Friday, May 31, 2013

family catch-up

Steve turned 45 - or is that 46? - today. I think it's 46. Yup, definitely 46. My parents have given us a gift of a couple of nights away. Yay!

I am ... well, I'm not sure, to be honest! A bit worn out. Ready for a couple of days off. It's been a big week, with a few changes made (see Ben below).

Lizzy is cleaning up her school right now: it's community service day. Don't remember doing that when I was a teenager! But I went to a fancy schmancy school, and maybe we didn't have to do that stuff. ;)

Ben has been given a new policy by his paediatrician and his mum, to get him back into normal life: he goes to school every day, even with a really bad headache. He wasn't impressed. But he had a wonderful day at school yesterday. I'm praying for him today, because it looks like being a tough one. [Update: He's home, and it was a good day, so it looks like we're on the right track.]

Thomas didn't bring any show-and-tell to school this morning. He's "talking to the class" instead, telling them about his exciting weekend: Grandma! And Dad's birthday celebration coming up!

Andy is saving his reflections on Dad's birthday for journal writing next Monday. He told me he will write, "We didn't celebrate it last Friday because we were too busy (for which read: Mum and Dad selfishly went out on their own). But we will celebrate it today."

Gluten free sponge cake and all.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

God’s gifts in suffering (4) Suffering deepens our knowledge of God

For I know that the Lord is great,
and that our Lord is above all gods.
Whatever the Lord pleases, he does,
in heaven and on earth,
in the seas and all deeps. (Psalm 135:5,6)
Melancholy  ... I write this post with a heavy heart, because we are neck-deep in this particular season of suffering. It’s not showing any signs of letting up, at least for now. It’s only bearable because God no longer seems like a stranger.

Of all the effects of suffering, this is one of the most disquieting: the God I meet in suffering is different from the God I thought I knew. It’s as if you turn to a friend and catch an expression on their face that you never expected to see there. Your wife of twenty years does something so completely out of character that you wonder if you really know her. Your father turns out to be fundamentally different to the man you loved and respected all these years.

The fault, of course, doesn’t lie with God. It never did. It’s that we live with unconscious assumptions about God and his dealings towards us, beliefs that would probably horrify us if we pulled them into the light (“I am exempt.” “God will do what I ask.” “That would never happen to me.”). So we leave our assumptions hidden and unquestioned, where they lend us a kind of empty comfort. The worst will never come, because… (here we fill in our own A, B and C).

This can happen even if we are well-prepared, our theology of suffering carefully laid down. In my early 20s, I read How Long O Lord, because we were told that those who read this book would be ready for suffering when it came. There was great truth in that. I still repeat this lesson to those younger than me. I don’t know how I would have weathered this storm without a strong doctrine of God’s sovereignty and goodness in suffering. But it doesn’t matter how prepared you are, suffering always comes as a surprise.

The storm front approaches, but you don’t see it coming. The world crumbles, the earth shakes, and you cry out in shock. Cracks appear in your theology. Suffering forces its way in and wedges them apart. They grow bigger and bigger, until your view of God threatens to collapse like a house on the sand. Suffering shows you the weak points. It enlarges them and says, “There!”.

I’m sure the weak points are different for everyone, but in my case, as I watch my son trudge through days of pain, it doesn’t take long to realise there’s something odd about my view of God’s providence. I can’t understand why medicine helps but God, it seems, doesn’t. Is it that he can’t? Or that he won’t? I know it’s not the first, but I can’t quite get my head around the second.

My son’s doctors, on the other hand, seem eager to help. They can’t do much, but what they can do, they do. It’s the same with the people around me. So why does God seem so unwilling? Why is he depending on medicine, when he could heal with a single thought? At some level, a level I barely dare to acknowledge, I ask, “Doesn’t he want to? Is he powerless? Does he care?”

So I turn to the same place I turned to all those years ago. I open How Long O Lord and struggle through those last, difficult chapters on God’s providence. I begin to read Joni Tada Eareckson and Stephen Estes’ When God Weeps, and Paul Grimmond’s Suffering Well. I search the Scriptures, and painstakingly rebuild my theology, brick by brick, starting with these words by Don Carson:
A miracle is not an instance of God doing something for a change; it is an instance of God doing something out of the ordinary. That God normally operates the universe consistently makes science possible; that he does not always do so ought to keep science humble.1

An odd paragraph to bring so much comfort; but comfort me it does. I begin to see that the God who made and sustains the universe works through medicine as well as what we call “miracles”: they are both gifts direct from his hands. Health slowly and painstakingly regained, or never regained at all, is as much an indication of his love as instant healing. What he wants to do in us may take time and hardship. His plans for us are bigger and better than the ones we make for ourselves.

The God I am getting to know is no cheap-and-easy vending machine: put in a dollar, get out a chocolate bar. He’s our Father, wise beyond knowing. His mercy is severe and his love relentless. He may never give us what we ask for, and we may never know why; but this God, who gave his only Son to die for us, who knows suffering from the inside out, can be trusted to be just and loving and good. As my knowledge of him deepens, he no longer seems like a stranger. I run into his arms and find comfort and strength and a secure refuge (Ps 46:1).

The God I meet in suffering isn’t the God I thought I knew. He’s better.

1. Don Carson, How Long O Lord, page 217.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

online meanderings

Theology and the non-intellectual (me) - Even when we cook or clean, "We are all theologians in one respect or another. The question remains: what kind of theologians are we?"

Recharging emotional batteries and Some things I'm doing I wasn't doing a month ago - Excellent suggestions for slowing down, using the morning, and keeping a journal.

16 ways I judge you - After reading this, you'll be judging yourself - helpfully.

Jesus loves the scantily clad - When the length of a skirt becomes legalism.

Pakistan and AfghanistanNorth Korea - Eye-opening books about hard places.

