Don’t waste your sport

dont-waste-your-sports

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beyond the darkness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When all else fails

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thirdly, Jesus spent time praying for others.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This, then, is how you should pray:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who’s holding the umbrella?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On my way to heaven

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I agree!

Don’t waste your cancer

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

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

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

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

We waste our cancer…

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

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

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

The five dysfunctions of a team

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

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

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

Dysfunction #1: Absence of Trust

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

Dysfunction #2: Fear of Conflict

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

Dysfunction #3: Lack of Commitment

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

Dysfunction #4: Avoidance of Accountability

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

Dysfunction #5: Inattention to Results

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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