Good Friday and the curse of cancer

Cancer has been front and centre this last week. Relay for Life on the weekend, with cancer survivors and carers, and the memory of loved ones now gone. Surgery today for our niece to remove any traces of melanoma. A funeral this morning for my friend’s mum, who lost her brief battle with lung cancer. Not long before there was Tony Grieg, and then Peter Harvey, and there have been so many others. Mums and dads, grandparents, cousins, uncles, children, bosses, neighbours, colleagues, passing acquaintances. Cancer is a cancer on our world. It invades our lives. It breaks our hearts.

Next Friday is Good Friday. A strange day, when we remember a man dying. In fact, I remember two men dying on this day. On Good Friday 2007 – it was the 6th April – I lost a good friend. He was only 29 years of age. He’d only been married for two years. We’d go to the gym together. He was my neighbour. He stood in the rain and helped us bury our family pet. He’d encourage me with stories – all true. He was my brother in Christ. Cancer took hold of my friend and it didn’t let go. I’d conducted his wedding and, soon after, I conducted his funeral.

It’s not right that a parent should have to view the death of their child.
It’s not right that a wife should lose a husband after only 2 years of marriage.
It’s not right that a man shouldn’t live to see his 30th birthday.

It’s not right. God knows it’s not right. I wondered, after my friend’s passing, if we’d be able to look on Good Friday as good ever again. How could it be good when every Easter we’d be reminded of the death of our friend, or husband, or son?

crossWe need to reflect on the death of the other man. He’s the reason we call it Good Friday. Jesus, who wasn’t much older than my friend. Jesus, who never married. Jesus, whose mother looked on in anguish at his death. Not a good Friday for Jesus. Nailed on a wooden cross. Between two criminals. Publicly ridiculed. Despised and rejected. Forsaken by his followers. Crying out, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

The worst of Fridays. The brutal execution of an innocent man. A genuinely good man. A just and merciful, compassionate and courageous man. But even more, this man Jesus was the Son of God, the Messiah, the Lord, and the Saviour. He was Immanuel, God with us. The death of Jesus was no accident. God wasn’t ambushed by the might of the Jews or Romans. There was a plan, a costly plan, a purpose to the death of Jesus. Something that would turn the worst of Fridays into the best day ever.

God had promised this day, centuries before, through the prophet Isaiah:

The servant grew up before God—a scrawny seedling,
a scrubby plant in a parched field.
There was nothing attractive about him,
nothing to cause us to take a second look.
He was looked down on and passed over,
a man who suffered, who knew pain firsthand.
One look at him and people turned away.
We looked down on him, thought he was scum.
But the fact is, it was our pains he carried—
our disfigurements, all the things wrong with us.
We thought he brought it on himself,
that God was punishing him for his own failures.
But it was our sins that did that to him,
that ripped and tore and crushed him—our sins!
He took the punishment, and that made us whole.
Through his bruises we get healed.
We’re all like sheep who’ve wandered off and gotten lost.
We’ve all done our own thing, gone our own way.
And God has piled all our sins, everything we’ve done wrong,
on him, on him. (Isaiah 53:2-6 The Message)

On that first Good Friday, Jesus took our sin upon himself and he bore the punishment. He paid the price. He won our forgiveness, our freedom, our life with God. As Jesus hung on that cross, it should’ve been me… and you. Jesus, the Righteous One, took the judgment we deserve. He endured it, himself, so that we don’t have to.

It’s because of that first Good Friday, that we can look on the day my friend died as a very good day. My friend knew the forgiveness of sins that comes through Jesus. He trusted Jesus, not only in his life, but unto death. He knew the significance of Good Friday and the sure hope of Resurrection Sunday. As I saw the lifeless body of my friend in the hospital on Good Friday, I recognised that he was no longer there. He’d already departed. He was now with his Saviour. Death no longer had hold on him. Cancer did not have the final word. That word belonged to Jesus.

Misplaced confidence

Misplaced confidence #1

The people of Israel at the time of Jeremiah believed they were invincible. After all, God had chosen them, made promises to them, and brought them into the promised land. They could live as they pleased and worship who they wanted because they had something that made them untouchable. They had the temple of the Lord.

But God had a message for them in Jeremiah chapter 7:

Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord!”

“‘Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, 10 and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, “We are safe”—safe to do all these detestable things?