Torn to heal - Mike Leake: why I wrote a book on suffering. Looks good.
CS Lewis helped me become alive to life. To look at the sunrise and say with an amazed smile, “God did it again!” John Piper
I find that there are three levels of clarity. When I only think about something, my thoughts are embryonic and muddled. When I speak about it, my thoughts become clearer, though not always. When I write about it, I jump to a new level of clarity. Ed Welch
My aim here at the blog: to write because I enjoy it and because I have something I want to say: Jesus saved me and I love Him and I want you to love Him too. Lisa Spence

To see more links and quotes, click here (Facebook) or here (Twitter).

Couch to 5K: take 2

Week 6
There are three different workouts for this week. They are as follows:

Workout 1: a brisk 5-minute walk, then 5 minutes of running, 3 minutes of walking, 8 minutes of running, 3 minutes of walking, 5 minutes of running.

Workout 2: a brisk 5-minute walk, then 10 minutes of running, 3 minutes of walking, 10 minutes of running.

Workout 3: a brisk 5-minute walk, then 25 minutes of running with no walking.
I walk out the door into Autumn. The air is nose-shrivelling cold, the sun warm, my favourite kind of day. Yellow leaves drift past. Sara Groves sings Why it matters into my earbuds, her words of parks and memorials somehow suited to the day.

I raise my face to the tree tops, and think: yes, this is it. Today, I can do this.

I'm walking. I'm running. Running around the park. Running back. And back again. This 25 minute run eats up a lot of ground. By the end, I'm avoiding any little rise in the ground, going the long, flat way around. Not. Sure. I. Can. Make. It.

Just as I pick up my iPhone to check if I can stop - now, please now! - the annoyingly calm voice of the app says, "Well done! You've made it!".

For the umpteenth time, I think, "It's all very well for you, Miss Virtual Trainer, you're not the one doing the running." (Pet hate: that pert little "You're half-way there!". "Only half-way?!", my lungs and legs scream.)

I walk to the lake, stretch every leg muscle I can identify, then sit on a rock and watch a flock of cockatiels fight over a tree full of gumnuts. The nuts don't look particularly tasty to me, all dry and brown, but the cockatiels rip them to shreds and eat whatever's inside.

Time to go home. My muscles are a little achy, but that's to be expected. My knees are, surprisingly, without twinges of any kind. And I'm triumphant - and relieved.

And I realise:
  • you can work through a week more slowly if your body demands it, and still reach your goal.
  • I just bought a second knee-brace, and my knees feel better this way. I also think it helps that I'm not jogging quite as many times a week. Recently, it's been one longer jog and one broken-up jog with my daughter.
  • you shouldn't wear woollen socks on a run, cold day or not. My feet are soon begging for air.
  • you shouldn't have a hot drink before you run. Not unless you want to find out what it's like to run with a full bladder. Uncomfortable.

It's the end of week 6, take 2 - or 3 - or, perhaps, 4 - and I did it! My first 25 minute run!

How did you find week 6 of Couch to 5K?

Monday, May 27, 2013

When God Weeps - part 3 - the "how" of suffering

I have a friend who suffers from chronic pain. She's had it most of her life, since an accident as a teenager. Of all the books she's read on suffering, the one she loves most is Joni Eareckson Tada and Stephen Estes' When God Weeps.

There's no higher recommendation than that!

Now that I've finished, what do I think of When God Weeps? I can't imagine a better book to give those who are in the middle of suffering, once they have reached a point where they are able to reflect on things again.

My friend and I agree that the best thing about When God Weeps is the way it moves between the theological and the experiential. It helps that it's written by Joni, deeply experienced in long-term suffering; and Stephen Estes, a capable theologian. Both write with great sympathy and with a colourful, lively style, and Estes writes with clear logic.

I don't agree with every sentence. I'm a bit hesitant about statements like this - "God may not initiate all our trials - but by the time they reach us, they are his will for us" (does this really express God's absolute sovereignty in all things?) - but I appreciate the tension between God's sovereignty and human responsibility that Estes is trying to uphold. And he does say, "No trial reaches us apart from God's explicit decree". So my hesitations are slight.

It was an absolute treat reading the third and final section. It's called "How can I hang on?", and it's about how to suffer well. There are four chapters, sometimes surprising in their content:
  • Cry of the soul - Wise words about anger at God, how it can lead to bitterness, and where it really belongs: in honest expression to God, so that it moves us, not away from him, but towards him. Here we may not find answers, but we will find his comforting arms.
  • Gaining contentment - I like Joni's "arithmetic of contentment": when we suffer, we subtract our wants so our desires equal our circumstances, and gain what is of far greater value: Christ's sufficiency in our need, the joy of knowing God, and the advancement of his kingdom.
  • Suffering gone malignant - I wasn't expecting a chapter on hell in a book on suffering, yet it really does belong here. Estes reminds us why hell is necessary, because it's God's answer to both terrible injustice and the evil at the heart of "good" people. It also explains why Christians suffer, because "hell's splashover" prepares us for eternity and moves us to reach out to others.
  • Suffering Gone - This was perhaps the highlight of the book for me. Every word spoke to my need. In suffering we need a future perspective (so hard when pain is present!). We need to remember that heaven is a Person, not just a place, that it is so much more than we can imagine, and that the way we bear suffering now will win us a rich reward in eternity. 
By the end of When God Weeps I was in tears. A bit embarrassing since I was in public at the time!

We will all suffer, so we all need books like When God Weeps. I recommend it highly, both for those who haven't suffered greatly yet and for those who are suffering.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

the sea of this world

The sea of this world interrupts our course, even although we already see where we are headed … Therefore, cling to Christ … He became the one, on which the weak may be borne, and cross the sea of this world and reach their native country; where there will be no need of a ship, for no sea is crossed.

