Monday, May 30, 2016

three steps to living one day at a time

Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matthew 6:34)

I’ve spent a lot of my life worrying. Here’s how it works. My mind, unbidden, invents a number of possible futures. I figure out how to respond to each one: “If this happens, then ….” At some hidden level I’m convinced that if I imagine and prepare for enough scenarios, I won’t be surprised by whatever comes. I’ll be ready. Better than that, I’ll hold hardship at bay. Because how can the worst happen if you anticipate it? How can it happen if you prepare for it?

It sounds ridiculous when you put it into words. The future comes whether you anticipate it or not. If I imagine a hundred possible futures, at least 99 of them won’t come to pass. More likely, none of them will come to pass. Something else will happen, something quite unexpected. In the meantime, I will have wasted hours of mental energy (do you measure mental energy in hours?) trying to prepare for all kinds of events that never happen. Even prayer becomes a cover for playing over them in my mind, and working up enough strength to face them.

Three years ago I found out where this kind of mental activity will take you. Thought patterns are like exercise: perform a certain sequence of motions often enough, and your body grows accustomed to them until they become natural. In the same way, your mind gets better and better at thinking in a certain way, until it’s like a well-worn groove that your thoughts travel down.

So during a particularly stressful year, when our son was in the fourth year of his chronic illness and we still had no answers, I could no longer hold things together. Irrational fears flooded my thoughts. In some small and secret corner of my mind, I knew they were fabrications; but with the rest of my mind, I believed them absolutely. I lived on edge, at the point of panic, convinced that in the very next moment, my fears would knock on the door and walk straight in. It was one of the hardest years of my life, just behind the year my husband got cancer. Anyone who lives with high levels of anxiety will know how that’s possible.

The turning point came when I learned to stop listening to my fears (that sounds simple, but of course it wasn’t). I learned not to argue with my thoughts; not to chase down all the possibilities; not to try to come up with answers. I learned to say, “Yep, that’s interesting, another anxious thought. Another fear. But I choose not to listen. I choose not to engage.” I learned to give my fears to God rather than to steel myself to face them. I had to grit my teeth and do this over many months, but the fears gradually subsided. They still nudge at me when I am under stress. But I no longer pay attention, and these days they disappear relatively quickly.

That was the first step towards living one day at a time: learning not to listen to my fears. Here was the second step:

My husband got cancer. He nearly died. He had surgery, he had chemotherapy, and we entered the years-long waiting period we’re in now. You’d think this would be a time of fear. A time of monitoring every physical sign, anticipating the cancer’s return. And yes, there are moments like that, when my husband is unwell, and I wonder if this is it. But there was a moment, after months heavy with grief, when I sat on the steps leading down from our back veranda and pleaded with God, “Take this away. I am sick of feeling so awful. Please take these feelings away and give me some relief.” He heard my prayer.

I realised that I have a choice. I can live these months and years with my husband anticipating and fearing the worst; or I can live these months and years enjoying what we have right now. There’s no great moral superiority in choosing the second option. In some ways it’s not a choice at all; it’s a psychological necessity. More than that, it’s an answer to prayer. God and circumstances have taught me to leave the future in the future, and enjoy and thank him for the blessings of right now.

Ordinary life has become very precious to me. The many hours I spend in the car driving children back and forth, for example, that used to annoy me so much? Well, I won’t deny that they still exhaust me, but now they seem like a privilege. They are a privilege. This ordinary life, with these ordinary duties and these ordinary people in this ordinary house: this is a precious gift. It’s a pity it took my husband getting cancer to see it. But after facing the very real possibility of his death, just to live this life, with its repeated duties, seems to me to be an endlessly repeated blessing.

That was the second step towards living one day at a time: learning to be thankful for the blessings of each day. Here was the third:

I recently started a job as the part-time women’s worker at our church. It’s ministry I love, and with Steve’s health so precarious, I need to work in case I have to provide for our children one day. I’ve had busy school terms before – most of our terms are busy – but this term has been stuffed to bursting. Family responsibilities, home duties, hospital visits, a new job, challenging tasks that stretch me to the limit, one after another after another: the moment I let my mind slip into the future I feel overwhelmed by the coming demands, and the little time I have to prepare for them.

Most days there’s more than I can easily handle. I’m not strong enough for the duties of each day. I’m learning what it means to live each day in God’s enabling, with the grace he gives for the next task, the next hour, the next moment. Not to think about tomorrow (except if preparation and planning happens to be one of the duties of today), not to wonder how I am going to face it, but to trust that God will give me strength to do the tasks he gives me today, and tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that, not now, not in advance, but as I come to each day.

