Reflecting on suffering

aaron-burden-426280-unsplashJames, the brother of Jesus, opens the argument of his New Testament letter with these words…

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds
(James 1:2)

At first glance, this seems superficial—put on a happy face, smile, look on the bright side. At second glance, this seems a gloss or a pretence—things aren’t really that bad, there’s always someone worse off than you, you think you’ve got problems, luxury. At third glance, this seems to represent an asceticism or stoicism that’s detached from reality—pain is inherently good, no pain-no gain, harden up.

But if you only glance three times at this verse, then you will be ill-prepared to face the difficulties of this life, and you won’t have much that’s helpful to offer others.

I’m off to a funeral this morning. A young man, husband, father of two, son, brother, friend to many. Some will still be in shock. How could this happen? It’s so not right. Many will feel the pain acutely. Something tragic has taken place. Relationships have been severed. The grief will be palpable.

We will gather in a church—a building that many of us have gathered in many times. We’ve been there for weddings, baptisms, funerals. We’ve come looking for answers, searching to find hope, seeking to make some sense out of such horror. We will ponder two small children without their daddy. Not today, not tomorrow, not next year, not in this life. Our hearts will crumble as we listen to family sharing, friends praying, people crying.

What help does James 1:2 offer at such a time? Is it a verse for such an occasion? Will it only rub salt into our wounds? Is it best left for another time?

James 1:2 is a word for a such a season, because it is written specifically to brothers and sisters. Not flesh and blood, but spiritual siblings. Even though Jesus and James shared the same mother, it’s their spiritual bond that matters most. He writes for those who have been adopted into the God’s family through trusting in Jesus Christ. James has a word for Christians who call God their Father.

It’s a timely word for us today, for James is not saying to pucker up and smile. He’s saying first of all to think. That’s right, think. He doesn’t say ‘Be joyful’, he says ‘consider it pure joy’. He calls us to reflect, ponder, meditate upon, consider what’s really going on when we face trials of many kinds. When life is difficult beyond belief, when people are suffering, when there don’t seem to be answers, when it just hurts so deeply… at this time consider it joy. How so?

because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
(James 1:3-4)

A Christian funeral is not a place for platitudes. It’s not a place for wishful thinking, for simply hoping for the best, and least of all for glossing over the pain and hurt. Death is harsh. It’s unkind and unrelenting. It’s devastating and cruel to all who are left behind. And yet, for the brothers and sisters, for those who hope in Jesus, for the ones who trust that Jesus has conquered death and offers forgiveness and eternal life to all who trust him—death causes us to reflect again on what matters most. We are reminded to refocus, to maintain our hope in Jesus, and to persevere in trusting him.

We might not feel much joy on this occasion, but we have reason to be reminded of the objective joy of resurrection hope. My friend is now with his saviour. His wife, his children, his family, his friends, you and I, will one day be reunited for all eternity if we persevere in our faith. Death and funerals will test our faith. As we look to Jesus, this faith grow stronger.

“Dear Heavenly Father, as we mourn today, fill our hearts with the truth, enable us to trust in your good and loving purposes, enrich our faith in Jesus Christ, and remind us to see the joy in being with you for all eternity.”

Hope beyond cure

‘Cancer free to no hope in less than two weeks.’

This was the headline to the post I read on a cancer forum yesterday. How could things change so quickly? The truth is, they hadn’t. There’d been a bad case of miscommunication.

I browse these forums from time to time. I can’t do it daily. I find it too sad, too overwhelming. People are sick, confused, powerless, dying, and so often lacking in hope. Every day there are desperate cries of anguish. There are pleas for prayer. There’s the outpouring of grief. Sometimes there’s an explosion of anger at the merciless killer, cancer.

As I read the headline above, it clarified in my mind what it is that I so want to communicate. It’s what I’m praying my book will achieve. My goal is to offer hope beyond cure.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m 100% pro-cure. I want my cancer to completely disappear. I pray that it will and I pray the same for others. I’m excited by medical advances and new discoveries. I absolutely love hearing that someone with cancer has no evidence of disease anymore. I love the hope that comes with this pronouncement. In a sense, life can begin again. A new chapter with a new outlook.