Augustine of Hippo (Tractate 2 on John 6)

(With thanks to my friend Andrew.)

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Christian books I'd like to read in 2013

It's been a while since I wrote about the books I want to read! Looking at last year's list, I read a few books that aren't on the list, and listed a couple that I didn't read. So this won't be accurate.

But since I have a pile of books on my shelf just begging to be read, and since I've got a clear reading plan - something that happens, oh, about once a year - I thought it was time to share this year's list with you. Better late than never!

Last year, the theme of my reading was "marriage" and "sharing your faith". This year, it's "suffering". Perhaps for obvious reasons. But not quite so obvious, because Ben has been ill for 3 years now, and Lizzy struggled a few years before that. It's been a long road. So why now?

Because my grief and sorrow have reached the point where, instead of flinging accusations at God, begging for healing (well, I'm still doing that, but with more trust in the answer he gives), and giving way to despair, he is teaching me to trust and rejoice through this time. Call it the "acceptance" stage of grief - call it what you will! - but my emotions are more settled. This trial is still hard, so hard. But God is near, and he is good.

So I now have the brain space to reflect on suffering. Everyone processes suffering differently, but I like to think through things. I want the answers God's word gives. I want to share what I learn. I'm thinking of writing an article about a few books on suffering later this year. Not sure if that will happen! But I'll read some all the same, God willing.

Books on suffering aren't the only ones on my list. And, of course, I'll keep reading novels of all kinds, because that's what I do to relax.

So here they are, the Christian books I'd like to read in 2013. (I'd love to see your list!)

Late last year, I read missionary Naomi Reed's Heading Home. I loved it, but wasn't really in the state of mind to absorb it, so I'd like to re-read it. Beautiful reflections on our true home.
Two years on, and, on my mornings off, I'm still working my way slowly and happily through King's Cross (it's now published as Jesus is the King).
Now for books on suffering. A long list, in reading order. I may not make it to the last couple. I recently finished Joni Eareckson Tada and Stephen Estes' wonderful When God Weeps.
I am currently reading Paul Grimmond's Suffering Well. I highly recommend it! A clear, bracing, strengthening read.
I'm looking forward to reading Nancy Guthrie's Holding on to Hope. She's a great author, so biblical and encouraging.
Don Carson's How Long O Lord deserves a re-read. There's no better book on suffering.
A friend recently recommended and reminded me of the existence of Philip Yancey's Where is God When It Hurts. I'm guessing it's experiential in tone.
I haven't read John Dixon's If I were God, I'd end all the pain, but I enjoy his books. I assume this will be apologetic in tone.
A book about doubt, something I battle and have been wanting to read about for some time: Os Guinness' God in the Dark
A very practical little book on reading the Bible with people: David Helm's One to One. I led a seminar on this recently.
A book to read with my friend Jane, about living life as a human: Zack Eswine's Sensing Jesus. I read the first chapter and enjoyed the rich language and all-too-familiar reflections on burnout, but I have no idea what this will be like.
A book about union with Christ, something I need to think about for some talks on Colossians: Rory Shiner's One Forever.
A book to give a friend, recommended by my friend Julie-anne: Bill Medley's Religion is for Fools.
A book about writing, recommended by my friend Jenny, so far hilarious and helpful: Douglas Wilson's Wordsmithy.
Two manuals I'm working through with women I'm training: Matthias Media's The Course of Your Life (it's my first time through this, and it's excellent);
and Growth Groups (an old favourite).
A book I'm still reading, slowly but surely, with my daughter Lizzy (and mostly, but not always, agreeing with): Carolyn Mahaney's Girl Talk.

What are you reading in 2013?

no new plugholes around here

Thomas: "Mum, you got a new plughole!"

Me: "No I didn't!"

Thomas: "Yes you did, look!"

Me: "No I didn't!"

Andy: "It's the same plughole, it's just clean, Thomas."


Thursday, May 23, 2013

Couch to 5K: loud was the rejoicing

Just did my first ever 25 minute run for Couch to 5K. And my knees are fine! Woo-hoo! I can't quite believe it!

(I'll let you know how it went next week.)

online meanderings

Time travel: the key to holiness - I went back for a second look at this one. Wow!

Lashing out at God in prayer - Is it ever proper to express anger against God? "We need to notice not just the complaints the biblical saints sometimes make, but the responses God gives. It is never proper to accuse God of wrongdoing."

Depression and catastrophizing - A really good set of guidelines. (Use of the Bible: not quite so good.)

Care for your brothers and sisters in Christ, in a crisis and when it's chronic. Towards the end of this post, you'll find two helpful lists to prod you into compassion.

When your kids get home from school, HALT and It's not all about ME-time - Two good posts for mums.

On writing well - 4 very helpful suggestions and some choice quotes. The first one made me Laugh Out Loud.

Book reviews: A call to spiritual reformation and A praying life - My two favourite books on prayer, reviewed by Wendy.

Who is publishing good books today? - There you are, Matthias Media! There you are, Good Book Company! Good to see these UK and Aussie publishers on Challies' list.

If you’re struggling with legalism, don’t fight it by quitting your quiet times. Trillia Newbell
I must remember God's sovereignty is not separate from His other attributes nor does it trump them. Yes, He is sovereign but He is also good. And loving. And wise. He doesn’t lay aside His love in order to exercise His sovereign authority nor vice versa. When faced with what I do not know, I can cling to what I do know: God is good. He bears our sorrows. There is future glory and the promise of heaven. Lisa Spence

To see more links and quotes, click here (Facebook) or here (Twitter).

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

the problem with writing

She echoes my thoughts exactly, especially when I'm asked to sum up my childhood. With each repetition, it threatens to become the tale I tell of it, even when I know it was so much more.
There is the writer's Big Problem. Once you write about something, you contain it - making, despite your best efforts, a poor copy, which then threatens to become all there is, to drain the vast pool of memory, which might otherwise at some future time throw up more, new memories. Just as memories of childhood holidays become confine to the Polaroids we have of them.
Anna Funder

Couch to 5K: weeks 7-9 (or not)

Week seven
Begin with a brisk 5-minute walk, then 25 minutes running.