That was the third step to learning to live one day at a time: learning to trust in God’s enabling for each day.

The other morning, weary after a night of little sleep, I parked the car on my way to work and sat for a few minutes under some peppercorn trees. These verses popped into my mind, a little jumbled and out of context, but speaking straight to my need:
Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? ... But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us ... Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day … He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me … For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Cor. 11:29; 4:7, 16; 12:9-10)
I am not strong enough to face today, let alone the next week, or the next month, or the next year. I am aware of that to my aching bones. But God is strong. He promises to give me what I need to keep trusting and serving him, moment by moment, day by day, whatever our circumstances. That’s how I face the future: not anticipating and preparing for every eventuality, but enjoying God’s gifts for today, and trusting him that, whatever he has in store, he will provide what I need to face it.

We live one day at a time, in God’s enabling.

This article first appeared at The Gospel Coalition Australia

Friday, May 6, 2016

book review: Word-filled Women's Ministry

Two months ago, I became the part-time women’s worker at our church. I prepared by reading Word-Filled Women’s Ministry, edited by Gloria Furman and Kathleen Nielson. I’m glad I did.

I recommend this book to anyone, male or female, involved in ministry to women. The list of the ten writers from across the globe may be enough to whet your appetite: it includes Kathleen Nielson from the US, Claire Smith from Australia and Carrie Sandom from the UK. Together, they have written a generous and gospel-hearted book that will remind you to centre your ministry on the Bible, give you a wealth of practical ideas for women’s ministry, and help you think through how to encourage women to grow and serve in your local context.

The book opens with an outstanding chapter by Kathleen Nielson about how the word of God lies at the heart of all women’s ministry. Reading this chapter reminded me of drinking in JI Packer’s Knowing God: as this is my favourite Christian book after the Bible, there is no higher praise. I finished it with tears in my eyes, thrilled again by the wonder of God’s word and determined to build every aspect of my ministry on this strong foundation. I strongly suggest you read this chapter together as a ministry team.

The second chapter is by Claire Smith. Her book God’s Good Design is a brilliant, brief and readable alternative to “The Big Blue Book” (which is what we used to call John Piper and Wayne Grudem’s Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood), and this chapter packs the wealth of her knowledge and teaching on this topic into an even smaller space. If someone had questions about what the Bible says about men’s and women’s roles in the church, I’d copy this chapter and hand it to them.

The third chapter is another gem: it’s about how to train women for ministry, and it’s packed with practical ideas gained by Carrie Sandom through years of experience. For me, the highlight is her description of the year-long program she follows with women one-to-one, looking at books of the Bible that will prepare them to meet with others, thus multiplying this important ministry. It’s a plan I hope to use soon.

These three chapters make up Part 1: “The Heart of Women’s Ministry”. Part 2 is about the contexts of women’s ministry—the local church, evangelism and mission. Part 3 explores issues in women’s ministry and includes a valuable chapter on sexual wholeness and how this needs to be talked about more openly among women. The book concludes with a chapter by Nancy Guthrie on the ultimate goal of women’s ministry.

There are two more chapters I want to highlight. The first is a fascinating dialogue between an older woman (Susan Hunt) and a younger woman (Kristie Anyabwile) that puts flesh on the Titus 2:3-5 command for older women to teach younger women. What do younger women long for? What do older women have to offer? This chapter helps readers think through how to encourage cross-generational relationships and discipleship.

I also appreciated the chapter by the editors on gifts and giftedness. It’s easy, in a complementarian context, for this topic to arouse resentments: why can’t women do this or that? Why aren’t there more pathways for women? But this chapter turns these questions on their heads and asks instead how women can be equipped and encouraged to serve. It explores themes like the ways men and women can support each other in ministry, the different forms that women teaching women takes, and the many contexts open to women that are closed to men. The servant-hearted tone of the chapter—indeed, of the whole book—is summed up in this quote:
There is a place for women to serve. It will not always be the perfect place we envision. We might be called to do things we didn’t plan or want to do along the way … But we must indeed serve—with quiet, submissive, prayerful, relentless strength—because we are serving our Lord. We are serving the church he loves, for whom he died. (p. 212)
If you’re a pastor or leader of a church or ministry, a woman who ministers to women, or a woman considering pathways for service, I encourage you to read this book. In my opinion, it’s one of the best books for women that’s come out in recent years.[1] I plan to pull this book out and read it again, taking notes this time; that’s how good it is. I warmly commend it to you.