Yet when the prognosis is bad, when all attempts at medical intervention have been exhausted, when prayers have not been answered as we might wish… what then? Is there hope still? Or has all hope been exhausted?

Is cure the ultimate hope for those of us with cancer? Is this what we hope for beyond all else? I don’t know really. I haven’t asked enough people. My guess, is that we have a range of hopes. But I’m concerned if the hope of a cure for cancer is where we stop.

What happens if we are cured? We go back to life. Not as normal. More likely as radically changed people. But then we’re likely to get sick again. It could be the recurrence of cancer. It may be something else altogether. We may recover and we might keep recovering, but there will come a day when we won’t. Death will catch up with each of us eventually.

What then of hope? Is it a meaningless platitude? Was Nietzsche right when he wrote…

In reality, hope is the worst of all evils, because it prolongs the torments of man.

Or is there hope yet for those facing death? This is such an important question and yet so often it doesn’t get asked. We become so consumed with life here and now, that we don’t pause to consider the inevitability of our death. I may not have cancer when I die, but I will still die. Is there hope for me? Is there hope for any of us?

19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. 20 But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.  (1 Corinthians 15:18-19)

God’s Word tells me that the answer is YES! There is hope beyond death and it’s found in Jesus Christ. I long for people to know the certainty of this hope. This is a hope that stands on the evidence of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. If Jesus is alive today, then there is hope beyond cure. There is hope beyond death.

Faith, hope and tears

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

Jesus wept.

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

Look again at John 11:35…

Jesus wept.

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

And yet, John 11:35…

Jesus wept.

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

Letters from the land of cancer

wangerinI began reading Letters from the Land of Cancer by Walter Wangerin Jr. nearly a year ago. However, I didn’t finish it. I think I felt a little overwhelmed by it. The topic, the intensity, the unrelenting discussion of cancer and death. I wasn’t yet ready to read 22 letters by a man reflecting on his cancer. I set myself the project of reading it all this week. If I was planning to write a book about living with cancer, then I needed to consider what it felt like for the reader. This probably makes me one of the more motivated of his readers. We share the same cancer, a similar profession, same number of children, grandchildren (that’s right – I’m awaiting delivery in October), love of motorcycles, and more.

The obvious difference is that Walter Wangerin is a world-class, well-respected, writer. That makes WW a WWW! (Grandad joke!) He’s a teacher of English literature and a prolific writer of fiction. He’s a wordsmith. He’s eloquent. He’s poetic. His writing is thick, like treacle. It’s deep, intense, heavy, profound. His words are disturbing, niggling, probing. But they’re also light and fresh and invigorating. They stir the soul to action. At least, they did mine. I’ve written so many notes and comments and questions.

I found this book hard to get into, but harder to put down. I wanted to know what happened next. What did you learn? How is your treatment? How is your wife? What are the doctors saying? What are the results of the next scan? How does this mesh with your faith? What is important to you now? What will you make your priorities? What’s it like to be on oxygen 24/7? Why don’t you pray for your own healing? Why do you look forward to death? How do your family feel? What leads you to say your cancer is an adventure? Or a blessing rather than a battle? I suspect that I was vicariously travelling this journey with him, and that these are more questions about me than him.

This book worked for me. It pushed me to reflect, to reconsider my own experiences, to look again to God. It’s heavy, but he’s writing about heavy stuff. Reading 22 letters one after the other is a bit like watching a still frame motion picture. You know, the ones that show a seed being planted, a sprout emerging from the ground, a plant growing to maturity. All frame by frame. One picture per day. It’s like that. We see the outside journey experienced by the Wangerins, and we also learn of the inner journey, the impact on his mind and heart, his faith and convictions.

I’m not sure who I’d give this book to. My dad has read it, so I’ll have to ask him his thoughts. I suspect you’d want to be a serious reader to tackle it. I also suspect you’d need to be willing to be confronted heavily with your own mortality. It’s no coincidence, that I wrote the poem, Pain, while reading this book. It’s an intense book.