Week eight
Begin with a brisk 5-minute walk, then 28 minutes of running.

Week nine
Begin with a brisk 5-minute walk, then 30 minutes of running.
Well, it seems that I like jogging, but it doesn't like me. I'm still hovering around week 6, wondering if my knees are ready to take the next step - the 25 minute run. More and more, I wonder if I'll have to stop and get my exercise in some other form.

In the meantime, my friend Jane has long since finished Couch to 5K. I asked her what the last few weeks were like. Here's what she said:
Jane - These were the weeks that got easier for me. With just one jump up to running 25 mins, this was when I felt I'd 'become' a competent runner. The other increases were small and I didn't really notice them. 
Around this time I made myself a cool down playlist of my favourite congregational / God focused songs to help me begin the day in prayer and worship God aright in my heart before heading inside to help with the breakfast routine. 
I've been reading Amy Grant's memoirs and she talks about how every day before breakfast she goes outside to look at the day and she says out loud "This is the day The Lord has made, we will rejoice and be glad in it". I've adopted her idea and adapted it to help align my heart with God's at the end of my morning run. 
I also pray for whatever I know we have on that day - all while cooling down and listening to beautiful recordings of such songs as Come Thou Fount and I Can Only Imagine. This is now my favourite thing about running!
Go Jane!

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

a more cheerful take on life at our house

I thought, after yesterday's rather gloomy post, that it might be good to fill you in on the bigger picture of how things have been going for us.

Steve is in the eye of the storm, in the brief but relatively quiet few weeks between the busyness of the start of the university year and talk writing for our mid year conference. It's good to have a husband who's emotionally and physically a bit more present!

I was feeling worn out, sad and irritable after a difficult start to the school term, but finally started feeling rested again last Friday. It's a great relief to have something in the tank again.

Lizzy is dressed as Katniss Everdeen from the Hunger Games today - it's dress up day at school. I did the Katniss braid this morning. She made the bow and arrows herself. Hopefully she wins some chocolate! [Update: she did win the competition. Go Lizzy!]

Ben, like me, is coming off the back of 4 exhausting weeks. We thought last week might be quieter, but the stress of doing NAPLAN with a migraine put paid to that idea! He went to the footy on Sunday, headache and all, and is paying for it with a migraine now. It was worth it. Life has to include some fun.

Thomas and Andy are also dressed up today for Education Week. Thomas is Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Andy is Harry with his bucket full of dinosaurs.
As you can see, we go in for home-made costumes at our house. This is partly due to a mother who is too disorganised to buy them. Occasionally it leads to embarrassingly bad looks - like a very sad-looking clown one year, while all the other kids had shiny rainbow afros - but mostly it's fun (and a lot of hard work).

Monday, May 20, 2013

rules to live by

There is a boy. He sits in a room, surrounded by adults, in a circle of adults. He speaks calm words about himself, about the last three years of his life, about this thing they call chronic daily headaches, about the pain and its beats and measures. He is not calm, but you wouldn't know it. She knows, because later he tells her.

There is a woman, his mother. She is silent, allowing him to speak. She shifts in her chair, and her jeans make an embarrassing noise on the vinyl. She hopes no one heard. She knows they probably did, this room full of attentive adults. She crosses her legs. She crosses them the other way. She listens. She waits her turn.

There are six other adults in the room, four women, two men, members of the chronic pain management team. Twelve eyes to look at the boy and his mother, twelve eyes and three hours of questions. Six different breeds of medical professional: male, female, old, young, serious, kind. They are all kind, so kind. She feels pinned by their gaze.

They ask the boy questions about the pain, how often, since when, what sets it off, what helps, where it is, how it feels. Mostly he can answer them (he's heard them before). Sometimes he can't. The questions have beaten him into silence, too many questions. How can he quantify the pain? How can he put a number to it? What if he is wrong? He has started to ask himself, what if he is a coward, when others experience far worse pain than this?

The boy wears soft grey pants and a grey jumper with a fur-lined hood. The soft edges protect him from the hard edges of their questions. As they walk to the meeting, he pulls the hood up, but his mother pulls it down. He runs his hand through his hair, and she smooths it down.

They notice this. They notice everything. They ask if he likes soft clothes. He does. His mother listens, fascinated, but she wonders what this has to do with anything. She wonders what anything has to do with anything. What are they observing about him, about her? What connections are they drawing? What are they thinking? Why won't they tell her?

They take him from the room. Two adults gone, four left plus her. They question her. They ask about his developmental milestones, relationships, intelligence, family history. Some answers she knows (she's familiar with this line of questioning). Some answers she can't remember (she should have brought his baby book). She asks herself, Why can't I remember? Why don't I know? Does it matter that I don't know?

More questions. What are his thought processes like? Positive or negative? You say positive? But what about these times? What about those? She knows, she doesn't know. She says to ask him.

He returns to the room. They ask him. He answers, or tries to answer. She marvels at the delicate balance of mind and body, so finely tuned, so easily knocked awry. Has she done this? Did they do something wrong, or not do something right? This beautiful, strong, loving boy. What have they done?

The boy and his mother are sent away for fifteen minutes, fifteen minutes of buying him a sausage roll, sitting in the sun, exclaiming at the spinning doors, wondering what conversations are happening in their absence. They return.

And they are told that they are doing okay. They are doing the right things. The doctors they are already seeing - those doctors with all their questions - are doing the right things. Maybe they could change his medication. They should probably bring him back for some physiotherapy. Oh, and there's a pain clinic he could attend. And some more questionnaires to fill in. And the occupational therapist would like to see him. The boy's mother adds the appointments to a diary full of doctors' visits. But, they say, you are doing well. We approve.

