humble ORTHODOXY

humble-orthodoxyHumble orthodoxy: holding the truth high without putting people down by Joshua Harris is a potent little book. I think it should be recommended reading for all ministry trainees, all theological students, all pastors, all Christian academics. In reality, every Christian who struggles with, or gives into, pride should take the time to read this book. It’s a short book. It’s a simple message. It’s shaped by the gospel of God’s amazing grace. It reveals how truth must be accompanied by love and humility. This message is so easy to learn, but it seems so hard to put into practice. Yet it doesn’t have to be this way. God is in the business of changing and renovating prideful people. As Harris writes:

We don’t have to be jerks with the truth. We can remember how Jesus showed us mercy when we were his enemies. We can demonstrate a humble orthodoxy, holding onto our identity in the gospel. We are not those who are right; we are those who are redeemed.  (p61)

This little book is filled with pithy statements – the kind worth pasting on our bathroom mirrors or the back of the toilet doors – somewhere where we won’t miss them. These are truths worth reminding ourselves of regularly. Humble orthodoxy is shaped by the Scriptures:

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.  (Matthew 7:3-5)

…knowledge puffs up while love builds up.  (1 Corinthians 8:1)

23 Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels. 24 And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. 25 Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth,  (2 Timothy 2:22-25)

Rather than summarise the message of this book in my own words, I’ll simply highlight a number of quotes that will give you much of the picture:

Orthodox truths are the plumb line that shows us how to think straight in a crooked world.  (p3)

We must care deeply about the truth, and we must also defend and share the truth with compassion and humility.  (p5)

One of the mistakes Christians make is that we learn to rebuke like Jesus but not love like Jesus.  (p6)

Paul didn’t just want to beat his opponents in an argument; he wanted to win them to the truth.  (p14)

We don’t have the luxury or the biblical permission to be uncertain about those things God has been clear on.  (p16)

The message of Christian orthodoxy isn’t that I’m right and someone else is wrong. It’s that I am wrong and yet God is filled with grace.  (p21)

Genuine orthodoxy – the heart of which is the death of God’s Son for undeserving sinners – is the most humbling, human-pride-smashing message in the world.  (p29)

Are we giving as much energy to obeying God’s Word personally as we are to criticising its detractors?  (p36)

Don’t measure yourself by what you know. Measure yourself by the practice of what you know.  (p39)

There’s a difference between having a critical mind that carefully evaluates and having a critical spirit that loves to tear down.  (p44)

The truth is not about us. It is about God.  (p46)

In eternity we’ll see the silliness of self-righteousness and quarrelling over non-essentials. But we’ll also see with piercing clarity just how essential the essentials really are.  (p57)

I needed to read this book. I wonder whether you do too?

A pastor’s pride

Late last night I wept. I lay in my bed and I cried until my pillow was wet. What brought it on? It suddenly hit me how proud I’d become. My heart was full of me. And this blog was a big part of it.

I wasn’t sure if I should write this post. It could be just another example of what brought me to tears. A proud response to my response to pride. But I need to write it. I want to apologise and I want to change. I think my pride had become public, and thus so should my confession.

My dramatic realisation of my own pride hit me hard. It was a bit like hearing that I had a tumour. I was devastated, the tears flowed, and I prayed. The kids were away, Fiona was in another room, and I cried out on my own to God.

I’d just written a post telling pastors to be humble and yet my own heart was hard. I was writing as the preacher, not the practitioner. I was pronouncing who pastors should and shouldn’t be, but it was me that needed to listen. Here was I, doing all my reading, making all my comments, implicitly claiming to be an authority, telling others what to do, and I wasn’t doing it.

Sometime last night God told me. I don’t know how exactly, but he made it very clear to me that my heart was the problem. I’d been getting the message all week, but I wasn’t listening.

On Sunday I joined in the memorial service for my friend Bronwyn. On the front cover of the order of service, were printed these words:

Not to us, LORD, not to us but to your name be the glory, because of your love and faithfulness.  (Psalm 115:1)

I was so convicted as I read and heard these words. These words seemed so true on the lips of Bronwyn, but as I mouthed them they seemed so hollow. In fact, even during the service I found my thoughts and tears and prayers wandering away to my self and my family instead.

There were so many people at that service to thank God for Bronwyn, support the family, and pay tribute to her life. I knew so many of them, and they kept coming up to me saying how good it was to see me looking so well, and how they’d been praying for me, even daily. And my heart swelled up. I’d become the prayer celebrity. Oh, how I hate it how my heart can take what is good and twist it so badly.