Following his journey throughout this book, I fully expected the final chapter to be posthumous. Perhaps, a final word from his wife, speaking of Walter’s passing. But no. It’s all Walter. The cancer was discovered in 2005, the final letter of the book written in 2008, the publishing date 2010. As soon as I finished the book, I hurried to my computer and googled his name. So when did he die? According to his website he has a speaking engagement on May 31 in West Virginia, so I’m guessing not yet!

I’d love to meet this man. I think we’d have a lot to talk about!

Our time is in God’s hands – Psalm 90

Teach us to number our days aright,
that we may gain a heart of wisdom.  (Psalm 90:12)

crosscalendarMy days are numbered. So are yours. There’s no point in denying it or ignoring it. It’s a fact we can’t overcome. What matters is how we choose to spend the days we have. Will we waste them away in meaningless trivia? Or will we make them count? My prayer is that I will number my days. Not literally count them down, because I don’t have sufficient information to do this. But understand deeply that they are limited, so that I use the time I have wisely.

I want my life to count for eternity, not by making a name for myself. It would soon be forgotten anyway. But by bringing honour and glory to God. By declaring his praises. By drawing people to his love and kindness. By showing people to the gateway of heaven, Jesus Christ. He alone is the way, the truth and the life.

In December last year, I celebrated a year since my cancer diagnosis in a rather strange and almost eerie way. I was invited to speak at the same conference I’d spoken at the year before. This was the conference I was attending when I was admitted to hospital. To tell the truth, I didn’t expect to be at another conference, let alone give the opening talk again. God had other plans! It seemed fitting to speak on Psalm 90. This is a psalm that highlights our weakness and mortality.  It calls us to fess up to who we are, to get real about our limitations, and to make the most of the time given to us. There is a rawness to this psalm and it spoke powerfully to my circumstances.

I believe it speaks to us all and the wise course is to consider it very carefully. I recommend you take the time to read over Psalm 90 and ask God for wisdom to help you number your days.

If you would like to listen to the talk I gave on Psalm 90 at the 2012 AFES staff conference, you can listen or download it here.

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.

Learning from the Mayan mistake

mayanDecember 21 came and went without so much as a ripple. 21/12/12 had been forecasted as cataclysmic end to the world, based on a particular understanding of the Mayan Calendar. A handful of people escaped to various ‘safe zones’ throughout the world – though I’m not sure how that helps if the earth gets destroyed. Others were stockpiling food and wine – but I don’t know if they planned a feast before or after the world’s end! There was a bit of noise, some media hype, a few fanatics, and then disappointment – or should that be relief? December 21 was followed by 22, then 23, then 24, then Christmas… and now we’re well into 2013. What do we make of this? Ignore it? Joke about it?

I recommend learning from it. But what’s there to learn? Don’t listen to doomsday prophecies? Filter all media beat-ups? Be skeptical of all mystical explanations of the cosmos? Maybe, but I suggest something more concrete and personal:

It may not be possible to predict the end of the world,
but you can certainly predict the end of your world.

You probably won’t know the day or the month or even the year, but you can be absolutely certain that it will happen. Death is one of life’s certainties. We are finite beings. We grow old, get sick, and die. Sometimes this comes quickly, sometimes it’s delayed, but it always happens. Moses got right to the point when he wrote long ago:

Our days may come to seventy years,
or eighty, if our strength endures;
yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow,
for they quickly pass, and we fly away.  (Psalm 90:10)

RepentThe Bible also teaches that this world will come to an end. It’s tied up with Jesus Christ. Just as Jesus entered this world once to bring salvation, so he will come again to judge the living and the dead. Jesus promises that this day will mean judgement for all who reject him, and life for all who submit to him and trust him. It’s common to ridicule and caricature the Bible’s teaching on the end of the world, but we’d do well to take Jesus at his word. He will come again.