She feels relieved. The boy smiles, shifts in his chair. And it's all okay. And none of it is okay.

There is an art to this, an art she has not yet learned. To allow their lives to be examined, probed, dissected, cut open like a rat on the table. To remain undefensive, receptive. To be grateful, to listen and absorb. To know this matters immensely, could mean the difference between health and sickness. To know this doesn't always matter, the doctors don't always know, don't always agree, aren't always right.

To try things, all the time not knowing. To work away at the pain, increment by imperceptible increment, week by week. To make mistakes and pay the price of days of illness and, next week, try something new and lose more days and try again, each time one step closer. To watch her son suffer, watch him make progress, so much progress, but still so slow, so far to go.

To follow the rules, all the times ignoring the rules. To answer the questions but not allow them to strip her bare. To hear conflicting advice and know when to listen and when to ignore. To be full of needs, but not to be needy. To ask for help, yet go home and cope on their own. To do all this and not be swallowed up by it.

To get on with life. To love her son. To find the energy, somehow, to love her other three children. To be tired but not to lose her temper. To lose her temper, ask forgiveness, and not wallow but go on. To turn from tears to laughter, to learn the art of turning from tears to laughter. To be worn out, to be worn down, but to go on.

She has always been a rule-follower. She feels secure when she obeys. She needs to get it right, to get everything right. She needs to please. She is learning that this is not possible, that she can't do everything they say. That she can't do everything. That sometimes - often! - she won't know the best thing to do. That all she can do is what is best for her son, for her family, and love, and serve, and try, and love. She is learning that there is only One she lives to please, and she is already whole and loved in him.

She doesn't have the strength for this, but she knows Someone who does.

I wrote this in response to Meredith's writing challenge

what I'm listening to: nothing can harm me

Last night I listened to an encouraging sermon about why we don't need to fear so-called random events.

Our pastor told us this story:
John Chrysostom was a church father in the fourth century known for his preaching.
When he was a young Christian he was brought before the emperor, who told him that if he didn't give up being a Christian he would be exiled from the country.

Chysostom replied, "You cannot banish me because the whole world belongs to my father."

Then the emperor said, "I will take away your property."

"You cannot", replied Chysostom, "because my treasures are in heaven."

So the emperor warned him that he would place him in solitary confinement.

Chrysostom responded, "You cannot, because I have a friend who is closer than a brother, I have Jesus Christ forever."

Finally the emperor threatened him, "We will execute you."

To which Chrysostum said, "You cannot, because my life is hidden with God.

There is nothing you can do to harm me!"

It was a wonderful reminder that nothing can ever really harm us, because nothing - not even death - can separate us from the love of Christ (Romans 8:28-29).

You can find John's ongoing sermon series here.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

online meanderings

Lessons learned from the dark valley of depression - These lessons learned through suffering sound very familiar.

How to work in a job that you don't love - For young men unsure of the future, but relevant to us all.

How far is too far? - Well, would you passionately kiss your neighbour? A helpful article. (And a book review - Sex, dating and relationships - with yet another alternative to "dating" and "courtship" - a dating friendship!)

Is it okay for Christians to be bemoan an unexpected pregnancy? - There's lot to like about this post.

Is your complementarian culture bordering on crazy? - Some ways that culture can take over from theology when it comes to men and women.
Christians should pray long enough and honestly enough, at a single session, to get past the feeling of formalism and unreality that attend not a little praying. To enter the spirit of prayer, we must stick at it for a little while. Eventually we will come to delight in God’s presence, to rest in his love, to cherish his will. Don Cason
Embrace the vulnerability of partial knowledge. If we “know in part”—in our parenting, in our counselling, in our decision-making—we must move toward our God for his wisdom. Mike Emlet (on Zack Eswine)

To see more links and quotes, click here (Facebook) or here (Twitter).

Friday, May 17, 2013

God’s gifts in suffering (3) suffering tests and refines our faith

In this [living hope] you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith--of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire--may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed. (1 Peter 1:6-7)
I’m no Job. The words I used to sing so blithely, with such theoretical appreciation of their beauty, such bland conviction that I’d sing them whatever came – “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21)1 – don’t, apparently, spring to my lips when suffering comes. My lips are sealed, silent.

And that’s the first thing suffering teaches me about myself: my faith is weaker than I knew. I am riddled with doubt. I am shot through with unbelief. My trust in God is fragile.

When I was young, I thought of myself as strong. I would never lose my faith! I would never stumble! My obedience was sure, my faith certain. Life, at times, has felt like a successive stripping away of self-delusion. Tempt me, and I am prone to habitual sin. Test me, and I am prone to anger. Try me, and I am prone to unbelief.

Suffering brings me low, which is exactly where I need to be:
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. (Psalm 51:17)
Suffering undoes me. It unravels the pride and self-reliance that were woven together with my faith. What’s left is alarmingly slender, so it’s just as well that it’s God, not me, who holds me here. Faith hangs by a thread; yet it holds, tested and true, stronger than spider silk, for the One to whom it clings is faithful. When I am weak, God proves to be strong; and, seeing this, my faith grows stronger.

Suffering refines my faith. It becomes more resilient, less dependent on circumstances. I come one step closer to believing in God as he really is, not as I want him to be. I long for heaven, and the ties that bind me to this earth are loosened.

It’s true: suffering both tests and refines my faith. I’ll write more about the second of these in the weeks to come.

1. The song being Matt Redman’s Blessed be the name of the Lord.

online meanderings

What do you do when the word leaves you cold? - Great suggestions for times of spiritual dryness.

When I heard God's voice - How God spoke to Challies. How he speaks to us.

For perfectionists in imperfect marriages - Helpful reading for perfectionists, married or not.