Misplaced confidence #2

The people of Australia in 2012 believe we have a right to dominate world sport. After all, we’re the sporting nation, we hold the world records, the championships. We’re the best at AFL, swimming, cycling, tennis, rugby, shooting, hurdling, triathlon, netball, basketball, sailing, cricket… aren’t we? Even when we lose, we’re still the best! It’s our right. Of course we’re better than South African, New Zealand, England…

But maybe there’s a message for us:

2011 ICC World Cup - Australia Portrait SessionDo not trust in deceptive words and say, “We have Michael Clarke, Michael Clarke, Michael Clarke!”

Will you perform badly, fail to score tries, get out for ducks, take performance enhancing drugs, throw away privileged contracts, act like prima donnas and then blame it on a bad day, the coaches, the umpires, the poor training facilities? What gives?

Misplaced confidence #3

The religious person, the church goer, the ‘Christian’ can become confident in their position. After all, we believe in God, we go to church every week, month, at least every Christmas and Easter. We don’t think much about God at home, or at work, or when we’re out with their mates. We’ve been baptised, we have communion, we’re a member of the church. We’re decent people really and never really do anyone any harm.

Well, let me paraphrase Jeremiah’s words for a modern audience:

Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “I call myself a Christian, I go to church, I do good things!”

“‘Will you worship your careers, your wealth, your relationships, your reputations, your entertainment, your retirement plans. Will you give more attention to ‘stuff’ than you do to God? Will you trust in your basic goodness, and forget about Jesus? Will you live as you please during the week, then turn up to church, and assume God will be pleased with you?”

Well placed confidence

One place only. The promises of God fulfilled in Jesus Christ!

Check out Hebrews 10, quoting the words of Jeremiah:

15 The Holy Spirit also testifies to us about this. First he says:

16 “This is the covenant I will make with them
after that time, says the Lord.
I will put my laws in their hearts,
and I will write them on their minds.”

17 Then he adds:

“Their sins and lawless acts
I will remember no more.”

18 And where these have been forgiven, sacrifice for sin is no longer necessary.

19 Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.

Religious crap!

Some of you might be upset that I’ve used an offensive word in the title. To which I’m tempted to apologise for using the word ‘religious’! But seriously, I needed to use an offensive word, and I can think of more offensive words, but ‘crap’ seemed a good compromise. Why use it? Let me explain.

I think the average Aussie believes that Christians are religious people who are trying hard to get into God’s good books. They think a Christian is one who keeps various rules, regulations, and rituals in order to get right with God. If it was a comparison between a drug dealer and a nun, then the nun would be seen as closer to God. The more you do for God, the more likely you are to be in his good books. The better your religious resume, the more confident you can be of going to heaven. I know not everyone thinks this way, but enough do to make it an issue. What worries me, is that people think this is what Christianity is all about. And it’s scary.

If this were true, then I reckon I’d shape up pretty well…

Born while my dad was at theological college.
Grandfather a minister.
Dad a minister.
Uncle who’s a minister.
Another who was a missionary.
Pretty good pedigree!

Been to church nearly every Sunday I’ve been alive.
Still remember feeling guilty the first time we skipped to go on a train ride.
Went to Sunday School, Christian Endeavour, and church holiday camps.
Involved in youth group and Christian Fellowship at high school.
Even paid my own way to a National Christian Youth Convention.
On track and doing well!

At university I joined a campus Bible study.
More Christian camps and conferences.
Did a lay preaching course.
Began occasional preaching.
Organised and ran Bible studies and camps.
Better than average!

After uni I did a ministry apprenticeship.
Working for a church.
Off to Moore Theological College.
Bachelor of Theology with Honours.
Trained as a preacher by Chappo.
Master of Arts in Theology.
A-Grade training!

Ministry in Canberra.
Building Christian groups on the campuses.
Founding a new church.
Growing church, growing staff team, growing budget.
Planting another church.
Training ministry apprentices.
Sending out missionaries.
A ‘successful’ ministry, surely!

Preaching everywhere.
Baptist, Presbyterian, Uniting, Anglican, Independent.
Australia, South Africa, Kenya.
Canberra, Perth, Sydney, Hobart, Adelaide, Melbourne, Brisbane.
Only Darwin missing.
Not a bad resume!

