Faith, hope and tears

The shortest verse in the Bible is filled with empathy. Jesus, the author of life, understands what it feels like to experience grief and loss when a loved one dies. It hurts. It aches. We cry tears of sadness. We grieve in death. There’s a time for mourning, a time for weeping. As it says in John 11:35…

Jesus wept.

Some might question whether it’s necessary or appropriate for Christians to mourn the loss of a fellow believer. Don’t we believe they’ll be raised? Aren’t we confident they’re now with Jesus? Doesn’t our faith in eternal life make such sorrow out of place? Surely, a Christian funeral should be a celebration, not a time of grief and sadness?

Look again at John 11:35…

Jesus wept.

Jesus believed in resurrection. In fact he spoke of himself as the resurrection and the life. He knew that his good friend Lazarus would be raised from the dead. He knew, because he would raise him!

And yet, John 11:35…

Jesus wept.

If you’ve experienced the loss of someone you love, let the tears flow. Jesus did.

No comment? On reflection, comment!

In my recent post on A pastor’s pride I initially finished it with a request for people not to make comments. I wrote much the same thing on the Facebook link. It wasn’t that I was seeking to stifle comment or engagement on the topic. It was more that the post was raw, the subject was deeply personal, and I probably felt more vulnerable than usual. In particular, I didn’t want people stroking my ego or denying my analysis. I just wanted it to sit there and be heard.

However, it’s not hard to get around my request, and I received a number of comments via Facebook messages or email! Many of these included appreciation of the candid honesty of the post or statements about how they had been moved to reflect on their own pride. Two comments stood out from the rest. One suggested that I shouldn’t stifle comment because it would confirm that I or the church (I’m not sure) was ‘controlling’. I certainly didn’t want to promote this perception, so I removed the last sentence from my post. The other was a comment on the phone by my father, who suggested that allowing comments was fundamental to the nature of my blog. I was seeking engagement on the issues I wrote about, and commenting was a good way to get people thinking and acting.

P1010221My father sent this to me via email as a personal letter and invited me to determine whether I’d post it on the blog as a comment. I’ve decided instead to include it as the centrepiece of this post. The last 2 years have been seen important developments in the relationship between my father and I. Mid 2011, he was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma following the discovery of a large tumour in his throat. This led to a series of successful chemotherapy treatments that have removed any evidence of the disease. About the same time my father was going into remission, in December 2011, I was diagnosed with an incurable lung cancer. I know how shocking this has been to both my father and my mother.

One of the blessings of this experience is that we have grown closer, having a deeper awareness of what we’re both experiencing. I think this has strengthened our relationship in a range of areas. Not that you want to have both of us suffer from cancer to nurture the relationship, but it’s not a bad side benefit! My father will often discuss issues from my blog with me over the phone and sometimes post a comment on the blog itself. Sometimes he’ll make suggestions, sometimes he’ll share how it’s got him thinking, and he regularly forwards the posts to others. Here’s the comment he sent me today:

Dear David my beloved son,

When you first posted “A Pastor’s Pride” you concluded with the sentence “And I think I’d prefer that you didn’t write comments on this.” I note that you have now removed that request. As your father, I had chosen to ignore your preference on this occasion, and I think my decision to comment is supported by the comments now appearing from others. There are several reasons, but let me comment on just one.

Over the past year you have shared your journey with cancer with us in a very public way. Macarisms have included the pain and struggle, the ups and downs, the challenges and the changes of so many aspects of the personal, medical, emotional, relational, social, spiritual dimensions of what it has meant to learn that you have a terminal cancer. It is evident that the macarism has become a significant part of the new ministry which you are discovering and which God is growing in you. It is also evident that macarisms have been fulfilling the hope that you expressed in the very first post – “that people will be blessed as they read and think about life.”

One of the important additional ways in which people might find that blessing is by themselves giving expression to what they have learned or what has happened to them as they have read the macarism and thought about life. That has been evidenced again and again in the comments written in response to the diverse range of subjects that you have covered in your blog. Dealing with pride is one of those subjects upon which we all might do well to read and think and respond.

It is likely that I was participating in a prayer gathering on Saturday morning considering future directions for our congregation at the same time that you were writing your blog. An issue that greatly influenced my thinking and shaped my praying was so close to your writing. Given my many years as a pastor and wide experience, part of my praying was seeking guidance on what is the best contribution I can make to my church’s ministry in this place? It is not an easy question for one who is retired, and our denomination has some expectations about how retired pastors might support but not interfere in the life and current leadership of a congregation. A sense of pride about past ministry can very easily stand in the way of hearing what God is saying about the here and now of his word and call for today.