So whether it’s the return of Jesus that marks the end, or whether it’s our mortality that guarantees our end, it makes sense to be prepared. There’s no point stockpiling things because they won’t help you and you can’t take them with you. There’s no ‘safe zone’ in this world you can flee to. But there is a way to prepare. Flee to Jesus and find refuge in him. He died and rose again to rescue you from the judgement to come. He’s offering you fulness of life now and forever. Do it now so that you don’t get caught out. Do it now so that you don’t miss out on the joy of relationship with Jesus in all the time you have left. Do it now because the more you practise putting things off, the better you’ll get at doing it. Do it now because the God who gave you this life wants you to enjoy life with him forever.

Holding on to hope

holding on to hopeSome things in life seem completely unfair. Having a baby, knowing that they will live for only a few short weeks or months, is one of these things. The pain and grief for the parents and siblings is too difficult to contemplate. For this to happen twice within the same family beggars belief. Holding on to Hope by Nancy Guthrie tells the story of the Guthrie family and their loss of two children with a metabolic disorder called Zellweger Syndrome. Their daughter, Hope, lived for just over 6 months and their son, Gabriel, lived for a little less than 6 months. Nancy describes their staggering loss and broken hearts. More than this, she writes of the wonderful hope to be experienced by turning to God in our brokenness.

Holding on to Hope invites us inside Nancy’s personal journey of suffering. She examines her own story of loss in the light of the biblical Book of Job. These Scriptures offer insights on dealing with pain, listening to others, grappling with despair, searching for meaning, struggling to trust God, handling our emotions, and where to find hope.

Job is the longest exploration of suffering, grief and hope in the Bible. Its sheer size and its apparently depressing tone have scared many readers away from learning its lessons. One friend of mine went to a church where the minister preached one chapter of Job every week for 41 weeks. It seemed like the minister wanted the congregation to get a taste of Job’s suffering! Surely 4 or 5 weeks would be a better approach. I preached it in one week! Another friend of mine is fearful of reading or preaching on this book, because he superstitiously expects things to go wrong if he does so. I would have thought that things are going to go wrong anyway, so we may as well learn what we can from Job!

Nancy Guthrie takes us gently through her experiences, engaging in every chapter with the text of Job. This is a book of compassionate wisdom. It’s the kind that you can confidently pass on to a friend who is suffering, knowing that you have left them in safe hands. This is no academic work or dispassionate apologetic – it’s a kind word from one who knows suffering and who listens to God’s word.

The overall structure of the book traces Nancy’s experience with her daughter, Hope, through pregnancy, birth, death and grieving. While the family is struggling to deal with the loss of their daughter, they are growing in the hope that comes from trusting the promises of God. Toward the close of the book we learn also of Nancy’s pregnancy with Gabriel, who also has Zellweger Syndrome. This is a tragic, yet hope-filled story.

Each chapter begins with a brief reading from Job, followed by a reflection on her own experiences. The chapter headings below will give you insight into the breadth of issues addressed:

Loss   Tears   Worship   Gratitude   Blame   Suffering   Despair   Why?   Eternity   Comforters   Mystery   Submission   Intimacy

Hold on to Hope is a journey of faith, hope and love. We see God at work by his Word and Spirit in the lives of Nancy and her husband, David. She helps us to grieve well, to turn to God in thanks, to trust God, to seek to honour him, to find hope in God’s promises and faithfulness. She shows us where to turn when it’s all too much, what to do when people’s words (or lack of) hurt more than heal, and why God should always be our strength and refuge.

I found some of her words very personally confronting. In one instance, she reverses a typical prayer for healing that’s accompanied by a whisper of “If it be your will”. She suggests instead the following:

Shouldn’t we cry out to God with boldness and passion and persistence in a prayer that says, “God, would you please accomplish your will? Would you give me a willing heart to embrace your plan and your purpose? Would you mould me into a vessel that you can use to accomplish what you have in mind?” And then, perhaps, we could add a tiny P.S. that says, “If that includes healing, we would be grateful.”

Isn’t real faith revealed more through pursuing God and what he wants than pursuing what we want?  (p79-80)

My wife read this book years ago. In fact, there are usually a few copies floating around our bookshelves because she keeps buying them to give away to others. One friend, whom she’d given a copy to, asked me on the weekend if I’d read it. So now I have! This was a woman who’d given birth to a little boy who died within an hour of his birth. She told me that she’d found it helpful and encouraging. I known Fiona has given copies of this book to grieving mothers of stillborn babies and others who’ve experienced significant tragedy and sorrow.