If religious pedigree, training, and experience counts with God, then surely I’ve got what it takes. If I miss out, then only an elite few will ever get in. Surely, I can be confident that I’ve done enough? Can’t I?

NO!

In fact all that stuff is nothing more than crap, if I think God will be impressed by it. It’s worse than useless as a means of getting right with God. Let me prove this by giving you a case study.

If anyone else thinks he has grounds for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised the eighth day; of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; regarding the law, a Pharisee; regarding zeal, persecuting the church; regarding the righteousness that is in the law, blameless.

But everything that was a gain to me, I have considered to be a loss because of Christ. More than that, I also consider everything to be a loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. Because of Him I have suffered the loss of all things and consider them filth, so that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own from the law, but one that is through faith in Christ—the righteousness from God based on faith.  (Philippians 3:4-9 HCSB)

The Apostle Paul had it all – pedigree, training and experience. What Sonny Bill Williams is to rugby league, union, boxing and ticket sales, so was the apostle to religion! He was the superstar. He came from the right stock, he’d worked hard, and he was perched at the top of the religious tree. Surely he could be confident of his standing with God, couldn’t he?

NO!

What he thought was to his profit, was actually loss. In fact, he says all his religious credentials are ‘filth’. The word is literally dung or excrement. The Message translates it as ‘dog dung’ and the Common English Bible as ‘sewer trash’. It’s fit for the toilet. It’s crap! Everything he was, everything he’d worked for, everything he’d achieved – all filthy. And remember it’s his religious credentials he’s describing. What would make him say this?

His knowledge of Jesus Christ.

Paul came to understand that to be a Christian was to be a follower of Jesus Christ. It meant putting his trust in Jesus rather than himself. It meant recognising that even though Jesus once hung upon a cross, God had now raised him to life and placed him in the position of supreme authority. It meant recognising that Jesus hadn’t died for his own sins (he was sinless), he’d died for Paul’s, and mine, and yours.

Paul came to recognise that being a Christian had nothing whatsoever to do with being religious. It’s not about rules and regulations. It’s not about religious rites and rituals.

It’s about having a real RELATIONSHIP with Jesus.

His religious resume was excellent, unsurpassed even. If you had to be good and do all the right things for God to accept you, then Paul would have passed with high distinctions. But once he recognised who Jesus was, and what he had done, everything changed. He recognised that it’s not about our religious performance.

Christianity is not about what we DO for God.
It’s about what Jesus has DONE for us.

So if you’re tempted to put your confidence in your religious achievements, please don’t. It’s a dead end, literally. It’s filth. It’s to your loss, not your gain. What would you prefer –  to stand before God depending on your self-achieved righteousness? Or to trust in the God-given righteousness that comes by trusting in Jesus alone? Those who suggest that being a Christian is about religious performance are peddling dangerous and deceptive lies. To suggest that being Christian is about anything other than following Jesus is absolute crap! Don’t be deceived!

If I were God I’d end all the pain

PainIf I were God I’d end all the pain. That sounds pretty right. I’m not much of a fan of pain, especially my own! Currently, I’m sitting on my bed wearing ugg boots and a hoodie, bemoaning the cold weather, wondering if I’m well enough to venture out to watch the Brumbies play the Reds at Canberra Stadium tonight. Today’s temperature is supposed to range between 0 and 10 degrees. Subtract the wind chill and it will probably feel like minus a zillion at the ground. I must be sick or something, because until this year, I don’t think I’d missed a home game in a decade. Maybe I should ring up someone and see if I can sneak into a corporate box!

Yesterday it felt like sickness was getting the better of me. I ached all over and spent the afternoon and evening drifting in and out of sleep. I’ve probably just got another cold and a weakened immune system. But it’s not fun and it’s another reminder that things aren’t what they should be. For some dumb reason I checked the weather app on the phone at 10pm last night to discover it felt like -1.6 degrees in Canberra, while it was a balmy 25 degrees in Darwin. My heart sighed, I wished we were there, and once again wondered what on earth God was doing.

John Dickson’s little book, If I were God I’d end all the pain, is a helpful read for those who are looking for answers to the questions raised by suffering and pain. It’s not a detached philosophical book that fills the head and ignores the heart. John has experienced pain, first hand and from a young age, having lost his dad in plane crash when he was nine years old. He writes as one who understands the questions and who has explored many of the answers being offered.