I noted, too, that whilst you were with your oncologist on Wednesday being reminded that you still have a terminal illness, I was at the Cancer Clinic having my sixth cycle of post-chemo “booster” Mabthera treatment. I, too, have been enjoying the congratulations of people for looking and being and feeling so well in remission. How easy it is to neglect the goodness and grace of God when things are going well for us.

I rejoice in the experiences that you have had during the past week, tough though they have been, and thank God for those persons who have been ministers of his grace to you in this recent encounter.

May God’s grace continue to minister to you, as you minister to others and as others minister to you and to us.

A pastor’s pride

Late last night I wept. I lay in my bed and I cried until my pillow was wet. What brought it on? It suddenly hit me how proud I’d become. My heart was full of me. And this blog was a big part of it.

I wasn’t sure if I should write this post. It could be just another example of what brought me to tears. A proud response to my response to pride. But I need to write it. I want to apologise and I want to change. I think my pride had become public, and thus so should my confession.

My dramatic realisation of my own pride hit me hard. It was a bit like hearing that I had a tumour. I was devastated, the tears flowed, and I prayed. The kids were away, Fiona was in another room, and I cried out on my own to God.

I’d just written a post telling pastors to be humble and yet my own heart was hard. I was writing as the preacher, not the practitioner. I was pronouncing who pastors should and shouldn’t be, but it was me that needed to listen. Here was I, doing all my reading, making all my comments, implicitly claiming to be an authority, telling others what to do, and I wasn’t doing it.

Sometime last night God told me. I don’t know how exactly, but he made it very clear to me that my heart was the problem. I’d been getting the message all week, but I wasn’t listening.

On Sunday I joined in the memorial service for my friend Bronwyn. On the front cover of the order of service, were printed these words:

Not to us, LORD, not to us but to your name be the glory, because of your love and faithfulness.  (Psalm 115:1)

I was so convicted as I read and heard these words. These words seemed so true on the lips of Bronwyn, but as I mouthed them they seemed so hollow. In fact, even during the service I found my thoughts and tears and prayers wandering away to my self and my family instead.

There were so many people at that service to thank God for Bronwyn, support the family, and pay tribute to her life. I knew so many of them, and they kept coming up to me saying how good it was to see me looking so well, and how they’d been praying for me, even daily. And my heart swelled up. I’d become the prayer celebrity. Oh, how I hate it how my heart can take what is good and twist it so badly.

On Monday and Tuesday I joined a planning retreat with the staff of our church, and it did my head in. I was struggling with the effects of chemo, but that wasn’t the real problem. It was being in a situation I was so familiar with, but in a role that was totally foreign. I’d been the leader and now I wasn’t. It’s not that I wanted to be. I’m very grateful for Marcus, and for the grace that all the team have shown me. But I realise that my heart is still catching up with my head.

On Wednesday I went to the oncologist. It had been a while and I’d been doing so well. I wanted him to tell me that I was the best patient he’d had, that he’d been wrong about me, and that we could expect the cancer to disappear very soon. I now realise I’d become proud of how I’d been going. I’d had 23 cycles of chemo. Most people don’t have more than 5 or 6. I’d been battling cancer and winning. I could succeed where others had failed! How stupid and how arrogant. The oncologist made it clear that I still have a terminal illness. I’d done nothing, but fill myself with pride.

Thursday and Friday I’d been writing. Telling people what to look for in a pastor, what a pastor should be like. What I should have been doing was listening to the word of God that I was preaching. I should have been looking into the mirror and seeing what I looked like. We’d actually read these verses on our staff retreat only days before:

22 Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. 23 Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror 24 and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.  (James 1:22-24)

And I’d been doing exactly that! It took the words of two friends to point it out to me. They don’t know it, but they were angels, messengers from God. They were true prophets, for they told me the truth from God. They weren’t so rude as to tell me outright, but their gentle and wise questions helped me to see the truth clearly last night. My heart was proud and it needed to change.

Last night I prayed and I cried, asking God to forgive me and to change me. Thank God, he is gracious and merciful and forgiving. My ongoing prayer is that God will gently work within me to give me humility.

I’ve written and published this because I believe that I owe you, my reader, an apology. Please forgive me my pride.