Don’t think it’s just a book for mothers or women. I found it spoke to personally to me. It has relevance for people struggling in a range of areas, such as unemployment, bereavement, serious illnesses such as cancer, divorce, depression, anxiety, loneliness, chronic fatigue. These are all circumstances where our hearts are tempted to turn away from God. This book gently draws us back.

The edition which I’ve just read contains additional resources for the reader. There’s a list of Bible passages related to the theme of each chapter. There’s also an 8 week study guide which is designed to be used by individuals or groups. These studies take the reader deeper into the Book of Job, as well as other Bible texts, and include questions for discussion and application. She invites you to visit her website at www.nancyguthrie.com to write a message, share your story, or discover more resources to help you find hope in the midst of suffering.

My heart was heavy

Today I had my 16th chemo visit for the year. This time it was a sobering experience.

It started well with a ‘chat’ with the parking inspectors about my last visit to the hospital! There were a few comments about my Mo for Movember. I asked the three girls beside me, who were visiting a patient, if they were doing Movember too! And they were! One had already raised over $1100. No they didn’t have facial hair on their upper lip – they each had cute mo-shaped earings. 🙂 I chatted with the nurses about a letter for the parking inspectors, about my first ever mouth ulcers, and about how I planned to have a treatment in Sydney in January. I got hooked up to the drugs and tried to connect my iPad to the new WiFi.

Then I began to notice some upsetting things happening around me. There was a patient who seemed to be quietly sobbing as a nurse consoled her. I thought I heard someone speak about what was happening with her dog. There was a young woman, who didn’t seem much older than 20, confidently having her treatment. Why so young?

But it was the conversation that I couldn’t help overhearing from the other side of the room, that disturbed me most. The man was very frail, in his late 70s I’d guess. His wife sat beside him. The nurses discussed the need to work out a treatment strategy with the doctors. It seemed he had a serious infection – one that he’d had before – and they were working out the treatment strategy. This was decision time for the man.

The conversation went something like this…

“Is there light at the end of the tunnel?” the patient asked.

“Not for the cancer.” replied a nurse. “But there is for the _____itis. We can treat that. We can improve your quality of life.”

“What life?” he said. “This isn’t living. It’s just agony. I can’t do anything. I don’t want to have more treatment.”

“And you don’t have to.” said the nurse. “It’s up to you. It’s your decision. We respect whatever decision you make.”

“I don’t want to have any more treatment!” he protested. “I’m just prolonging the inevitable.”

“It’s your decision. You have the right to choose.” said the nurse.

His wife seemed anxious, “But think of all we’ve been through. Now’s not the time to make the decision. Why don’t we treat the infection and then you can decide.”

The nurse agreed that it wasn’t the time to make such huge decisions, but the patient seemed to have made up his mind. “There’s no point.” he said. “I want to go home.”

“And you can go home,” said the nurse. “But don’t think that just because you told us today that you didn’t want to do anything, that you can’t change your mind tomorrow. You can change your mind any time. And when you get home ring palliative care right away. Right away, okay!”

“We will.” said his wife.

And they left.

This really was a life and death experience, I was witnessing. It was so hard for him. So hard for his wife. I found it hard. I wanted to go to him and talk about life and death and hope and God. But they were gone and I was hooked up in my chair. My heart was heavy. I prayed for them. Then I turned on Eva and closed my eyes.