On Monday and Tuesday I joined a planning retreat with the staff of our church, and it did my head in. I was struggling with the effects of chemo, but that wasn’t the real problem. It was being in a situation I was so familiar with, but in a role that was totally foreign. I’d been the leader and now I wasn’t. It’s not that I wanted to be. I’m very grateful for Marcus, and for the grace that all the team have shown me. But I realise that my heart is still catching up with my head.

On Wednesday I went to the oncologist. It had been a while and I’d been doing so well. I wanted him to tell me that I was the best patient he’d had, that he’d been wrong about me, and that we could expect the cancer to disappear very soon. I now realise I’d become proud of how I’d been going. I’d had 23 cycles of chemo. Most people don’t have more than 5 or 6. I’d been battling cancer and winning. I could succeed where others had failed! How stupid and how arrogant. The oncologist made it clear that I still have a terminal illness. I’d done nothing, but fill myself with pride.

Thursday and Friday I’d been writing. Telling people what to look for in a pastor, what a pastor should be like. What I should have been doing was listening to the word of God that I was preaching. I should have been looking into the mirror and seeing what I looked like. We’d actually read these verses on our staff retreat only days before:

22 Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. 23 Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror 24 and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.  (James 1:22-24)

And I’d been doing exactly that! It took the words of two friends to point it out to me. They don’t know it, but they were angels, messengers from God. They were true prophets, for they told me the truth from God. They weren’t so rude as to tell me outright, but their gentle and wise questions helped me to see the truth clearly last night. My heart was proud and it needed to change.

Last night I prayed and I cried, asking God to forgive me and to change me. Thank God, he is gracious and merciful and forgiving. My ongoing prayer is that God will gently work within me to give me humility.

I’ve written and published this because I believe that I owe you, my reader, an apology. Please forgive me my pride.

Journey with Cancer 2 Dec 2012 – What a year!

tilleysTwelve months ago today, I was catching up with good friends in a coffee shop near home. We do it once a year, at roughly the same time, and we’ve been doing it for years. These guys come from Melbourne, Wollongong, Brisbane, Perth, and Canberra. We talk about what’s been going on, we share our plans for the future, and we spend some time praying for each other. Once a year means it’s pretty special and I look forward to our catch ups as a highlight.

As we drank our coffees and shared our news, I knew that something was wrong. I had a pain in my chest and between my shoulder blades. My left arm seemed to be going numb. My left leg didn’t feel right, either. I’d been putting up with it for a while, not wanting to break up our time together, but I couldn’t keep ignoring it. I wasn’t imagining things – something was wrong.

Half an hour later I was in hospital – query heart attack. ECG seemed normal, and nothing on the x-ray, but the CT scan showed that things weren’t right. There was a massive build up of fluid around my left lung and it was suggested that I could have a tumour. Mesothelioma produces symptoms like this and so can lung cancers. Over two litres of fluid were drained out of the pleural cavity. It was almost certainly cancer and it didn’t look good. But how? I hadn’t been a smoker. I couldn’t think that I’d been exposed to asbestos. What was happening?

That was Friday, 2nd December 2011, and a year has now passed. What a year it’s been! I consider this an anniversary of sorts. One year of ‘consciously’ living with cancer. They said that I’d probably had the cancer for more than three years previously, without being aware of it. Now it was making it’s presence felt. Now it was changing, shaping, directing, and even shortening my life. Something the size of a ping pong ball had grown, ruptured, spread, damaged and contaminated me. Stage IV inoperable non-small cell lung cancer. This foreign growth was turning my mid-life into an end-of-life crisis. Or so it seemed. The oncologist said it couldn’t be removed or cured. I’d probably see the next Christmas, but he didn’t offer anything more. My health crashed, my weight disappeared, my life seemed to be fading before my eyes. Many times we doubted that I’d live long at all.