Issues of faith and doubt loom large in the presence of suffering. Sometimes people attempt to use suffering as proof for the non-existence of God. It’s often expressed something like this:

Assumption 1:  An all-powerful God would be able to end suffering.
Assumption 2:  All all-loving God would desire to end suffering.
Fact:  Suffering exists.
Conclusion:  An all-powerful, all-loving God, therefore, does not exist.  (p15)

John offers an alternative proposition that he explores in this book:

Assumption 1:  An all-powerful God exists.
Assumption 2:  All all-loving God exists.
Fact:  Suffering exists.
Conclusion:  God must have loving reasons (which he is able to achieve) for permitting suffering.  (p16)

This is not offered as a proof for God. Nor does it solve the problem of suffering. It still leaves deep and emotional difficulties for the one who believes in God. Such as, Why does God allow this suffering? and What has he done about it? 

Before John gives a Christian explanation for the problem of suffering, he explores a number of other perspectives. He demonstrates how Islam understands suffering in a very different manner to Buddhism, and how Hinduism and Atheism are very different again. I won’t attempt to summarise these views because I don’t want to caricature them by reducing each to a few sentences. But it’s important to understand how different these world views are, against the popular claim that all religions are simply windows into the same truth. This suggestion shows serious ignorance and disrespect for each of these religions and world views.

The Bible’s perspective on suffering is that it’s okay to ask questions and raise doubts. In fact many of the biblical authors, especially the Psalm writers, do exactly that. Psalm 22 is offered as an important example:

1  My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from the words of my groaning?
2  O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, and am not silent.

John writes in response to the words of this Psalm:

If I were a Buddhist, this sort of questioning would indicate my unenlightenment; if I were a Muslim, it would border on blasphemy; if I were an atheist, or course, it would be meaningless. Actually, I suspect some church folk of today would feel uncomfortable repeating the sentiments of this psalm. Sometimes we in the church feel we must declare “The Lord is my shepherd” even if the Shepherd seems to have gone walk-about. But faith isn’t like that, at least biblical faith isn’t like that. Faith is not denial of reality, nor does it involve repeating a mantra to dispel the doubts. The presence of Psalm 22, in the Bible, right before Psalm 23, reminds us that we have God’s permission to express our disappointment.  (p34-35)

The Bible gives an explanation for the cause of human suffering and it lies in our decision to reject our Creator. From that moment onwards (somewhere near the beginning of human history) everything has been out of whack. Things have grown worse and worse with every assertion of our independence from God. I’m preaching on Genesis 4-9 tomorrow and I’ve been struck again at how quickly everything deteriorated. John writes of Genesis 3:6, So began the long and torturous story of the human will: men and women, made in God’s image, defying their Maker for an imagined personal gain. (p42)

Of course, many have asked why God doesn’t simply step in, over-rule our selfish decisions, and stop the pain we cause. If he has the power to do this, then what’s stopping him? The answer lies in God’s respect for human dignity. He has made us as real beings with real choice. We’re not puppets like Truman, in the movie, The Truman Show. God doesn’t play ‘dolls house’ with the world. We are real independent beings who can choose either to relate to God, or to reject God. God allows us to choose, and to live with our choices, but he won’t allow evil and suffering to continue forever. He’s set a time when he will call all injustice to account. It’s a testimony to God’s patience that he hasn’t done this yet. God is giving people time to turn back to him.

This book also highlights the biblical perspective that God hasn’t given up on this world. He promises an eternal future for all who put their confidence in Jesus Christ. Contrary to the popular notion of heaven, where people are seen as disembodied souls separated from physical existence, the Bible speaks of a new physical creation. We can look forward to an end to pain and suffering and the restoration of our bodies. This is a place where we continue to enjoy real physical sensory experience. We can look forward to a future that holds real hope for those currently suffering in pain.

John finishes his book with a profound perspective on suffering that’s unique to Christianity. In contrast to Islam, which sees God as the ‘Unmoved-Mover’, the Bible portrays God as sharing in our suffering as the ‘Deeply-Moved-Mover’. Jesus, God-in-the-flesh, shares in this painful world, suffers deeply, and dies a torturous death by crucifixion. But the deeper significance in Jesus’ suffering is found in these words of Psalm 22, that Jesus makes his own:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Why would Jesus cry out such a thing? This is God’s Son, in whom God is well pleased, so what’s happening? Jesus does far more than experience my physical or emotional suffering and pain. He takes my guilt and shame, enduring the judgment of God against all my selfishness and sin, so that I can receive God’s mercy. Totally undeserved, but generously offered. Here is real hope for all who suffer… if we will put our trust in Jesus.