As I reflect on this again, these words come to mind:

11 “What strength do I have, that I should still hope?
What prospects, that I should be patient?
12 Do I have the strength of stone?
Is my flesh bronze?
13 Do I have any power to help myself,
now that success has been driven from me?  (Job 6:11-13)

“My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle,
and they come to an end without hope.
Remember, O God, that my life is but a breath;
my eyes will never see happiness again.
The eye that now sees me will see me no longer;
you will look for me, but I will be no more.
As a cloud vanishes and is gone,
so one who goes down to the grave does not return.
10 He will never come to his house again;
his place will know him no more.  (Job 7:6-10)

Job, too, despaired of his life. I hope that he, and the man and wife in the chemo ward today, know these words of comfort and hope. They’re true for all who will turn to God and trust him. He’s the God who raised Jesus Christ as Lord:

4:18 So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. 5:1 For 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. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now the one who has fashioned us for this very purpose is God, who has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.
(2 Corinthians 4:18-5:5)

An open letter to Sam Harris

Dear Mr Harris

samharrisI was encouraged by a friend to watch your lecture on Death and the Present Moment at the recent Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne. Your topic is very close to home for me, as I’ve been battling a stage 4 adenocarcinoma of the lung for the past 6 months. I understand it was also especially pertinent for you, and many in your audience, following the death of your good friend, Christopher Hitchens. Your lecture has provoked me to consider a number of issues and to write a few words in response.

For me, the most provocative words in your talk were the following:

Atheism appears to be a death cult, because we are the only people who admit that death is real.

When I heard these words, I had to stop and hit replay. You didn’t really say that, did you? Surely, this is hyperbole for the sake of impact! I’m a theist, not an atheist, and I firmly believe in the reality of death. I’ve visited morgues, been on the scene at fatal accidents, attended funerals, and sat beside lifeless bodies in the hospital. Strangers, friends, and family. No breath, no movement, no heartbeat, no consciousness, no life. I’m not an atheist and yet I affirm that death is very very real. It seems bizarre to claim otherwise.

I suspect it’s what you call the ‘gospel of atheism’ – that nothing happens after death – that’s really at issue here. You admit that atheism doesn’t offer real consolation in the face of death and you claim that religion creates a fictional hope, that’s really no hope at all. Thus, while people might feel better that their deceased daughter is ‘now with Jesus’, you don’t believe they have any reason to believe. I think this is a question worth putting on the table and exploring:

Is there, or is there not, any reasonable evidence for life after death?

There may be a number of ways to answer this question, but it would appear to me that a fruitful starting place is the Christian claim that Jesus, the first century carpenter, died and subsequently rose from the dead. I’d start here because Christians base everything on this being true. The claims that Jesus’ body was no longer in the tomb and that he had been seen alive are foundational to Christian beliefs. Scrutinise them, consider the explanations, explore the alternatives, look at the impact on people at the time. Evaluate the counter claims, conspiracy theories, tampering of documents, and challenge the evidence. Public scrutiny and debate are a good thing if they’ll help us get to the truth of the matter.

You also seem to assume that religion is all about faith, whereas atheism is all about reason. This assumption needs to be challenged. They’re not opposing pairs. Faith can be based on reason. I’d say that good faith must be based on good reasons. Let me illustrate. I have faith that my wife loves me. Why? Because there is good evidence that this is so. I sit on a chair, showing my faith in the chair to hold my weight, only because it is reasonable. I take a step of faith (trust, dependence, practical belief) because there are good reasons to exercise that faith. Dare I say it, atheism is a step of faith – faith that there is no God and no life after death – based on reasons. What is needed is a non-bigoted, open-mindedness to examine and evaluate the reasons for the faith(s).

There is something else that bothered me about your lecture. You seem to divide the world into two belief systems: atheism and religion. This seems reductionist, disingenuous, and deceptive. It is not meaningful to lump together Muslims and Hindus as being the same. They’re both ‘religious’ and they’re both ‘not atheists’, but one believes in only one God and the other believes in many Gods. In fact, you could group Buddhism and Atheism together as ‘non-theism’ and contrast them with Judaism and Islam as ‘theism’. My point is that speaking of ‘religion in contrast to atheism’ simply muddies the waters. It would be much more productive to evaluate the particular claims of different religions alongside the particular claims of atheism.

I’d like to finish with an observation that you made about people. You intended it as a critique of atheists, and I’d like to claim it as a critique for many Christians also. These are your words:

We spend much of life tacitly presuming we’ll live for ever.

