Eternity in our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:10-15)

Arthur Stace, or Mr Eternity as he became known, left his mark all over Sydney in the mid 1900s. He wrote only one word— ‘eternity’—in beautiful copperplate script with chalk on pavements from Martin Place to Parramatta. Why did he do this thousands upon thousands of times over more than 30 years? On the night of 6 August 1930 Stace walked into St Barnabas Church on Broadway and heard the preaching of RBS Hammond. Something impacted Stace that changed his life for… eternity.

 

The pursuit of happiness (Ecclesiastes 2:1-11)

I read recently that the key to finding happiness is to stop seeking happiness. Is this right? Why is happiness so important to us? And why is it so fleeting and short-lived? Why does it seem like we are just chasing after the wind?

The search for meaning (Ecclesiastes 1:1-2)

This pandemic, and the demands to stay at home, are placing many stresses on us. It’s also created unique opportunities. We get to hit pause on some of the things that have highjacked our lives, stolen our time, and drained our bank accounts. We get to slow down a little and think.

Let me encourage you to make the most of the moment. Such a time might never come again—most likely never will. So stop and smell the roses. Pause and consider the questions of meaning and purpose and life and death and faith and hope and love. Embark on a quest for meaning. See if you can discover a reason, a purpose, a worthwhile destination. Ask questions of God: “Are you there?” “Do you care?” “Can I know you?” “Can you please make yourself known to me?”

I recommend doing some exploration of the Bible. Grab hold of a modern translation, open to one of the four Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, John—and ask questions of Jesus. Explore the Scriptures, do a bit of soul searching, but don’t make it theoretical. Ask the what and the so what. 

There is a book in the Bible that examines the big questions of existence, purpose and meaning. It doesn’t provide all the answers, but it sure asks good questions. Taken together with the rest of the Bible, and especially the message of Jesus, it is a word for the season. I’d love to help you get into this unusual part of the Bible, so most days I will be posting a brief video (between 3 and 9 minutes) that exposes this book, explores the matters it raises, and connects with life now.

I invite you to join me in exploring Ecclesiastes together. You can do this on your own or together with others in your household. You might want to watch a video, read over the words in Ecclesiastes, talk together, pray about things… whatever you want really. Feel free to point others to the videos (currently stored on the Salt Church website), share on Facebook, email a friend, use for coffee chats, or ask a friend to check out Ecclesiastes with you.

My hope is that this will be a blessing to you.

Separation saves lives

33 At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 34 And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”)

(Mark 15:33-34, NIV)

During this time of social distancing, lock downs, and quarantines, it’s worth reflecting on how critical separation is proving for the saving of lives. The first Good Friday was the ultimate separation to save lives for eternity.

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.

A ride down memory lane

Having cancer often gives me cause for reflection. Sometimes, in grief and melancholy, but other times in joy and delight. I grieved that I would never see grandchildren, and now four of them bring us enormous blessing. I lamented the loss of ministry experience, and God has opened doors that I didn’t even know existed. I’ve learned how easy it is to take life for granted, and God has given me a renewed delight in so many of the simple things in life. Let me reflect on a thread that has been woven through my life.

I’m going to take you on a ride through some back roads of my nostalgia. It’s 40 years since I gained my motorcycle license and rushed out to purchase a second hand, blue Honda CB250. It didn’t go very fast and that wasn’t such a bad thing. It was my first vehicle and it gave me some independence. It took me to school, to friends’ houses, to the rugby, to job interviews, on some weekend rides around the Cotter-Tidbinbilla loop outside Canberra, and it got me praying. Dear God, help me stay alive. In case I don’t make it home tonight, please forgive me for all the bad stuff I did today. 

But I need to go back a few steps.

My introduction to motorbikes began much earlier when I was 9 years old in Tasmania. My best mate, Vaughan, had a Daytona 60 and we’d ride it on his property and on tracks near the Gorge in Launceston. It was awesome to get on a bike that ‘went by itself’. You didn’t have to pedal. You just had to learn how to not fall off and then how to stop. A few of my friends had motorbikes. Me? I didn’t even have a push bike. We lived on a steep hill and bikes were considered far too dangerous.

