Heading home

I confess this is the first book that I’ve read by Naomi Reed. I think my mother and Fiona have read them all, and I’m just disappointed that I’ve waited this long. Heading Home: My Search for Purpose in a Temporary World is her third in an autobiographical series of books, following on from My Seventh Monsoon and No Ordinary View. I’ll need to catch up on these stories later.

This was a book in season for me, because we’ve spent a year working through where we belong, who we are, what we should be doing, why we do and don’t feel at home, and constantly being confronted by the Bible’s message that we are not at home until we are home with the Lord.

Naomi tells the story of returning to their ‘home’ in the Blue Mountains, near Sydney in Australia, after being overseas for some time, mainly in Nepal. The account is full of humour and pathos as we’re given a window into the confusion of reverse culture shock. After living through a revolution in Nepal, and being without many of the things Aussies take for granted, it was overwhelming to visit supermarkets and department stores with the complete over-indulgence of choice. And no time is worse than Christmas with it’s red and white pimping of the season. The real message of Christmas barely gets a look in. I’ve spoken to other returned missionaries, coming back from economically poorer countries, who’ve found this so difficult. One family vowed to never return to Australia in the lead up to Christmas. They found the whole experience obscene.

I’d suggest that returning missionaries would be helped and encouraged by reading this book, and knowing that those who support them have read it too. So why not read it yourself, encourage others in your church to do the same, and send a copy to your partners overseas before they return.

Heading Home is a mosaic of themes and ideas that paints the bigger picture of discovering and living out who we are in union with Christ. It’s a profound message that raises real issues for all who claim to follow Jesus. I believe that Naomi is well placed to write such a book for a number of reasons: (1) she has the advantage of looking at different societies both as an insider and an outsider; (2) she has taken the time to reflect, meditate, and have her thoughts informed by Scripture; and (3) she has an endearing humility that comes across in each chapter.

As I reflect on the impact of a year of cancer and treatment, the book has had much to say to me. Who am I? Where do I belong? What am I to do with my life? Why don’t I feel settled? Naomi’s shared experiences have rubbed a little salt into a few of my wounds – and I’m glad she has. It’s easy to think that I really should be in Darwin, planting a church for God, making a difference, finding fulfilment in the challenge of ‘exotic’ and recognised ministry. But I’m reminded that it’s not a matter of which particular vocation, or which particular location. It’s about being content in the fact that God is in control, and he will use us wherever, and however, to fulfil his purposes, and for his glory. Naomi writes of dreams and plans coming to an end, and feeling loss of purpose upon returning to Australia. I could relate to this and was moved to pray her prayer also:

Lord, there are times in our lives when we feel purposeless. The dream is over. We don’t even know what do anymore or why …
But Lord, when we feel like this – lost and directionless and lonely – please remind us that we find our living in you; we find our focus in you …  (p20)

This leads to a highlight of the book for me. Every chapter finishes with a heartfelt, well-considered prayer to God. Naomi is not satisfied with raising the dilemma, or even with finding resolution in the words of God – she brings these matters to God in prayer. This is an excellent model to us all as we grapple with issues in our lives:

      1. observe our circumstances
      2. analyse and consider what we’re going through
      3. reflect on Scripture
      4. change our attitudes and actions
      5. talk to God about it

Naomi models this, and her prayers give a head start to those of us facing similar issues in our own lives.

Heading Home is a helpful book for people who’re not sure where they belong, or who are going through significant, even unwanted life changes; people with illness that’s not going away; people who are experiencing significant job changes, redundancy, unemployment or retirement; people suffering bereavement and grief; people finding themselves strangers in a foreign place (that they might even know well). Its helpfulness and hope lies in applying God’s word into our lives, and then helping us to bring this to God in prayer. Ultimately, this book succeeds by reminding all Christians that God deeply understands our circumstances and this world is not our true home – heaven is.

So Lord, today, when we are surprised by being the outsider or by a myriad of choices or misunderstandings or falling in between two worlds, or not belonging anywhere, help us to comprehend the fact that you have walked our road and felt our pain and suffered for us, so that every day, here, we belong to you and that’s enough. Lord be glorified in all we do and are, today. And remind us that there will come a day when we will never be outsiders again.
Lord, thank you.
Amen  (p46)

Chappo’s gain

 Chappo
John Charles Chapman
23 July 1930 – 16 November 2012
being with Christ is better by far

I received news earlier this evening that John Chapman was not expected to live much longer. He was in ICU, his breathing was shallow, and he was no longer responding to people around him. I wanted to call and tell him that we loved him, to thank him for his kindness, generosity, love and prayers. I wanted to thank him again for writing to our youngest son, encouraging him to read his Bible, sending him books, praying for him. I wanted to tell him what a huge influence he’d had on my life and so many others. As I spoke with a friend at the hospital, I asked if he would read Chappo Psalm 62, so that he would be reminded again that his God is all powerful and all loving.

At 9.15 this evening Chappo departed to be with his Lord and Saviour. This was the occasion he’d been looking forward to since he was a teenager. This was the hope that Chappo had shared with all who’d listen. Chappo loved explaining to people that Jesus had given his life to pay for their sins and offer forgiveness. He’d share how God had raised Jesus from the dead, and how he was now the Lord of this universe. He’d passionately plead with people to consider how they’d been treating God, to turn and seek forgiveness, and to hand over control of their lives to Jesus.

What a privilege to have known Chappo as a brother and friend, and I look forward to catching up with him one day in heaven. In fact, as we spoke with each other (both in hospital) nearly a year ago, I think I said that maybe I’d make it there before him. It wasn’t to be.

John Chapman gave up his life tonight. But he’d given up his life daily for the last 57 or so years. He gave up his life in the service of God and others. For Chappo, to live was to serve Christ, and to die was to be in the presence of Christ. He kept on serving Christ to the very end, sharing his faith, encouraging others, preaching in the last few weeks, and publishing his latest book. It’s been better for us that Chappo has lived! And now it’s Chappo’s gain. He’s where he truly belongs – not because he was a great man, but because he has a great Saviour. The words of the Apostle Paul to the Philippians truly describe how Chappo lived and died…

20 I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. 22 If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! 23 I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; 24 but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.  (Philippians 1:20-24)

I miss Chappo already. My heart is heavy. There’s sadness and tears. And yet, I also feel joy because God has completed the work he began in my brother. Thank you God.

Thank you God for bringing us into Chappo’s life and he into ours.

Thank you God  for Chappo’s gruelling sermon deconstructions and critiques.

Thank you God for the huge encouragement I received after preaching at Sydney University, when Chappo came up to me and said, “If I wasn’t a Christian already, I’d have become one immediately after that talk!”

Thank you God that Chappo kept our family in his prayer diary for the past 24 years – and that he prayed!

Thank you God for Chappo’s prayers for Fiona and our family after the accident.

Thank you God that each time he got up at night to go to the toilet, he’d pray for me and his other ‘oncology friends’!

Thank you God that Chappo would write and ring up, just to offer a word of encouragement – even though he had the worst phone manner of anyone!

Thank you God that Chappo preached at our first ever Crossroads Christian Church service and many more after that.

Thank you God for letting me and many of my friends and family share my 50th birthday with Chappo this year.

Thank you God for placing it on Chappo’s heart to write and encourage my son.

Thank you God for Chappo’s passion for preaching Christ.

Thank you God for changing people’s hearts as they came to know Christ through Chappo’s preaching and writing.

But mostly, thank you God that you have removed the sting of death, that you’ve prepared a place for Chappo, and that he’s now free from sickness and suffering, and enjoying your presence forever and ever.

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!

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!