[1] Another recent book for women that I highly commend is Jen Wilkins’s Women of the Word, which I reviewed here.

This article first appeared on GoThereFor.com.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Psalm 90: A walk with Moses

It all gets swept away. Or perhaps it’s that we are swept away, like pieces of bark on a river, unable to turn back, pressed against snags and stones. The banks slide by; one glimpse, and the things we pass are gone. And finally, the inevitable: worn down by time and decay, we fragment, break apart, particles mixing into the water like dust.

Fragile. Troubled. Uncertain. That is life. A wild flower scorched by the sun, blown by the wind, its blossom fallen and its beauty forgotten (Ps 103:15-16; Job 14:2; Jas 1:10-11). Grass that springs up new in the morning but by evening is dry and withered (Ps 90:5; Isa 40:6-7). A fleeting breath, an evening shadow that fades away (Ps 102:11, 109:23, 144:4; Job 7:7, 8:9, 14:1-2).

It’s not a comfortable thought. But it’s not one that I can avoid. We live with the possibility that my husband’s cancer may return. My son’s chronic ill health continues. There are changes in work and ministry. My mentor, the woman who helps me navigate these things, is moving away.

Have you ever experienced an earthquake? I have. Though perhaps it was a meteorite that shook the ground—I don’t remember now. What I do remember is the nightmarish sensation of the earth moving underfoot, as if it had turned from solid to liquid; the sense that something you took for granted, didn’t even notice, firm under your feet, could no longer be counted on.

I am standing on shifting ground. Loss and grief and change threaten, and there is nothing I can do to control them. I want to cling to the things and people I depend on, hold tight and not let go. But I am helpless to stop the inevitable, protect those I love, prevent them from leaving, keep them whole, preserve their lives, my life, even for a day.

So I open Psalm 90. I walk with Moses, this “man of God” who knew such great salvation and such deep sorrow. If anyone was familiar with the fragility of life, it was Moses, who watched a whole generation die in the desert. His words are bleak: our days, even the best of them, are full of trouble and sorrow; they quickly pass and we fly away, swept up in the sleep of death, turned back to dust; our years, seventy or eighty if we have the strength, finish with a moan.

Yet there is something that will never change, and it is there in the opening verse of the Psalm: God himself. He is “our dwelling place in all generations”. “From everlasting to everlasting” he is Lord. “A thousand years” in his sight “are but as yesterday when it is past”. Like Moses, we cry to him for mercy, help and salvation, for his love does not fail. He alone can establish the work of our hands.

Life is brief, full of loss and change. The people and things we depend on are fragile and fleeting. We can’t hold onto them. We can’t even direct our own path. But there is one thing that never alters, one thing we can count on, and that is God himself. He is from everlasting to everlasting. He is our strong and secure dwelling place. We take refuge in him.

Father, “teach us to number our days, that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Ps 90:12).

This post first appeared at GoThereFor.com.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Women of the Word: a book for both men and women

We can be a bit lazy when we read the Bible. We open it to random passages. We stick to our favourite books. We stop reading once we’ve found our take-home point for the day. It’s pretty appalling when you stop to think about it: we have God’s very words, yet we sometimes treat them like a collection of inspirational thoughts or a Magic 8 Ball. ...

The other day I sat in a plane and pulled Jen Wilkin’s Women of the Word: How to study the Bible with both our hearts and our minds out of my bag. It looked like a short and easy read, and sure enough I’d read the first half by the end of my Melbourne to Sydney flight. I finished the rest the next day, and realized I was holding a gem, and not just for women: this is a brilliant book to help men explore and understand God’s Word too. I highly recommend it, both for personal encouragement and ministry training. ...

You can read the rest at GoThereFor.com.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

contentment (10) treasure

A man was walking across a cow pasture when his foot hit something. He bent over, rubbed his aching toe, and noticed the corner of a box sticking out of the ground. Curious, he grabbed a stick, dug away the dirt, and opened the lid. His heart thumped as he reached in and felt the solid weight of gold. He glanced around to see if anyone was watching, then covered the box with chunks of turf. He went home and sold everything he had, from the coat on his back to the roof over his children’s heads, and bought the pasture, cows and all. The whole town thought he’d gone crazy. He ended up a richer man than he’d ever been before. (Matt 13:44-46)

We have a great treasure. We have Christ himself! Yet we complain about what we don’t have. We envy those who with more than us. We write bucket lists. We regret what we’ve given away. We wish life had turned out differently. We have enough, but we’re greedy for more. We whinge when things don’t go our way. We worry we don’t have enough stored up for the future. We look back longingly at the things we left behind.