We moved to Canberra in 1975 and, again, many of my friends had motorbikes. My Grandpa gave me the money for my first bike. It was a Malvern Star Skidstar GT, with twin halogen headlights, 3 speed shift, speedo, and chrome mudguards. The only thing it didn’t have was an engine. Mind you, I did crank it out to 80 km/h going flat out down the road from Mt Ainslie. I wish I still had it—apparently they are collectors’ items.

Some of my mates had trail bikes and they’d ride the fire trails of Mt Majura before they were old enough to get their licenses. It was on one of these, when I was 12 years of age that I rode for the first time on a ‘proper’ motorcycle, with gears and a clutch. My friend, Paul, would double me to the forest and then let me take turns in riding. Once I got the hang of it, I was hooked.

I loved the look and feel of bikes. My Bible study leader rode a WLA war model Harley Davidson. It was camo green, had hand gears, a foot clutch, and was sometimes working. I loved checking it out whenever he rode it to church. My good friend, David, bought himself a Honda CB250 road bike—the same one I was to purchase later from a dealer in Braddon. Another friend from church, Jack, who worked for the Canberra Times, had two Moto Guzzi Californians—and in later years we would go on some long trips together.

My friend Ross, who was a theological student, had some amazing bikes. He’d race them, customise them, drag them, and do outrageous things on them. My favourite was a Yamaha 650 that was semi-chopped, airbrushed, and had the sweetest exhaust sound I’d ever heard. I don’t think I knew what a theological student was. It had something to do with studying the Bible and becoming a minister. My dad was a minister, but he didn’t drag race Kawasaki 1000s!

smithDuring high school I met John Smith and other members of the Gods Squad Christian Motorcycle Club. We had John and other Squad guys visit or stay in our home at different times. I admired their passion for Jesus, their support for the disadvantaged and the marginalised, and their guts in reaching out among outlaw bikers, such as the Hells Angels MC. It was during one of the Squad visits to Canberra that my whole outlook on life changed. I decided that I wanted to work among people, to reach out to those who are doing it tough, to share Jesus with others (and maybe one day to ride a Ducati or a Harley Davidson!) I wanted to quit school immediately and become a youth worker. The problem was I was only 17 and I needed to spend some time growing up and working out my life and faith. I’d grown up in a Christian home, but I needed some independence to work out what I really believed for myself.

cb250That same year I bought the CB250. I’d saved enough to buy the bike through working on a milk run after school. I’m not sure how my mother agreed, but she did. Dad and I went to the shop and I purchased the bike. I bought some boots, gloves, Barbour oilskins, and conceded to buying a bright yellow helmet. I stuck a cross on the back with electrical tape and then I spray painted the helmet metallic blue, leaving a bright yellow cross. I’m not sure why I did it, but it probably had something to do with working out my identity.

daveLater in the same year I got a labouring job in the outer suburbs of Canberra. I’d start work at 7am and decided that I needed a reliable bike to get me to and from our worksites. My next purchase was a burgundy Honda CB400 twin. It was smoother, faster, and leaked less oil than the 250. This was a bike that would take me places—rides along the Kings Highway, up and down the Clyde, camping at North Durras or Burrill Pines. It was powerful enough to carry a load, but laboured a bit when doubling a friend. It would become my means of transport between Canberra and Sydney, where I’d moved to commence a Social Work degree at UNSW.

brotherhoodUniversity gave me the independence I needed to force a crisis of beliefs. I’d left home—would I leave my faith behind, or would I see it grow into maturity? I thank God for surrounding me with friends who were serious about following Jesus. They opened the Bible and expected it to make sense. They saw Jesus as the key to meaning, life, and the future. I learned that I could be forgiven for everything, because the death of Jesus had paid it all. Being Christian wasn’t about being good enough to be accepted by God, it was about God accepting me because Jesus dealt with all my sin on that first Good Friday. During these years I also became loosely involved with the Brotherhood CMC. They were similar to the Gods Squad, based in Sydney’s west, with an outreach to the marginalised. I’d considered applying to become a patched member, but I didn’t go ahead with it, and I realise now that my heart wasn’t in the right place.