Please let us speak

CrossroadsDec2011‘Confessions of a blind pastor’ or ‘A new view from the pew’. These were potential titles for this post. You see, I’ve started to observe church a little differently over the past year or so. Instead of being up front nearly every week, viewing all that happens through my leadership glasses, I’ve gained a clearer perspective on how things look as part of the congregation.

If you’d ask me whether church should be an opportunity to speak, I’d have said yes. If you’d asked me whether church should involve interactive and two-way communication, I’d have said yes. If you’d asked me if people were getting an opportunity to speak using their own words during church, I’d have said yes. I’d have said yes, because I believed these things should be happening in church. And I’d have said yes, because I got to speak my own words in church just about every week. I was seeing things from my perspective as preacher or service leader, not as a member of the congregation. In fact, I think the answer is commonly no.

Let me illustrate. A few weeks back I went to church and sat down. We started singing and there were three or four songs in a row. During this time someone I didn’t know came in and sat beside me. The songs ran into each other, so I didn’t get an opportunity to speak. The leader then welcomed people and introduced church. We moved from singing, to praying, to having the Bible read, to listening to a sermon, then singing. I’d been consciously waiting for a break in what was happening up front so that I could at least say g’day and introduce myself to the person beside me. There wasn’t one provided and all I could manage was a very quick “Hi, I’m Dave!” while the musicians played an intro to a song. Church came to a finish, the leader wrapped things up, and then invited us to continue our conversations over supper.

That’s when it hit me. “Continue our conversations!?” We hadn’t even begun. We didn’t have a chance. There was no space. And it wasn’t on the run sheet.

The church I go to is independent. We have no traditional liturgy or forms of words. We’re supposed to be, almost by definition, relaxed and informal. And yet that night there was no space even to greet the person sitting next to me. I’d expect that more traditional churches with their formalities and fixed liturgies might be guilty of this, but not us! We’re supposed to be more relational. I’ve come to realise that independent and informal churches need to pay attention to this issue just as much as denominational and more formal churches.

Now there are some counter-arguments, and I’ve used them. People do get to speak up during church. Every time we sing, people are involved using their voices. When someone leads in prayer, we are invited to say amen. More formal liturgies often involve scripted call and response readings, corporate prayers, reciting of creeds together, and sometimes a break where people are instructed to walk around and ‘pass the peace’. This goes something like ‘Peace be with you’ followed by the reply ‘And also with you.’ Isn’t this evidence of people’s involvement in speaking during church?

It’s speaking, yes. But it’s not voluntary speech using our own words. It’s not natural conversation. It’s following a script. Scripted words can have an important place, but they’re not the ideal way to build relationships between people. Sometimes I’ve visited churches that have invited us to pass the peace to one another. A complete stranger comes up to me and says, ‘Peace be with you’. I find myself replying, ‘G’day. I’m Dave. Sorry, what’s your name?’ I crave an opportunity to relate to people, not to perform a ritual set of words.

So why do I think voluntary, natural, two-way personal communication is important in church? There are many reasons. Here’s a few:

  1. The experience of church should be very different to attending a concert, school speech night, watching a movie, or listening to a lecture. It should be the gathering of a community for the purpose of mutual edification. However amazing the sermon, songs, prayers, readings, videos, dramas, or up front interviews may be… they are all communication from the front.
  2. We shouldn’t force newcomers, guests, or visitors to sit among strangers for 75+ minutes before anyone speaks to them. (Unless they choose to.) It will simply make the people in church look extremely unfriendly. If we create space for a friendly ‘hello’ early on, then people will be more comfortable during church, and more likely to stay afterwards.
  3. Talking together during church can help us to engage more with what’s going on. If we are talking, even for a minute or so, on issues related to the sermon, we’re likely to be listening more attentively.
  4. As we hear God’s word it calls for our response. If we want to promote discussion and mutual edification after church, it’s much more likely to happen if we get it going during church.
  5. We should be helping people get to know one another at church. While the potential for this is limited in a large congregation, and we may rely heavily on small groups, we  should look for ways for people to connect during church also.
  6. It’s helpful for people to be able to share what God has been doing in their lives, or issues they are dealing with. Of course, there are limitations on how much we can do this in a large gathering, but we could at least give it some thought.

So how and when can we get this interaction happening? Here are a few suggestions to get us thinking. You may like to add your own.