And all the time we tell ourselves that discontent is just a little sin. But we don’t notice how it eats away at our lives, our relationships, our faith. We fail to see the idolatry at its heart, how we have become adulterous lovers and false worshippers, seeking fulfilment apart from God. We abandon his living water and look for satisfaction, security and significance in the leaky wells of this world, then we’re surprised when we are left empty.

If we grasped just how great our blessings are in Christ – how richly he supplies every need, how tenderly he watches over us, how bright our future is with him – would we ever feel like we lack anything? I think we’d be content. More than that, I think that, even in sorrow, we’d rejoice to be found in him.

If you’re anything like me, it won’t be easy to learn this lesson. It won’t be easy to find your contentment in Christ alone. It will be a life-long battle. It will be challenged every time you suffer, every time you fail, every time you notice someone is better off than you. But it’s worth fighting, because it’s a battle to treasure Christ over all.

Contentment isn’t horizontal. It doesn’t come from comparing ourselves with others. It doesn’t come from counting our blessings. It doesn’t come from thinking about those worse off than us. Paul never tells us to be content because we have more than someone else.

Contentment is vertical, not horizontal. It comes from knowing Christ. We will become content when we learn to turn to him every time we feel dissatisfied; when we trust him to care for us; when we value him above everything and everyone else.

We find satisfaction in him, for he alone can fulfil our deepest longings. We are secure in him, for he will never leave us. We have significance in him, not because we have done great things, but because he has done great things for us.

Jesus is the secret of contentment.

I am a long way from learning this. I guess you are too. So let’s pray together that we learn to be content.

You'll find some follow-up questions, and the rest of this series, at TGC Australia

Image: Alton Hoard (British Museum)

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

contentment (9) godly discontent

It’s not just contentment that is godly. Discontent can be godly too. In fact, true godliness is always discontented.

There are many things in this life that should make us deeply dissatisfied. We should be dissatisfied with sin. We should be dissatisfied when friends and family don’t know Jesus. We should be dissatisfied when brothers and sisters in Christ drift away from God. The difference between ungodly and godly discontent is that the first is centred on us and our needs, and the second is motivated by love for Christ and others.

It’s also okay to be dissatisfied with suffering ... The Bible is full of grief and pain. Just think about the Psalms ...

We are supposed to be discontent with this life. We are supposed to long for eternity. If we are content with this life – if we don’t long for the next – there is something wrong with our faith ...

Read the rest at TGC Australia.

Monday, October 12, 2015

life in God's waiting room

I’ve been thinking about waiting. The waiting you do when your hopes and dreams have been deferred—again. The waiting you do when you’re offered the opportunity you longed for but have to turn it down—again. The waiting you do when the future is uncertain and your plans can only be tentative and provisional—again.

Waiting, through twelve years of raising young children and five years of our son’s chronic illness, for a time when I can do more of the ministry I love outside the home. Waiting, through my husband’s cancer diagnosis, a six-week hospital stay and half a year of chemotherapy, to be washed up on the shores of not-quite-ordinary life again. Waiting, now, for his medical scans, the fork in the road; one path leading to further treatment, the other to four more years of waiting until we receive the all-clear.

Waiting for the waiting to be over.

So what do I do, here in life’s waiting room? Do I choose escapism? Do I complain and grow resentful? I do both, sometimes. But surely there are better uses of this time.

Here’s how I see it. There are two possible things going on here.

The first is that this isn’t so much a waiting room as God’s training-ground. A hothouse where I’m grown in Christlike character (Jas 1:2-4). A boot-camp to strengthen the muscles of perseverance, humility and hope (Rom 5:3-4; 1 Pet 5:6-11). God’s university, where he teaches me to mourn with those who mourn (Rom 12:15) and gives me the comfort that I will one day share with others (2 Cor 1:3-7), preparing me for life and ministry.

The second is that this isn’t a waiting room for life; it is life. These hardships may continue for many years. In which case, this isn’t preparation for anything more than the hard slog of patient endurance. And that’s okay. Because if I never get to do the ministries I long for, and just keep encouraging others by trusting God in hardship, that will be sufficient service for a lifetime.