new doc 2019-10-01 12.09.34_1They say the ideal bike is the one that is just a bit bigger than the one you’ve got. I’d started to take a couple of my best friends, Fiona and Barry, on rides to different places. Fiona’s brother lived in Wollongong and I’d take her for visits to his family. I’d say, let’s ride to the Gong for a hamburger on Friday nights. The truth is we visited a Christian outreach called ‘The Hamburger Hut’ in Fairymeadow. We’d meet interesting people who surfed, rode bikes, did fun stuff, but significantly wanted to share how good God is. The CB400 soon got replaced by a blue Honda CX500 Shadow. It was a super-comfortable, shaft-driven, V-twin. It was the ideal tourer and was loads of fun in the twists and turns. I’d take it everywhere—to and from Canberra, even in the cold of winter; along the Great Ocean Road; outback NSW to Narrabri and West Wyalong; to and from Wollongong via the Royal National Park.

vf754_1Somewhere along the line the blue CX500 was traded in on a newer black CX500. It was one of the nicest bikes I’ve ridden, but I didn’t keep it long. Fiona and I were getting married, so we opted to replace the bike with a 1974 Corolla and then a Datsun 180B SSS, so that we’d have a vehicle that we could both use. We temporarily swapped our Datsun for a Honda VF750/4 for ‘part two’ of our honeymoon.

After we were married I started working in a Christian ministry apprenticeship based in the Eastern Suburbs around UNSW. Fiona had her medical training to finish and life became a little frantic. I had an ex-police model, white Suzuki 750, with almost no suspension, during this time.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter four more years in Sydney and completing theological training, we left to start ministry in Canberra. In the busy years of raising four kids, we decided that I wouldn’t continue riding much, other than occasional times when someone might lend me a bike (or even an OzTrike) while they were away on holidays!

moto moriniAt one point I purchased an ‘almost restored’ Moto Morini 3½. It was a collector’s item and now resides at the National Motorcycle Museum in Nabiac. Now that I’m nearby, I must pay it a visit sometime soon.

120816 HD2A highlight of my motorcycling experience was when Fiona arranged for me to have a Harley for 24 hours as a gift for my 50th birthday. It seems bizarre when I look back on it. I was 9 months into my cancer journey and still pretty weak and frail. Here I was dodging the effects of chemotherapy and Fiona arranged for me to ride a 350 kg Harley Davidson with her on the back. That is trust for you! I marvel that I could even hold the thing up, and we rode it for more than 300km through country NSW.

IMG_0092As my cancer seemed to disappear, and I had no evidence of disease, I considered getting another bike. A good friend gifted me his BMW R1100S. He was very generous and it was such a treat. I remember the feeling of being alive as I started to regain confidence on the bike. But I owned this bike for a little more than two months, before it was stolen from our backyard and we never saw it again. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.

IMG_3101And, so, to now. We are living in a beachside town, with awesome scenery and some nice roads. Every Sunday we watch a steady stream of bikes going backwards and forwards on the coastal stretch in front of our house. Earlier this year I test rode a Triumph Bonneville T120. It handled nicely, looked great, and sounded awesome. I took Fiona on the back and we explored some country roads.

But there was a problem—the pain I felt afterwards. Fiona didn’t find it very comfortable either. After a few days of riding, my back was in such pain, my ribs were so sore, and I remember saying to Fiona that I must be getting too old to ride. I needed some physio, but the massages just seemed to make it worse. After a dozen sessions trying to get my back and chest right, nothing seemed to work.

