is supplementing car consults and physical distancing. But there are still people walking in with ‘normal’ sicknesses. She is navigating a potential minefield. A handful of patients just haven’t grasped what is at stake and have put medical staff and other patients at risk through their careless or arrogant behaviour.

Please practice careful physical distancing.

It is now estimated that as many as 31% of new COVID-19 infections are being caused as a result of transmission through asymptomatic individuals those who have been infected with SARS-CoV-2 but don’t shown signs and symptoms of the disease.

(Nishiura H, Kobayashi T, Suzuki A, et al. Estimation of the asymptomatic ratio of novel coronavirus infections (COVID-19). Int J Infect Dis. 2020.)

90290957_10159478194782067_1672564310645145600_oThis is an especially important aspect of SARS-CoV-2 transmission and reinforces why we need to practice stringent social distancing to flatten the curve.

Please take this seriously. Look at what is happening in Italy, Spain, France, USA. Health workers are now having to choose who will live and die as their medical system is overloaded and broken. It’s catastrophic beyond belief. I pray this won’t happen here. Please don’t take your health for granted and please don’t carelessly put others health at risk. And take a moment to say thank you to the doctors, nurses, and other health workers who are risking their lives for the sake of us all.

 

 

The importance of not practising social distancing

Okay, I know I’m going to get into trouble for that headline. This is too important to send confusing signals. And I agree. I’m getting the message. We’ve got to flatten the curve, stem the flow, stop transmission, practice good hygiene, wash hands, clean surfaces, use hand sanitiser, keep away from cash,  protect our elderly, care about the vulnerable. I get all that. I’m one of the people at risk. And I live with a GP, have kids who are teachers, doctors, social workers, and students. But let’s be clear.

It’s not social distancing we need. It’s physical distancing.

Physical distancing is a strategy to stem the spread of the pandemic. Social distancing creates a mental health risk, amidst a while lot of other problems. We weren’t created to be alone. We need each another. Now more than ever. Fear, anxiety, panic, stress are all around us. We need kindness, calm, consideration, and courtesy.

Yesterday our church was told we can no longer meet on school premises. Like so many churches, we are exploring online strategies, streaming videos of talks, delivering Bible studies via the internet, purchasing hardware, trying out software, and scrambling to know what we’re going to do and how we’ll make it work. We can all play around with technology. We might even be able to make ourselves or our churches look better than we ever have before. But that’s not really the issue.

How we are going to do community? How will we put the ‘one another’ exhortations from the New Testament into practice? How will we stay in touch with one another? How will we identify the needy? How will we encourage the spiritually weary? How will we offer the message of real hope to a world in crisis? How will we pray together and for each other? How will we support one another when we need to keep our distance, when we can’t congregate, or when we need to quarantine or self-isolate.

phoneLet’s do a thought experiment. Take yourself back 30 or 40 years to a world without the internet. There is no Google, no Facebook, no email, no Instagram, no Twitter. How would we manage our current challenges in such times? My first thought is that we’d go back to speaking on the telephone. Remember the telephone! We’d call and say, “How are you doing?” “Is there anything I can do for you?” “Have you got enough toilet paper?” “Can I drop a meal around?” “How are you off for money?” “Are you feeling any better today?” “What can I pray for you?”

We might call one another to pray for each other, or read the Scriptures together, or get some help on a matter, or share ideas on how we can encourage, help and support one another…