12 ways to support parents of babies and young children - "Offer advice only when invited", "Encourage", and more.

Fight spiritual ADD, "in which we bounce from blog to book to sermon in ways that don’t promote deep engagement and growth". A constant temptation for me.

If I'm failing to demonstrate the same fruit of the Spirit in "real life" as I do online, it's probably plastic fruit. Lindsay Carlson
People like to say life is a marathon, not a sprint, but it’s actually more like a track workout. We run hard and then rest hard. Kevin DeYoung

To see more links and quotes, click here (Facebook) or here (Twitter).

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

in the middle of a story

Love this quote. So true. (And it's one reason I can rarely write about anything until after it's over, or at least until my thoughts about it have settled into some kind of order - and that rarely happens in the middle of it.)
When you are in the middle of a story it isn’t a story at all, but only a confusion; a dark roaring, a blindness, a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood; like a house in a whirlwind, or else a boat crushed by the icebergs or swept over the rapids, and all aboard powerless to stop it. It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all. When you are telling it, to yourself or to someone else.

~Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace HT Ali

Couch to 5K: week 6, day 1

Week 6 day 1.
A brisk 5-minute walk, then 5 minutes of running, 3 minutes of walking, 8 minutes of running, 3 minutes of walking, 5 minutes of running.

Mother and daughter scamper across the wet sand and breaking waves

Day 1: that's all I've done of week 6 so far. I'm e-a-s-i-n-g my way through a combination of weeks 5 and 6, nursing my knees (so far so good), working up gradually to my first 25 minute run.

I ran on Sunday afternoon (I'll do my next run today if I can). The first 5 minutes were sluggish and slow; the 8 minutes, a test of stamina; the last 5 minutes, joyous. It reminded me, again, why I'm doing this whole Couch to 5K thing.

I've been feeling worn out, flattened by life. After my run, I felt happy, energised, ready to face the week. Exercise isn't the key to life, but it's a good cure for blah-ness. It's a great gift of God, isn't it?

And I ran with my daughter! It was her first run for months. Despite that, she powered ahead of me through the first 5 minutes, long legs taking in big gulps of ground. "You go ahead, darling!", I panted. "I'll catch up!". The difference between 44 and 14 years.

Ah, but then she chose to sit out the 8 minute run. Okay, so she wasn't super-well, but it still made feel a bit better. Ageing legs and all, I've developed some stamina over the last few months.

We ran the last 5 minutes together, and she hit the sweet spot, where your mind gives up and your body takes over, lungs and legs doing their thing. It's a glorious feeling, best of all the first time you feel it.

She enjoyed it so much that she declared, "Mum, I want to go jogging again!" Sweet words to a mother's ears. Seems I have a new jogging companion, on weekends at least.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

when life feels oh, so ordinary

My life feels ordinary. I guess yours does to. And so often we long for more. Or we wonder if we're missing out on something. Or if we could be serving God in bigger ways.

Challies tackles this feeling in Ordinary: Christian living for the rest of us.
Ordinary is a book I have lived. I live it every day. I live an ordinary life, pastor an ordinary church full of ordinary people, and head home each night to my ordinary little home in an oh-so-ordinary suburb. I preach very ordinary sermons—John Piper or Steve Lawson I am not and never will be—and as I sit with the people I love I am sure I give them very ordinary counsel. A friend recently confessed his initial disappointment the first time he visited my home and got a glimpse of my life. “Your house is so small and your life is so boring.” Indeed. It’s barely 1,100 square feet of house and forty hours every week sitting at a desk...

I want to explore this desire to be more than ordinary and this low-grade guilt that compels us to try to do more and be more and act more. I am convinced that we do not need to make ordinary synonymous with apathetic and radical synonymous with godly. I want to explore some of these themes because I encounter them in my own life, I see them in the pages of bestselling books, I hear them at conferences, I counsel against them in the people I pastor, and I often battle to convince my own wife that ordinary is good. It is all God asks of us. It is all God asks of her.

And here’s the thing. I am thrilled to live this ordinary life. Nine days out of ten I wake up in the morning overwhelmed with gratitude that I get to live a life like this. I live it without guilt and regret. I live without the desire to be extra-ordinary and without feeling the need to do radical things. But then there is that other day, that one out of ten, where I feel guilt and discontentment, where I want life to be so much more than it is, where I am convinced that I am missing out on a better life and missing out on God’s expectations for me.

Ordinary is Christian living for the rest of us. It is for people like me and, in all likelihood, people like you. It is for Christians who have tried to be more than ordinary and who just have not found what they have been looking for. It is for Christians who have never tried to be more than ordinary and who are content that way. It validates our sheer normalcy and refutes our desire to be anything greater than that.

It is about being ordinarily excellent, ordinarily passionate, ordinarily godly. It is about trusting that such ordinary saints are saints indeed, fully acceptable, fully accepted, fully pleasing to the One who created and called us.

I think we may just find that this desire to be more than ordinary and to live a life so much more than ordinary exposes as much sin as sanctification. Perhaps we will find it is one thing to pursue godliness and end up with extraordinary challenges, extraordinary responsibilities or extraordinary opportunities, but another thing altogether to pursue the more-than-ordinary as a goal. We may well find that the Christians who really get it are the most unremarkable of all.

You can read the rest here.

online meanderings

Just as I am - "She was kept wakeful by distressing thoughts of her apparent uselessness..." For those with chronic illness.

What do you do when the word leaves you cold? - 8 helpful thoughts about times of spiritual dryness.

Mums, control and worry - "I’ve been bitten by a serpent-shaped lie that says I can orchestrate all the details of my life...Worry is an acceptable sin that joins many conversations, play dates, and texts."

Leading on empty - Burnout, its signs and symptoms, and how to prevent it. Really excellent.