It turns out that the problem wasn’t riding motorbikes, nor this particular bike. It was the recurrence of the lung cancer. Tumours had been slowly regrowing in my left lung, and activities like motorcycling caused the pain to flair up. Now that I’m back on treatment again, my pains have all but gone. And I’ve now purchased a bike and I’m loving riding it. A commute to town has become a joy rather than a chore. Fiona has ridden with me. We’ve done a few winding roads, climbed a couple of mountains, and found a café with a view worth lingering over. We’ve been thoroughly drenched in the rain. We’ve enjoyed the sun and the wind. And we’ve done it together, like we did so long ago.

Is it safe? No, it’s not ‘safe’—but we can be and will be careful. We’ll dress safely, stay alert, and look out for trouble. I would like to do an advanced rider’s course. I will assume that we are invisible and take precautions.

Lately, I’ve been praying when I ride—not just for our safety, but I thank God for life and the feeling of being alive. And I pray for others—for some bikers I’ve met, for some neighbours who’ve lost their wives or husband, for my friends with cancer, for our little church at Salt, for my family, for my friends, for some people who are doing it tough right now.

Harley Davidson - CopyWhat motorcycle did I get? Well, let me say, it runs in the family. My grandfather, Dave McDonald, had a Harley before my father was born. Grandpa and Grandma brought my newborn dad home from the hospital in the sidecar in 1935. What can I say? Perhaps I have another genetic mutation!

IMG_4652Last month, I picked up a Harley Davidson. It’s a little more sophisticated than its forbear. It chugs along pretty well. It’s a cruiser, a bike for old blokes. It’s low to the ground and easy to get on and off. It looks good naked (the bike, not me); and it has saddle bags, a comfy seat for Fiona, and a windshield to clip on for longer trips.

It’s opening new opportunities with people, we are making new friends, and I’m getting opportunities to share the love of Jesus with others. There are a few riders in our church, and there seems to be many bikers in our community. I’ve become friends with a Harley rider who is only alive today because of a lung transplant, who knows what it is to be given new life.

Eric Liddell, from Chariots of Fire, said that when he ran he felt God’s pleasure. I can say something pretty similar. Thank you God for the joy of riding.

Bring back the testimony

…in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behaviour in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.  (1 Peter 3:16-17)
God’s word encourages us to be willing and able to let people know what we believe and why we believe it. One way to do this is to share how God’s story—the good news of Jesus Christ—intersects with our story. Traditionally this has been called ‘sharing your testimony.’

Testimonies: evidence and honour

Testimony isn’t a word we use very often. We hear it in a courtroom, because it has to do with providing evidence. Sometimes special functions or dinners are held as a testimonial to a person, honouring their life or particular achievements.

A personal Christian testimony will provide evidence of how the gospel has transformed the life of an individual. The transformed person provides evidence that God’s continues to be active in people’s lives today.

When I was growing up, it was very common for Christians to share their testimonies. We would do this at youth group, in church services, or during special evangelistic events. Let me share a few things I’ve picked up along the way.

A testimony to forget

I can still remember giving my first testimony. At the age of 16, at a church camp, I was asked to describe what it was like to be a Christian. It was something I will likely never forget. The fear of speaking in front of others didn’t seem to bother me. It was more the pressure to say something impressive. I hadn’t been a knife-wielding, drug-crazed gang member. Nor had my conversion been any great, emotional, charismatic experience. I couldn’t remember a time when I didn’t believe in God, brought up in a Christian home, what could I say? I remember it well. I lied! That’s right, I made up a story to impress. And it was a great testimony. I know, because people came up and told me afterwards! Have you heard people give testimonies? Have you given one yourself? What was it like?

I made up a testimony to impress. And it was a great testimony. I know, because people came up and told me afterwards!

Why a testimony?

Testimonies are a great way of letting others know that people do change to become Christians. Real people—people who are like them. Because the gospel we preach is rooted in an event of early history, it is helpful for people to hear that God still works powerfully through His Word today. And living evidence for this stands before them.

Where and when to give a testimony?