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!

Body Image

Having cancer doesn’t do much for one’s body image. Shortly after coming home from hospital I visited a friend’s pool with my family. I’d undergone 2 surgeries and had some good looking scars where the tubes went between my ribs. I’d lost about 13 kilos, but without becoming trim and taut. It was like my muscles had melted and disappeared, and those that were left had slipped down my body and become fairly useless. I didn’t much like what I saw in the mirror. And neither did my youngest. Sitting beside the pool he said to me, “Just as well you’re married dad. Otherwise you’d never get anyone to marry you, looking like that!” Mmmm! 😦

And a strange thing happened on Saturday. We’d been out watching the Brumbies demolish the Rebels in an awesome game of rugby, and I came home planning to check out the highlights on the television. As I was watching the wrap up after the game, the camera showed one of the Rebels players speaking with a bloke wearing a Brumbies hoodie on the field. I looked closely trying to work out who it was. And then I realised… it was me! I didn’t recognise myself on the TV. A serious lack of hair. An unwanted increase in girth. And I seemed to have aged 10 years in 4 months.

Today I felt like a human pin cushion. One injection for blood tests. A cannula to pump radioactive fluid into my veins for CT scans to the torso and brain. A needle full of vitamin B12 to help me make blood cells. 29 acupuncture needles to strengthen my immune system and alleviate pain. Another 9 tiny needle tabs to continue the benefit of the acupuncture. All that in one day!

And the killer chemo drugs, the ‘weed killer’ they pump into my body. The steroids, anti-nauseals, antihistamines, pain killers, vitamins, iron tablets, herbal medicines, laxatives, reflux tablets, and more. My kitchen resembles a pharmacy. The only drug I enjoy is the one that comes out of the shiny machine in the corner!

It’s not just the treatments, or people’s comments, or looking at myself in the mirror. I know that things aren’t what they once were. Shortness of breath, aches and pains, muscular weakness, nanna naps during the day, waking up during the night to visit the toilet, and the list continues. I keep hoping things will get better, but they might not. Somethings improve, and others get worse. And I’m not going to reverse the ageing process. None of us are!

There are some things I can do. Eat less, or at least cut out some of the ‘comfort’ snacks. Exercise more, without compromising my capacity to recover from chemo and fight the cancer. Not get hung up about what I look like, although I am under instruction to have a shave every day!

Our culture makes things harder for us. We are obsessed with image. We idolise youth and we’re constantly being tempted by strategies to make ourselves look and feel younger. But, why can’t we face the reality? People get sick. People grow old. Bodies wear out. One day we’ll die. We don’t like it, and nor should we, but we can’t change it.

The Bible candidly reminds us of this reality. One day every one of us will die and meet our Maker. We’re called to live in the light of this reality, not to try to hide it or avoid it. The ageing process reminds us to consider God while we can, to enjoy God as we live this life. Not to ignore him, or put him off until it’s too late. As it says in the book of Ecclesiastes:

 1 Remember your Creator
in the days of your youth,
before the days of trouble come
and the years approach when you will say,
“I find no pleasure in them”—
2 before the sun and the light
and the moon and the stars grow dark,
and the clouds return after the rain;
3 when the keepers of the house tremble,
and the strong men stoop,
when the grinders cease because they are few,
and those looking through the windows grow dim;
4 when the doors to the street are closed
and the sound of grinding fades;
when men rise up at the sound of birds,
but all their songs grow faint;
5 when men are afraid of heights
and of dangers in the streets;
when the almond tree blossoms
and the grasshopper drags himself along
and desire no longer is stirred.
Then man goes to his eternal home
and mourners go about the streets.
6 Remember him—before the silver cord is severed,
or the golden bowl is broken;
before the pitcher is shattered at the spring,
or the wheel broken at the well,
7 and the dust returns to the ground it came from,
and the spirit returns to God who gave it.
(Ecclesiastes 12:1-7)

These words were written hundreds of years before Jesus. The author reflects on the meaningless emptiness he sees in life. Life’s experiences can be wonderful, they can be awful, but either way death bringing everything to a halt. We come and go so quickly, like a mist or a vapour. Death is the big full stop to life.