That was a year ago and I’m still living with cancer! While I loathe the cancer, and I’d dearly love God to take it away, I thank God earnestly for the life he’s given me. How amazing to live! I no longer take living for granted. In fact, I don’t take breathing for granted any more. I can’t make assumptions about tomorrow, or next week, or next year. Each day, every breath, is a gift from God. I’ve been reminded of what the Scriptures say:

[God] himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. (Acts 17:25)

Over this past year, God has been teaching me many things. A big one – and there’s much more to learn yet – is humility. God’s humbled me deeply, to trust in him rather than in myself and my resources and abilities. I’d been such an activist in so many ways. Set me a challenge and I’d have a crack. I tended to know my capabilities and I’d trust them. I’d say that I trusted God, but I suspect that I was often simply relying on myself. I’d make plans, get busy, forget to pray, work harder, and then call out to God if I was desperate. God has shown me that I can do nothing without him, and for this I thank him.

God has taught me to treasure people more. He’s shown me how much I value my family. He’s deepened my love and appreciation for my wife. He’s given me great delight in my children. He’s enabled me to enjoy renewed relationships where they were once strained. He’s brought new people into my life. He’s encouraged me with the love, support, and generosity of many friends. He’s given me opportunity to bless others and to be blessed by them. Thank you God!

God has renewed my desire to know him better. He’s reminded me that he’s the ultimate source of wisdom, and that I must know him before I can truly know myself. He’s gifted me with time to read and reflect and write, and a thirst to do this more and more. In writing, God has caused me to think and learn and articulate. He’s opened my eyes to see the amazing truths of his Word in new ways. He’s given me new understanding. He’s strengthened my delight and confidence in him.

God has taught me to lift my horizons. It’s so easy to be consumed by the things of life. Many of our lives are so comfortable, that it’s hard to imagine wanting for anything else. Many of us enjoy heaven here on earth – or so we think. God has burst this bubble. He’s reminded me that life is short. There’s so much more to life than the trivia that fills so much of our time. God has pushed me to focus on things that’ll make an impact for eternity. He’s lifted my heart and mind, to find my hope in him for eternity, and not in the fleeting things of this life.

Most of all, God has been teaching me to keep my faith in Jesus Christ. Every promise God has made, he has answered positively in Jesus. God has shown himself to be totally trustworthy. I’ve been tempted to doubt this – looking at my circumstances, wondering why, struggling for answers – but God keeps bringing me back to Jesus. God knows my weaknesses. He’s heard my cries. He’s seen my tears. And he keeps pointing me to his Son. Jesus is the proof that God is for me. Jesus is the evidence that God loves me. Jesus’ death is the reason God accepts me. Jesus’ resurrection is my hope for eternity.

I know these things more clearly today than I did a year ago, and for this I thank God. My great desire for my friends and family is that they might know these things too – but without getting cancer or facing difficult trials. To misquote John Lennon, “All I am saying is give God a chance!”

My prayer is that God will deepen my faith in him, my hope in eternity, and my love for others. And I would love to pray the same for you.

Humilitas

It’s hard to know how to review John Dickson’s book, Humilitas. With humility I suppose, or at least without humiliating myself! It’s hard because I’m not much of an expert on the topic, and it’s doubly hard because the author is a good mate whom I greatly admire. I’ve always been stimulated through reading John’s books. I confess to having envied John’s capacity as a preacher, didgeridoo player, author, and general all round talent. But mostly I just like having the occasional catch up, coffee together, and being encouraged by an old friend.

Well, Humilitas is not what I expected! I’ve grown accustomed to John writing books on the life and teaching of Jesus, books that answer difficult questions, and books seeking to persuade others to follow Jesus. I quickly discovered that this is a different type of book, pitched at a different audience. This is not so much for the enquirer into Christianity, as the one who is seeking to grow as a leader and build stronger relationships with others. (Not to suggest these are mutually exclusive, by the way.) I’d expect to find this book sitting comfortably alongside books by Ken Blanchard or Max de Pree in the leadership section of your local bookshop… if there are any local bookshops still in existence!

I found Humilitas a good read and completed it in a couple of sittings. John is self-effacing as he writes, only too aware of the sitting duck he has become in presuming to teach on humility! He writes with grace and style, colouring his work with historical and contemporary examples of humble men and women. Indeed, I loved reading some of my favourite anecdotes from A Sneaking Suspicion now providing powerful illustrations of humility in action! But this is not a repackaged, ‘slap together’ paperback by a prolific author. It shows evidence of serious research over many years, much of it historical, laying a foundation for an academic and yet highly practical work. As I was reading this book, I also listened to James O’Loghlin interviewing John about the topic on ABC radio. It helped bring the book to life even more. You can listen to the interview online.

