Making the most of the cross

The second sermon I ever gave was a cracker. People told me! It was logical, engaging and humorous. I succeeded in explaining, illustrating and applying the Bible in a way that captivated the listeners. My girlfriend (now wife) even started to believe that I might have some hope of becoming a preacher! But, it’s time for public confession. I basically pinched the whole talk, idea for idea, point for point, from John Chapman.

I don’t think I was the first to do this, and I’m certain that I wasn’t the last. You see, I’d looked over the Bible passage again and again, and I couldn’t see any way to make it clearer than Chappo. So why not simply copy his talk?

Chappo’s passionate desire for people to understand the truth, and his confidence in the Bible to reveal it, came through so clearly in his preaching. He still has this same passion and confidence, and it comes across in his recent book, Making the most of the Cross. How many people are still writing books after their 80th birthdays, and dedicating them to their friends in the retirement home? Well, at least one! And I thank him for it!

This book takes us to the very core of the Christian message – the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Everything stands or falls on these events. Without them, there is no Christianity. If Jesus didn’t die, or if he died and remains dead, then there is no real hope for humanity, either in life or in death. This is no take it or leave it topic. It’s worth investigating seriously, whether we’re a child or an octogenarian. But don’t leave it until you’re 80 if you’re not already there!

There are two main sections in Making the most of the Cross. The first explores the significance of the death of the Lord Jesus. The second considers the facts and meaning of the resurrection. You could tackle the book in two parts, but the real benefits will come from going even more slowly and considering the many different aspects and implications of these events.

The death of Jesus has been described as a jewel with many facets. Each facet gives us a different window into the significance of the cross and its profound implications for us. All facets need to be seen so that we don’t underestimate or skew the meaning of the cross. For example, Chappo helps us to see that…

  1. Jesus’ death brings salvation
  2. Jesus’ death is a substitute
  3. Jesus’ death is a ransom
  4. Jesus’ death turns away God’s anger
  5. Jesus’ death brings the defeat of Satan
  6. In Jesus’ death, the just God justifies sinners freely
  7. Jesus’ death is the unifying force in the Christian community
  8. Jesus’ death brings forgiveness and cleansing

John Chapman grounds every chapter of his book in the text of the Bible. The Gospel accounts are the primary evidence for what happened to Jesus, and how Jesus understood what was happening. The rest of the New Testament supports this, giving additional insight into their meaning. Sometimes the Old Testament is quoted to assist us in understanding a particular background to Jesus’ death or resurrection. In fact, reading this book helps us to see more of how the whole Bible is focused on Jesus and only makes sense in the light of what he has done.

Given the brevity of this book, there is much more that could be said about the significance of the cross. But, this book provides a very good primer. If you are keen to take things deeper then let me recommend The Cross of Christ by John Stott, The Atonement by Leon Morris, and Where Wrath and Mercy Meet edited by David Peterson, among others.

To claim that Jesus was raised from the dead and is alive today, 2000 years later, is nothing short of extraordinary. What is more, Christianity stands or falls on the truth of this claim. It’s not an optional accessory. It’s the heart and soul of it all! Chappo outlines briefly the evidence for the resurrection, including the empty tomb, the eyewitnesses, the amazing transformation of the disciples, and their lasting impact on others (even to this day). But he doesn’t stop here. He goes on to highlight the significance of Jesus being raised, how the resurrection vindicates Jesus in his death, reveals him to be God’s appointed eternal ruler, the judge of all people, the pioneer of life beyond the grave, the pattern of resurrection to come, and the very real hope for you and me that death is not the end.

One thing that impressed and encouraged me about Making the most of the Cross is the suggested prayer, usually just a sentence or two, printed at the end of each chapter. This gives the book a personal edge that encouraged me to relate to God and not simply fill my head with ideas and information. The death and resurrection of Jesus is life-transforming. It has changed my life forever. But the truth is, I need to keep being reminded of these things. Perhaps you do too! I found these words ringing true…

Sometimes the circumstances of life may cause us to wonder if God has forgotten us. Everything seems to be going wrong. But the death of Jesus is above our circumstances. Nothing can take away the fact that Christ died for us. No matter what happens to you or to me, the death of the Lord Jesus says, “I love you”. Nothing can change that. Be in no doubt that God loves you. Jesus’ death remains as a beacon of God’s eternal love for us. (p14)

Teach us to number our days

IMG_4961Dear family and friends,

Thank you again for your ongoing support and encouragement. We continue to be buoyed by your prayers, visits, messages, gifts, and kindness. They matter just as much to us now as they did in the initial days of crisis.