Jesus frees us from this depressing analysis. Life is no longer without meaning or purpose, because we see clearly that death is not the end. The resurrection of Jesus offers purpose and hope, both for this life and the life to come. We don’t have to panic and fight the decay of our bodies at all costs. This life matters deeply, but it’s not all there is.

The Apostle Paul speaks of our bodies as being like a tent, a temporary dwelling. He contrasts this with the image of a permanent home, a heavenly building, a resurrected body:

1 Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. 2 Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, 3 because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. 4 For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. 5 Now it is God who has made us for this very purpose and has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.
6 Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. 7 We live by faith, not by sight. 8 We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.  (2 Corinthians 5:1-8)

Jesus can free us from being obsessed with how we appear, with trying to stay young at any price. He can lift us beyond the depressing observation that one day we will be dead and gone, and ultimately forgotten. More than this, he reminds us that life is not all about our self image or how others see us. What matters much more is how God sees us, and what God is doing in and through us. If we’re willing to put our trust in Jesus, then we can be confident that…

Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. (2 Corinthians 4:16)

QandA – Dawkins and Pell

As I watched QandA last night on television, I was reminded that Australia is a great country to live in. Professor Richard Dawkins, probably the world’s most famous atheist, debating Cardinal George Pell, head of the Roman Catholic Church in Sydney. Religions in conflict. Worldviews clashing. Freedom to speak your mind. This would never happen in some parts of the world. People are threatened with censorship, imprisonment, beatings, even death if they challenge another’s beliefs. Australia is a great country to live in because we are free to disagree. We are free to argue and persuade and critique and defend our beliefs. May it ever be so.

The debate itself left me somewhat disappointed. My chief concern was that Biblical Christianity was not well represented. Cardinal Pell made some curious comments about ‘atheists’ going to heaven, a place of purification for people not ready for heaven, bread and wine turning into the body and blood of Jesus, and the like. Dawkins was also bemused by Pell’s equivocation about a real Adam and Eve.

At times both Pell and Dawkins seemed to argue the case in areas beyond their expertise. Dawkins conceded that he was not a physicist as he sought to explain, in ‘layman’s terms’, how something can be created out of nothing. Pell got drawn into justifying scientific standpoints, when he was clearly unclear about the details. He had obviously done some homework in preparation for the debate, but it reminded me of a student swatting up a few exam questions, knowing they would likely come up. Dawkins was challenged with the ‘why’ question about existence. The question of meaning and purpose. His response was to ridicule the question as a ‘non-question’. At this point he had assumed his conclusion that there is no God. If you postulate a creator God, then the ‘why’ question is very meaningful indeed.

As could have been expected, Pell was challenged about his personal views on global warming, about the church’s attitude toward homosexual marriage, and there were snickers when he spoke of ‘preparing boys’ for their first communion. Sadly, religion was pitted against science, on the assumption that faith is incompatible with a scientific worldview. This wasn’t a debate of Christianity versus atheism. It was much murkier than this.

My biggest concern was that the very heart of Christian faith was largely ignored in this debate. While being promoted as an Easter edition of QandA, the events of Good Friday and Easter Sunday were not properly addressed. Sadly, it was Dawkins, not Pell, who most accurately described the meaning and significance of the cross for Christians. The Cardinal didn’t focus people’s attention on Jesus. The evidence of the empty tomb and the witnesses who claimed to have seen the risen Jesus didn’t rate a mention. All in all, it was most unsatisfying.

My hope and prayer is that this debate will stimulate discussion, thinking and investigation. There must be better answers than what we heard last night. What does the Bible actually say? Who was Jesus? How is it that one man has left a mark on billions? Are we simply the product of time plus matter plus chance? Is death really the end? Is there evidence that Jesus rose bodily from the dead? Is there more clarity available?

And for Christians, let’s open our Bibles and read. And let’s listen to what others are saying, to understand their arguments and concerns, and to seek to understand them. Let’s take the time to truly know more of what we believe and what others believe. Let’s take the opportunities to talk rationally and clearly about the genuine hope that we have. Let’s seek to point people to the one we follow, Jesus Christ. As the first follower of Jesus, the apostle Peter, said:

But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect…  (1 Peter 3:15)