Your church is too small - Just finished Sam's article on Hillsong. I thought it was clear and fair.
Patience is not an emotion that we feel, it's the control of an emotion. It's not felt, it's exercised. Lisa Thompson
Gluttony is the soul’s addiction to excess. It occurs when taste overrules hunger, when want outweighs need...Feasting on God is as foreign to most of us as an empty stomach. Jason Todd

To see more links, click here (Facebook) or here (Twitter).

Monday, May 13, 2013

the 5 tasks of friendship in marriage

What a great list: the 5 key tasks of friendship in marriage.
Know each other’s worlds intimately – knowing what are the other persons stresses and worries, feeling like the other person is interested in knowing you, asking open-ended questions and remembering the answers.

Admire the positive qualities in your spouse – what do you like about them and do you regularly tell them. Are you scanning for your partners mistakes or for things to admire. It has a significant impact to say something you appreciate.

Respond to your spouse’s attempts to connect with you – people make bids for connection, empathy etc, which form an emotional bank account, and you can increase your mindfulness of how your partner (friend) makes bids to connect. You can turn away, against or towards a person in response to their bid for connection. This behaviour is apparently the basis of romance, passion and sex. For example, one person looks out the window and says “isn’t it a beautiful sunset tonight” – you can ignore them, say you don’t have time to look at sunsets, just say “yeah”, of you can say “how about we go outside and take a look together” etc.

Time – hang out with each other to catch up. They talked about the importance of making time for this. And that if during this time you can communicate how you feel, that leads to a greater emotional connection.

Enjoy – have fun together. No laughter or fun is a bad sign. It takes five positives to make up for each negative in an emotional bank account, so fun times are important and will help you survive the lean times.

From Keith and Sarah Condie via Ali.

prepare yourself for suffering

Brace yourself for suffering:
Every trial we go through is “Father-filtered,” meaning that nothing takes God by surprise. Every tribulation that comes our way is permitted by the God who holds our future in His hand....

Preachers like to say that people are in one of three stages:
About to encounter suffering
Going through suffering
Coming out of suffering
If this is true, then we should prepare people for all three stages. Why? Because suffering well is one of the best ways we witness to our faith and joy in the Lord....

No one wants to take the Suffering Class. We steer clear of studying about this subject. We don’t want that course checked off our list. We start thinking, If I’m prepared for suffering, God is going to send a portion my way! Better to ignore it and deal with it when it comes, right?

Take the suffering class. Study what the Bible says about suffering. Don’t neglect Job, the psalms, or the words of the Apostle Peter.

Let’s prepare for suffering so we can be a powerful testimony to the grace and goodness of God in the midst of pain.

Do yourself a favour. Read the whole thing.

what I'm reading: suffering brings me to the cross

How easily I become self-sufficient! How easily I worship comfort and money and ease! How easily I forget Jesus' demand to give up everything to follow him! How easily I lay down the cross he asks me to bear! 

Then suffering steps in. It takes away the idols I refused to give up. It exposes the lie of my self-sufficiency. It brings me to my knees at the foot of the cross. It teaches me, once again, to bear my cross for the One who died for me. 

I've seen this dynamic in my own life. Joni talks about in When God weeps*:
The cross is where we die. We got there daily. But it isn't easy ... The cross? We dig in our heels. The invitation is so frighteningly individual. It's an invitation to go alone...
We know it as a place of death. "Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature..." (Colossians 3:5). Who wants to do that? Crucify his own pride? Kill his own daydreams and fantasies? Dig a grave for his pet worries?
We simply cannot bring ourselves to go to the cross. Nothing attracts us to it.
Thus we live independently of the cross. Or try to. As time passes, the memory of our desperate state when we first believed fades. The cross was something that happened to us "back then." We forget how hungry for God we once were. We grow self-sufficient ... We would hardly admit it, but we know full well how autonomous of God we operate.
This is where God steps in.
He permits suffering ... Suffering reduces us to nothing ... To be reduced to nothing is to be dragged to the foot of the cross. It's a severe mercy ... Suffering forces us to our knees at the foot of Calvary. 

Joni Eareckson Tada When God weeps 135-136, 142.

* I don't love everything about what Joni writes on these pages, or perhaps I haven't quite got my head around it. What I loved and agreed with, I have shared with you here.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

online meanderings

How a writer of words recognized the Author of the Word - As a writer, the more I read the Bible, the more I'm convinced only God could have written it. So wonderful. So true.

Unwashed hands and the internet - Reflections after a year without the internet: it's not the problem. Your heart is.

The Puritans and mental illness - Yes, they did believe in it. An excellent post that brought back memories of my PhD.

For mums of bubsMother daughter time and Baby sitting swaps - Three great posts for mums (and dads).

The Big Picture Story Bible and The Jesus Storybook Bible - An excellent review of two popular kids' bibles with some surprising conclusions (I second his recommendation of the excellent Read with Me Bible).

7mouths2feed - Good to see my friend Susie back blogging beautiful stuff and interesting thoughts.
The things you pray about are the things you trust God to handle. The things you neglect to pray about are the things you trust you can handle on your own.  HB Charles Jr  
There are times to speak and there are times when people don’t need our advice. Sometimes we just need to shut up and keep our well-meaning platitudes to ourselves.  Murray Campbell

To see more links, click here (Facebook) or here (Twitter).

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Couch to 5K: *pause* for sore knees

So far, I've done 5-weeks-plus-a-day of Couch to 5K twice!

The first time was last summer. That's what you've been reading about. It ended with a sore left knee and a month-long break from running.

The second time - well, you've been reading about that too, because I've been running at the same time as I've been posting.