Death is the clearest evidence that life is finite and yet we live as though it isn’t so. You remind us that we waste a lot of time on trivia when things are ‘normal’. Why else would we watch that hopeless movie for the fourth time?! We care about the wrong things. We regret the things we’ve spent time caring about. You call us to live in the moment. You invite us to explore what’s really worth having and doing. I’m persuaded that the answers to these questions are to be found in knowing God and enjoying the life that God gives us, not by dismissing God and reconstructing a world without him.

The death and resurrection of Jesus is evidence to me of what lies ahead. These events in history provide the reasons for my faith. They explain why I’m not religious. That is, I’m someone who has discovered good reasons to put my faith in Jesus, rather than trying to earn my place in heaven (in contrast to many other religions). However, my assurance of a real life beyond death, doesn’t lead me to complacency, but to a renewed urgency and purpose in life here and now. Sometimes I can drift along as though this is not the case, as can we all, so thank you for bringing me to attention once again!

Sincerely,

Dave McDonald

Beam me up Scotty!

Beam me up Scotty! There’s something epic about those words. I can’t say I was ever a hard-core Star Trek fan, but this is one line that really stuck. Maybe it tapped into an inner deep desire to experience teleportation – how cool would it be to just get beamed places?

Well now it’s happened… to Scotty. The ashes of actor James Doohan, who played ‘Scotty’ in the 1960s TV series of Star Trek, were beamed into space on board a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. They are expected to orbit the earth for about a year before the rocket’s second stage falls to ground and Scotty gets burned up again on re-entry. You can do it too if you wish. It will cost you $2995 for every gram of your ashes, with a minimum fee of $12,500.

I learned of this as I was driving to the hospital for chemo this morning. It must have tickled the announcer’s fancy, because he asked people to ring in and discuss what they’ve done with their loved one’s ashes or what they’d like done with their own. One bloke said he’d invested so much in his house and property that he wanted his ashes scattered over the lawn. Another spoke of the urn getting used as a door stop until other family members objected. One woman wanted hers put into the garden to fertilise the tomato plants, and another described scattering them on the ocean.

However, one caller left me gob-smacked with what she had done with her partner’s ashes. They’d been compressed to make a diamond! For real! You can take a cup or so of ashes and get them fashioned it into a flawless diamond. They can make it different colours to suit your choice. You can have different sizes, a half-carat or a one carat stone. Presumably it can be set on a ring, a brooch, or a necklace, so you can carry the remains of your loved one with you. They can be on your body all the time, or put on for special occasions. Once again, you can do it too. Most say ‘price on application’, but word is you’ll be looking upwards of $15,000 for a one carat gem. Someone commented on radio that you could be worth more dead than alive!

It used to be dust to dust, ashes to ashes… but now there are more glamourous options, for the rich and eccentric anyway. I’m not sure how the conversation would go if you were complemented on your pendant, and then replied “That’s my husband. I had him made into jewellery.” I suspect it’d stop pretty quickly, that is until they moved on and couldn’t stop speaking about you to others! 

I get the space thing, even though I would never blast that kind of money away. It celebrates the life of the deceased. Just like a gardener might want to be used as fertiliser or a fisherman used as burley. If something is so much a part of their life, its nice to celebrate or at least respect that in death.

And I kind of get the diamond idea. Perpetual memory, something beautiful and precious, ongoing respect, even if a tad elitist. But maybe there’s also the sense of not wanting to let go and not wanting death to be the end. Maybe the diamond is seen as a hint of victory over death, something of substance that will last for eternity?

But let’s get real, it’s only a rock. It can’t replace the person. It won’t listen or respond. It can’t offer comfort or help. It might have the DNA (I don’t understand all that stuff) but it is not the person. And maybe one day it will be lost or stolen or given away to someone who doesn’t appreciate what it is, and the grief will flood back all over again.