Come to think of it, those aren’t alternatives. They are different perspectives, views of the same reality from opposite sides. Whatever God has in store, this is both training for life and life itself. This is the life God has given us. You don’t stop living just because you are waiting.

So what do I do, here in the waiting room?
  • I fulfil the duties of this time. I may not have chosen them—the doctors’ visits, the extra school trips, the weight of care—but this is the good work God has given me, and I try (and often fail!) to do it cheerfully, patiently and well. 
  • I make the most of the time we have together as a family to build strong relationships as a foundation for whatever may come (I’ve planned more family holidays and weekends with my husband this year). 
  • I train my own mind, and the hearts and minds of our children, to trust God during the trials we face now and the ones we may face in the future. 
  • I remember all those who have waited: for an affliction to end (Ps 27:14), a prayer to be answered (Ps 5:3), a ministry to begin (Exod 7:7), a hope to be fulfilled (1 Sam 1), and (this includes all of us) for Jesus to return (Rev 22:20). I am not alone. 
  • I put one foot in front of the other. Sometimes this means telling myself, “I know you feel lousy, but just do the next thing. It might make you feel a little better, and if it doesn’t, at least you will have finished one more task.” 
  • I pray the prayers of those who wait (e.g. Ps 130), bringing my fear, grief, disappointment and frustration to God, turning to him rather than away from him. 
  • I make plans that assume life will continue the way it is but that allow for uncertainty, then commit these plans into God’s hands (Jas 4:13-15). 
  • I manage my energy levels so I can keep serving: a good night’s sleep, regular exercise, a daily time of rest, and a weekly morning off to read an encouraging book, pray, and reflect on life. 
  • I live the ordinary Christian life wherever we are, from hospital to home (1 Pet 4:19). I read my Bible, pray for others, turn from sin, meet with God’s people, and try to use every opportunity to make Jesus known. 
  • I choose ministries that I can maintain, that use my limited time effectively to meet others’ needs, and that allow for interruptions. It helps if some of these ministries energize me so I can fulfil my primary ministry to our family. 
  • I learn the lessons that waiting teaches me: that we may plan, but God directs our steps (Prov 16:9); that the building of his kingdom doesn’t depend on our usefulness (Ps 127:1-2; 1 Cor 3:7-9); that his grace is sufficient for every day he gives us to face (2 Cor 12:9-10). 
  • I fight to choose contentment, thanksgiving, trust, and joy (1 Thess 5:16-18), remembering that God’s plans for me are better than any I could make for myself.
I don’t want to waste this time in the waiting room. I want to use it, every bit of it. Whether it turns out to be a waiting room or simply the life God has given us, I want to be able to look back and say: I did the work God gave me to do, in his strength and for his glory. And that is more honour than I deserve, and joy and privilege enough for me.

This article first appeared at GoThereFor.com.

Photo credit: Erich Ferdinand

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

contentment (8) getting practical

Hold up your hand. Five fingers, right? Here are five steps we can take next time we notice ourselves becoming discontent, one for each finger to help us remember them easily:

Stop. Think. Turn from. Turn to. Turn out ...


Read the rest at TGC Australia.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

contentment (7) significance

What makes you feel significant? Where does your identity come from? Whose opinion do you value? When do you feel good about yourself? What gives you a sense of worth?

Maybe it’s doing well in your career, staying fit and healthy, or being in a relationship. Maybe it’s your IQ, attractiveness, or creativity. Maybe it’s ministry, being a “good” person, or belonging to a certain church or cultural group. We look to all kinds of things to make ourselves feel worthwhile ...

One of my friends was ill for many months. She lay in bed, stared at the trees outside the window, and felt useless. She couldn’t work, care for others, or even carry out the basic tasks of each day. As she lay there, she learned an important truth: that God loves her just as much when she can’t do anything for him, as he does when she can do things that feel significant.

God doesn’t love us because we have value. We have value because he loves us. ...

You can read the rest at The Gospel Coalition Australia

Monday, September 7, 2015

what personality tests can't do

I love personality tests. That’s not surprising, because people with my personality type enjoy self-analysis.

My husband, on the other hand, dislikes personality tests. Yet he still uses them in ministry training because he appreciates how useful they can be in helping people understand themselves and others a little better.

There’s a lot to be said for personality tests. But, as with any ministry tool, there’s also a lot they can’t do. ...

Read the rest at GoThereFor.com.