After 6 cycles of chemo some of you have been asking, “How many have you got to go?” Our answer is simply, “We have no idea!” If the Alimta/Avastin chemo continues to shrink the tumour, or at least prevent it from growing, and if I can tolerate the toxic effects, then it could be a while. We’ve been viewing data that shows some patients with my specific gene mutation doing very well on Alimta for many months. This means that life may continue to be shaped by the ups and downs of chemo cycles for some time yet. We are still hoping to get access to the targeted drug, Crizotinib, once the chemo starts to fail, and we’re praying that the government or drug company will release this to us (ideally subsidised or free of charge).

I’m pleased that the two latest (maintenance) cycles have been easier to tolerate. This has meant that I’ve been able to do a bit more. Over recent days days I’ve even been spending time on the exercise bike, while watching episodes of iFish, and wishing I was somewhere in Northern Australia landing barra and GTs! I’m starting to do some light weights, situps, and a bit on the rowing machine too, under strict instruction from my youngest! Nothing too intense, but they say it all helps.

Over the next few weeks I have the opportunity to speak at church again. I’ll be giving a couple of talks based on Genesis chapters 3 to 9, God willing. These chapters of the Bible deal with the mess we make of our lives when we push God aside. They address issues of suffering and death, and consider God’s purposes in these things. I’m anticipating that I’ll feel their impact more intensely and personally than I have previously!

Let me say, one of the hardest things about this struggle with cancer is not knowing what the future holds. Silly really, because we have never known and we will never know… we just think we do! The daily reminder of my own mortality intensifies the urgency and importance of good decisions, making the most of my opportunities, and using my time wisely. I can’t simply put things off until tomorrow, or next year, or some time in the indefinite future. If they matter, really matter, then I need to get onto them now. I need to make them a priority. How much time gets frittered away doing nothing of lasting value? These words in the Psalm keep coming back to me:

12 Teach us to number our days carefully
so that we may develop wisdom in our hearts.
13 Lord—how long?
Turn and have compassion on Your servants.
14 Satisfy us in the morning with Your faithful love
so that we may shout with joy and be glad all our days.
15 Make us rejoice for as many days as You have humbled us,
for as many years as we have seen adversity.  (Psalm 90:12-15)

I used to think I had all the time in the world, enough time to get around to anything and everything I wanted to do. But then we grow older and life speeds up. Time starts to slip away. They say a mid-life crisis is being confronted with the reality that you can’t and won’t do everything you had planned in life. If so, then a terminal illness is this plugged into an amplifier!

My prayer is that God will teach me to number my days, to make the most of each day he gives me, and that I will thank him for these days whatever they may hold. It’s very easy to dwell on the negatives, to get miserable, to become filled with self-pity. But it doesn’t help. All it does is distract me from the true source of satisfaction and joy. This Psalm offers me some sound advice: talk to God, let him know how I’m feeling, ask him to be compassionate with me, call on him to satisfy me with his faithful love and enable me to find real joy… every day and whatever my circumstances.

Let me encourage you also to consider these words, to take them to heart, and to ask God to teach you to number your days.

With love, Dave (and Fiona)

Will I be the biggest loser?

My 13 year old is concerned that I should be more active, drinking less coffee, not snacking on chocolate, and shedding the kilos. He is now well trained as a ‘personal trainer’ after watching just about every episode of The Biggest Loser. Hence, he thought he’d write a fully integrated program for me, and then make sure I stick to it! I’ve attached it here, just in case it might be of benefit to any of you too!

Deserted by Lady Luck?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a will won’t do

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

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

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

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

Jesus famously taught…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making the most of the rest of your life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rhythm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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