So much effort to blast ashes into space or to fashion a diamond. They can’t take away the harshness of death. And what’s more, they don’t offer any substantial hope beyond death. Death is cruel and unnatural. It’s an ugly stain on our existence. It’s no respecter of persons. It makes a mockery of so much that we consider to be important in life. It’s a final undoing. These words from the Bible are blunt, but true:

By the sweat of your brow
you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
and to dust you will return.  (Genesis 3:19)

Naked a man comes from his mother’s womb,
and as he comes, so he departs.
He takes nothing from his labor
that he can carry in his hand.  (Ecclesiastes 5:15)

I’m a little surprised, yet pleased, that we had a quarter hour of radio talkback about death this morning. I admit it was probably the quirky that caused it, not the mundane fact of death. We rarely talk about death. We’d prefer to ignore it, because it’s going to hurt, and we don’t have any answers. But taking the time to think about the reality of death can make a huge difference to how we live life now. You’re more likely to make wise decisions for your life following a friend’s funeral, than you are at a New Years party, even with all the resolutions. Consider these strange but wise words from the Bible:

It is better to go to a house of mourning
than to go to a house of feasting,
for death is the destiny of every man;
the living should take this to heart.
Sorrow is better than laughter,
because a sad face is good for the heart.
The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning,
but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure.
(Ecclesiastes 7:2-4)

The important question remains, is there be any substantial hope beyond death? Or is the crematorium fire, the last word on our existence? We want to cling on to our loved ones. We’d dearly love to be reunited on the other side. Is this possible? Is there something more personal, more relational, more real than ashes to diamonds? The Bible’s answer is yes. The answer is the promised resurrection of the body. Consider these words:

35 But someone may ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” 36 How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 37 When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. 38 But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body.39 All flesh is not the same: Men have one kind of flesh, animals have another, birds another and fish another. 40 There are also heavenly bodies and there are earthly bodies; but the splendor of the heavenly bodies is one kind, and the splendor of the earthly bodies is another. 41 The sun has one kind of splendor, the moon another and the stars another; and star differs from star in splendor.

42 So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; 43 it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; 44 it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.

If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. 45 So it is written: “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam [ie. Jesus], a life-giving spirit. 46 The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. 47 The first man was of the dust of the earth, the second man from heaven. 48 As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the man from heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. 49 And just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven.  (1 Corinthians 15:35-49)

This is God’s promise to those who will listen to him, and trust in Jesus. There’s evidence in history that Jesus has conquered death, and this gives us good reasons for hope beyond death. Not wishful thinking. Nor absolute certain proof beyond any shadow of a doubt. But reasonable and rational confidence based on reliable historical evidence. I’d recommend investigating these promises. They offer so much more than getting beamed up like Scotty!

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.

The Biblical way to dodge death

As I opened the Canberra Times over breakfast this morning, I was intrigued to read an article on the Bible. Stories about the Bible are rare in the papers, but this one’s rather special. The Bible belonged to Lance Corporal Elvas Jenkins. He placed it in his shirt pocket and it took a bullet for him at Gallipoli on May 7, 1915. It’s a great story. The lead shrapnel bullet from the shell of a 75mm field gun went through the Psalms and lodged in the Gospels! The Bible literally saved his life… that is, until he was killed a year later while heading a reconnaissance party on its way to the Battle of Somme. Now, nearly a hundred years later, this little Bible has come to rest in Canberra!

Very cool to be saved by a Bible tucked into your shirt pocket, and a testimony to God’s kindness to him that day. But then, it could have equally been a tobacco tin that saved him, or a pocket watch, or something else that could withstand the shrapnel. These days, I guess it would be more likely a kevlar jacket, or some other piece of high-tech armour. So why get excited about this pocket Bible saving his life that day?

I think it’s because of the strong associations with something bigger and more profound. The Bible has saved many people, countless people, from death. Not the ‘dodging bullets’ kind of death (only to die later), but from spiritual death that is separation from God for eternity. Arguably, the most famous words in the Bible, give us this life-saving message:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.  (John 3:16)

The Bible offers real hope to the dying. The evidence of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus shows us that death doesn’t have the final say. Life beyond the grave or the crematorium isn’t just an empty wish, but a rational expectation based on the evidence of Jesus Christ who has made it possible. It’s worth grabbing a Bible and reading one of the four Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke or John – to find out more.

(You can read the Canberra Times article here.)

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!