  1. Encourage friendly conversations in your auditorium or church building before things officially kick off. During this time, look out for people sitting on their own, and make sure they are welcomed.
  2. The service leader, after welcoming people from the front, can allow 3-5 minutes for people to say g’day to those around them. The kids and youth head out to their own programs in our morning congregation. During this time people are encouraged to be friendly and talk together. Our evening congregation doesn’t have this opportunity, so we have to create one.
  3. The leader could also raise an issue for people to talk about for a minute or so. This could lead people into a Bible reading or the sermon. For example, if the passage deals with issues of suffering, we could get people sharing the questions they have about suffering. The leader could then invite a few responses from the congregation.
  4. While we can all add our amen to up front prayers, it is helpful to encourage people to make their own response in prayer. This can happen by allowing a time of silence for people to pray. In some cases we can invite people to pray with those seated around them (so long as no one feels uncomfortable or pressured to speak out loud).
  5. Questions and comments after the sermon are a helpful way to engage the congregation further in thinking and working through their understanding and application of the passage. If there’s no time for this, perhaps we could trim a little off the talk to allow it. I think people are more likely to discuss the message afterwards if they’ve already been doing it in church.
  6. People could be invited to share something of what God has been doing in their lives with the congregation. This is probably best arranged in advance, so as to give people time to think about what they want to say.

On the question of open sharing times during church we need to consider the logistics. In larger congregations like ours with 300+ people. If everyone spoke for 30 seconds with no breaks between, then it would take 2.5 hours just to get through everyone each week! If we gave everyone 5 minutes to speak and only had one person a week, you would get an opportunity to do this once every 6 years. Maybe this is feasible in a house church, but we have to be more selective in a larger congregation. But, if we allowed 3 minutes for each person to share something with the person beside them, then in 6 minutes everyone would have the opportunity to share something every time we met! Food for thought!

Easter Sunday and new life for Bronwyn

emptytombEaster Sunday. Resurrection Sunday. The day Jesus Christ rose from the grave and first appeared to his disciples. The first day of the week. The first day of a new life, a glorious future, for all eternity, with the God of all grace. What a day! Then and now.

chins2For you, Bronwyn, a day of glorious change. Like a butterfly, transformed from a caterpillar, only far more beautiful. All that was damaged and dying has been resurrected in wonder and joy. Weakness has been raised in power. The perishable has clothed itself with the imperishable. The earthly has been replaced with the heavenly. The mortal with immortality. Death has been swallowed up in victory. The sting of death has been taken away.

You now dwell with your God and Father. You are his precious child. Your tears have been wiped away. Your cancer has gone. You are suffering no longer.

Nothing could separate you from the love of Christ. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, could separate you from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

You are now with Christ, which is better by far.

You are loved. You are missed. Your husband, your children, your family, your friends, your brothers and sisters in Christ.

You inspired so many with your kindness and love. Your joy in the midst of sorrow. Your fighting spirit. Your love for your family. Your patient endurance in the face of suffering. Your concern for others. Your testimony to Jesus. Your passion for God’s glory. Your strong hope of life in God.

Bronwyn, you have shown us faith and hope and love in the face of death. We thank you. We miss you.

Bloody facebook

facebook

I have a love/hate relationship with Facebook. It’s awesome for staying in touch with people, good for keeping contact details up to date, more interesting and engaging than email, fantastic for hearing what people are doing, a nice way to share photos, helpful for remembering birthdays (Happy 21st Matt), you can advertise events, get people into important causes, and lots more. But, what a distraction! How many hours, or should that be years, are wasted on games like FarmVille, words with friends (my archilles heel), personality tests, and other highly addictive activities. The clever predictive advertising annoys me, along with the many dating sites, and the lack of accountability for people posting pretty much anything they want.

But my big concern with Facebook at the moment is Christians. Christians using Facebook to air their grievances, stir up trouble, attack the words or actions or motives of other Christians. The bloodshed created in recent times has left me deeply disturbed. And I’m not just talking about the disturbed schizophrenic who posts constant attacks on my character, claiming I’m an agent of Satan being punished by God with cancer for not submitting to this person’s authority. I’m far more concerned about the rational, calculated, vitriolic, acidic use of Facebook as a medium for engaging in and stirring up conflict.

Yesterday, I found myself lured into some threads discussing John Dickson’s comments on QandA last week. Young Earth Creationists criticising John heavily for his expressed views on science and Jesus. Others getting in on the act and firing back. The temperature rising. Name calling and ridiculing, Blow for blow. Attacks on character. Attacks on motives. Accusations of selling out, heresy, ignorance, pride. I found myself arcing up many times. It was bloody! In all this, I believe that John acted with calm, restraint and humility.