John writes of humilitas in the positive sense of humility, rather than its negative sense of humiliation. He provides his own working definition that he expounds throughout the book…

Humility is the noble choice to forgo your status, deploy your resources or use your influence for the good of others before yourself. More simply, you could say the humble person is marked by a willingness to hold power in service of others. (p24)

Three thoughts are inherent in this definition of humility. Firstly, it presupposes your dignity. The humble person begins by being aware of their worth and abilities. Secondly, it is a choice. Otherwise it would simply be humiliation. And thirdly, it is social, as it’s shown in putting others before yourself.

John argues persuasively that humility is a necessary ingredient to truly successful leadership. He demonstrates that it’s common sense to cultivate humility in our personal and professional dealings with others. He highlights the aesthetics of humility, not as an ornament to be worn, but as an inner virtue that is attractive to others. The historian in John comes to the fore as he reveals how humility wasn’t always a prized virtue in the ancient world. In fact, self-congratulation and boasting (that would often be despised today) was much more common and accepted in the ancient world. However, something happened to change this perspective, such that humility is widely recognised as a beautiful and desirable virtue today.

John presents a strong case for the impact of Jesus changing people’s perspective on humility in the first century. Mind you, he argues as a historian, and not as a preacher, Christian apologist or evangelist. This is not to say that Christians have a monopoly on humility – they certainly don’t! He writes…

My point is not that Christians alone can be humble; rather, as a plain historical statement, humility came to be valued in Western culture as result of Christianity’s dismantling of the all-pervasive honour-shame paradigm of the ancient world.

Put another way, while we certainly don’t need to follow Christ to appreciate humility or to be humble, it is unlikely that any of us would aspire to this virtue were it not for the historical impact of his crucifixion on art, literature, ethics, law and philosophy. Our culture remains cruciform, long after it stopped being Christian. (p112)

The latter chapters of the book reveal the some of the practical benefits of humility for life, love and leadership. I will simply refer to the chapter headings to highlight the trajectory of his arguments:

Chapter 7 – Growth: Why humility generates abilities.
Chapter 8 – Persuasion: How character determines influence.
Chapter 9 – Inspiration: How humility lifts those around us.
Chapter 10 – Harmony: Why humility is better than “tolerance”.
Chapter 11 – Steps: How it’s possible to become (more) humble.

I was anxious to dip into the final chapter and come away with some tips on becoming (more) humble! Something I need, I’m afraid to say – in fact, we probably all do. John leaves us with six thoughts to consider. Firstly, we are shaped by what we love. If humility doesn’t appeal, then we are hardly likely to become very humble. Secondly, reflect on the lives of the humble. Jesus, is undisputedly humble and reading the New Testament Gospels offers an excellent insight into humility in action. And, John mentions other more recent examples, people such as Mahatma Ghandi and Nelson Mandela, along with some notorious counter-examples! Thirdly, John suggests conducting thought experiments to enhance humility. Perhaps, another way to put this is, is to exercise our empathy muscles, so as to consider how we will relate with others in advance. Fourthy, act humbly. This doesn’t mean we should pretend. Faking it would hardly count as humility! Rather, humility becomes easier and a more natural response the more we put it into practice. Fifthly, he suggests we invite criticism. It’s not easy, and we won’t do it naturally, but seeking feedback from people you respect and trust is very worthwhile. And sixthly, forget about being humble. He quotes C.S. Lewis on this point:

If anyone would like to acquire humility… the first step is to realise that one is proud. (p183)

I found myself wanting to add another thought to this list. Pray. God wants to transform us into the likeness of his son, Jesus. The Bible teaches that to become more and more like Jesus involves becoming increasingly humble. So I recommend we ask God to grow an attitude of humility within us. In fact, I must confess to often praying something like: Dear God, please make me more humble, but without humiliating me. A dangerous prayer, perhaps!

This is a helpful book. It’s not a religious book, and it should appeal to people of many walks of life, cultural contexts, and different philosophical and religious persuasions. It’s a book I would recommend or offer to others, especially those in positions of leadership. As a Christian it whet my appetite to learn more of what God says about humility. To look more closely at the life and teaching of Jesus Christ, and what others have said about him, inside and outside the Bible (especially in the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippians). In fact, I would like to see a follow up or addendum to Humilitas. Perhaps John could produce a study guide, or discussion questions, or a specifically Christian booklet, that would take us deeper into the the Bible’s teaching on this important topic.

Don’t waste your sport

dont-waste-your-sports

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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