Almost any situation can be a good time to give your testimony. You don’t need to be invited up front at church to tell someone about what Jesus has done.  This can be done as you talk with your friends, as you travel on a plane, as you chat with other mums in your antenatal class, as you share the good news on your campus, or as you talk with mates after work. If your church or group is planning a public outreach meeting, it may be helpful to arrange for someone to give their testimony. This gives a real-life example of the good news of Jesus at work.

Who should speak?

Remember the purpose of a testimony is to show that the gospel changes real people, people that the listener can relate to. For this reason, there is probably little mileage in having an ex-bikie speak at the Women’s Fellowship dinner. It is usually better to have an ordinary member of the group speak, rather than some high-powered outsider. You want those who accept your invitations to hear about someone just like them. It might even be good to have a couple of people speak to show how God deals differently with each of us.

What should you say?

Firstly, work out clearly why you are saying anything at all. You are speaking because you want to see people come into a relationship with God. And that means they need to hear about Jesus, not all the sordid details of your pre-Christian days. Some testimonies I hear are 95% sin and 5% salvation. And sometimes Jesus doesn’t even get a look in. Standing up and talking about your experience can be a great means of ego-tripping, so it is of first importance that we point people beyond ourselves to Jesus.

Your purpose is not to preach a sermon—it’s not about explaining a Bible passage. It’s about explaining what God has done in your life. So, speak about what Jesus has done, and how he has changed your life. Most people have no trouble speaking about themselves, so you must work out clearly beforehand what you are going to put in and what you will leave out.  We don’t need to hear every little detail, just the important bits: what was going on in your life, how you came to hear and understand about Jesus, how you responded to him, and what difference this has made to your life. A short clear talk will be remembered, but long-winded drivel will only bore people, and leave them wondering about your point.

I remember listening to a student give her testimony one night. It started off great. She quickly moved from her need of forgiveness to the night that she understood that Jesus had died for her. But then she didn’t know how to stop. Another 10 minutes passed before she sat down. Work out beforehand what you should say, how you will start, and how you should finish. You may not know when to stop but everyone else will.

How should you give it?

Not like an expert, but then you don’t want to be sloppy either. Think about meetings you’ve been to where everything seems laid back and relaxed. My guess is that they were very well prepared. It is a great idea to practise your testimony with a friend. They will be able to tell you how it sounds, whether there is jargon to chop out, if it is too long and so on. Clarity, sincerity and honesty are called for in a testimony. Not slickness! Give it without notes. If you think you need notes, then you’re probably saying too much, or perhaps you are speaking about things that haven’t really made a big impact on your life.

Interviewing

An alternative to the monologue testimony is the interview. Tom asks Jane a series of questions designed to show how Jesus has changed Jane’s life. The aim of the interview remains the same as the testimony. But this way gives Jane the advantage of not having to remember the format of the testimony. And people like to hear conversations and dialogue. Tom is able to control what is being said and the length of the interview. This is a great help to people who are unsure about public speaking. If Jane says something that’s unclear, or full of jargon, Tom is able to ask another question to clarify it. Again, preparation is important. Both people should meet beforehand to go over the questions and responses. Then you both know what is going to happen.

John Chapman developed a pattern of questions thatyou may find helpful:

  • Did you grow up in a Christian home?
  • What makes you say that?
  • How did you come to understand that Jesus died for you?
  • What did you do to respond to this?
  • What is the hardest part of the Christian life for you?
  • What is the best part of the Christian life for you?

Finally

Remember, it is Jesus you are promoting, not yourself. So pray that what you say might lead others to Jesus. That’s what you really want to happen, isn’t it?

P.S. 

There are a number of ways to improve your ability to testify to Jesus.  Here are some further tips:

  • Pray for opportunities to share Christ with others.
  • Practice talking with others about Jesus.
  • Know a gospel outline clearly.
  • Read Honest Evangelism by Rico Tice.
  • Listen to some evangelistic talks on line.
  • Practice talking with others about Jesus.
  • Pray for more opportunities to share Christ with others.

Edited version of article Remember Testimonies that first appeared on The Gospel Coalition Australia site.