Public wall posts on Facebook are not the forum for criticising others. You can at least private message. Facebook can be a very risky forum for passionate debate. It’s much more the canvas for smart remarks, clever quotes and pithy sound bites. It’s a great place for fun and a grotesque place for fighting. (Like that sound bite?!) It distresses me that I see Christians increasingly using this public forum to fight with one another.

If I can pick on my mate, John Dickson, once again… I’ve had a number of disagreements with John on different issues. We’ve argued over the exegesis of James 5, 1 Corinthians 11, 1 Peter 2, Colossians 1 and probably other parts of Scripture as well. I’m not persuaded by everything John has written. We have different views on some aspects of Christian faith and understanding. But we talk. Sometimes we write things down and send them to each other. Privately. Hopefully, with respect. And a deep appreciation that we are limited and inadequate in our understanding, that we act out of pride all too often, and that maybe we’re both wrong!

When it comes to conflict, public Facebook is hopeless. Private messages and email at least constrain it between the people involved – until one, accidently or even deliberately, passes it on. Phone calls make it a bit more personal, especially if you’re willing to listen and not simply accuse. You can hear tone of voice, clarify, ask questions. Perhaps, skype can make things more personal still. But there’s no real substitute for meeting face-to-face, in-the-flesh. This is where disagreements are to be worked through.

When it comes to Christians using Facebook, here’s a few of God’s words to consider very carefully (and maybe you can think of many more) …

34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”  (John 13:34-25)

If any of you has a dispute with another, do you dare to take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the Lord’s people?  (1 Corinthians 6:1)

Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that in a case where they speak against you as those who do what is evil, they will, by observing your good works, glorify God on the day of visitation.  (1 Peter 2:12)

Always be ready to give a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you. 16 However, do this with gentleness and respect, keeping your conscience clear, so that when you are accused, those who denounce your Christian life will be put to shame.  (1 Peter 3:15-16)

 “If your brother sins against you, go and rebuke him in private. If he listens to you, you have won your brother.  (Matthew 18:15, my emphasis)

19 My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, 20 because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.  (James 1:19-20)

Macca’s book

Macca

Wow! I have my own book. Last Sunday I was welcomed back onto the staff team at Crossroads and presented with a book. I was gobsmacked and completely humbled as I looked through it. In fact, it was hard to concentrate on the rest of church. Sunday afternoon was spent reading it from cover to cover.

The book is full of thank you messages from friends. It represents 23 years of relationships here in Canberra, and it’s a great encouragement to hear how people have been impacted by God over this time. Some share of how they became Christians as we examined together what the Bible reveals about Jesus. Others speak of the impact of church or the FOCUS ministry or various trips we made to be involved with other churches on the coast.

I don’t know for sure whose idea it was, but I understand that special thanks goes to Marcus and Kelly, as well as the super-crafty Sara Sparks. Let me also thank Derek and Anna, David and Jenny, Monica, Bernie, Cath and Jamie, Klaus and Jude, Matt and Carla, Matt and Annette, Bron and Con, Anthea, Revin, Matt, Mik, Snicko and Anita, Richard and Pinnucia, Cam and Sue, Anton and Kylie, Sarah, Micaiah, Michael and Trish, Michael and Julie, Tim and Kate, Dan and Emma, Rob and Jenny, Steve and Cathy, James and Ali, Jonty and Beth, Sonya, Cliff and Jen, Lexi, Janine and Chris, Phil and Laura, Michelle, Michael and Susan, Andrew and Tanuja, Kate and Hamish, Keith and Joyce, Rob and Arabelle, Grace and Jono (best photo!), Matt, Mark and Louise, Dan and Celine, Eben, Philip and Rosi, Jennifer and Adi, Dave and Kate, Jo and Stuart, Russell and Kiri, Kathleen, Pete and Kate, Kell, Anne and Ian, Jared and Angela, Dan and Simone, Sam, Kerryn and Nathan, Dave, Tom, Ben and Beth, Deb, Nicola and Harry, Tim and Tegan, Mark and Katherine, Tim and Alison, Graeme and Chris, Mike and Donna, Mal and Vicki, Tim and Louise, Roslyn, Shan and Paul, Dean and Jo, Anita and Dave, Ralph and Kylie, Dave and Elissa, Andrew and Wendy, and families, and anyone else too slow to get in it!

Please come over and check it out if you’d like to see it. I was very touched. Thank you 🙂

PS If you click on the image above you can view the contents of the book!