This time I got through the 20 minute run with no localised knee soreness.
Running part 2
Here's what I'm doing differently this time around:
  • I do a set of stretching exercises, based on these, at the end of every run. They are necessary for every jogger, apparently - running creates injury without them - and I love doing them! I'm more flexible than I've been in years.
  • I bought a new pair of runners, designed particularly for the way my feet pronate (or is that supernate?  I don't know). But they make a huge difference - much more padding than my old cross-trainers!
  • I started wearing a patella band just under my left knee. Not a cure-all, apparently. But it really does help my knee to feel more stable.
  • I slowed down once I got near the 20 minute run, and repeated the 2 x 8 minute run a few times. No point rushing things!
  • I changed where I run, keeping to a place with more even surfaces and less slants and hills.
I'm still getting a little general knee achiness, but much less than the first time around (and I suspect due to some extra over-doing it during the last week).

I've pulled back a bit this week, and will e-a-s-e back into jogging over the next week or so - and keep you updated.

Not sure  I'll ever make a long-term jogger, much as I'd hate to give it up! I love running. But if I keep getting sore, I might have to try a different form of exercise.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

online meanderings

The inevitability of holiness - "It is never a question of if, it is always a question of when." When change feels all too slow.

Why the ascension matters - "At least for the past 2,000 years, Jesus doesn’t make footprints in the sand."

A year away from the Internet - Avoiding stuff is not the solution to problems of the heart.

What is the difference between affections and emotions? - Very Puritan, very helpful.

Slowing down and I'm too busy - Two very different, very helpful posts about busyness.

Top 60 online resources for battling porn - David Murray with another useful list.

Book review: Treasuring the gospel in your home - Gloria Furman is excellent, and this book promises more of the same.
God has given me a child who requires more than I was trained to handle so that I would depend on him and not my own strength. Christina Fox
Let me put this very clearly: if, however unwittingly and unintentionally, I ever give my little girl the impression that her worth is found in her looks, beauty, and hotness, tie a millstone around my neck. Owen Strachan

To see more links, click here (Facebook) or here (Twitter).

the delight and wonder of a scientist

Does science destroy, or enhance, delight and wonder?

I'm a bit of a science geek, so I'd go with the following, from What I wish my pastor knew about the life of a scientist:
If there is one personality characteristic of the vast majority of scientists I have met, it is delight. There is something about science that attracts people who are fascinated and thrilled by the world.
To be sure, any given scientist is delighted by things that you and I may find odd or indeed incomprehensible — the intricacies of protein folding, the strata of Antarctic ice cores, or the properties of Lebesgue spaces (and no, I have no idea what that last phrase really means). But the specificity of their delights is one of delight’s secrets: like love, delight is always most potent when it is particular. ...

In many scientists, delight is matched by wonder — a sense of astonishment at the beautiful, ingenious complexity to be found in the world. This is not the “wonder” that comes from ignorance — “I wonder how a light bulb really works?” — but a wonder that comes from understanding.
Indeed, as we progress further into humanity’s scientific era we have been able to disabuse ourselves of a mistaken early-modern notion: that the more the world became comprehensible, the less it would be wonderful. That turns out not to be true at all — ask a scientist. Wonder grows as understanding grows. Indeed, wonder only grows if understanding grows.
If we replace our childhood awe of lightning with an explanation like, “It’s nothing but a transfer of voltage across a highly resistive material” (an example of what G. K. Chesterton wittily called “nothing-buttery”) perhaps the world will seem like a less wonderful place. But those who actually pursue knowledge of lightning — of electromagnetism or cloud formation or weather systems or climate — end up being more in awe of the world than they were as children.
This is surely one of the remarkable features of our cosmos: the more we understand about it, the more we are in awe of its beautiful elegance and simplicity, and at the same time its humbling complexity.

To be sure, many if not most scientists do not see this wonderful world in the way that most Christians would hope for. For us, wonder is a stepping-stone to worship — ascribing our awe for the world to a Creator whose worth it reveals. For many scientists, wonder is less a stepping-stone than a substitute for worship. Yet they stop and wonder all the same.
You can read the rest here.

Monday, May 6, 2013

what I'm reading: the answer to suffering is not a some thing, but a Someone

I like answers. I like to know the "why". This is no less true in suffering than in anything else.

But when there are no answers - when the answers have said all they can and I am still hurting - when I've given up on the answers, and I'm just crying out to God - what I need is not a some thing, but a Someone.

In her book When God weeps, Joni tells the story of a friend who is suffering deeply. She's with a group of friends. One of them offers a list of reasons why this might have happened. But that's not what she needs - she already knows all this - and silence falls on the group. Then someone starts singing, and the whole group starts singing to God, their Father. In him alone is comfort.

Because, ultimately, this is our answer to suffering:
When your heart is being wrung out like a sponge, an orderly list of “sixteen good biblical reasons as to why this is happening” can sting like salt in a wound. You don’t stop bleeding that way. A checklist may be okay when you’re looking at your suffering in a rearview mirror, but when you’re hurting in present tense, “Let me explain why this is happening” isn’t always liveable ...
We must never distance the Bible's answers from God. The problem of suffering is not about some thing, but Someone. It follows that the answer must not be some thing, but Someone....

Besides, answers are for the head. They don’t always reach the problem where it hurts — in the gut and in the heart. When a person is sorely suffering … people are like hurting children looking into the faces of their parents, crying and asking, “Daddy, why?” Those children don’t want explanations, answers, or “reasons why”; they want their daddy to pick them up, pat them on the backs, and reassure them everything is going to be okay.
Our heartfelt plea is for assurance — Fatherly assurance — that there is an order to reality that far transcends our problems, that somehow everything will be okay. We amble on along our philosophical path, then — Bam! — get hit with suffering. No longer is our fundamental view of life providing a sense of meaning or a sense of security in our world. Suffering has not only rocked the boat, it’s capsized it.
We need assurance that the world is not splitting apart at the seams. We need to know we aren’t going to fizzle into a zillion atomic particles and go spinning off in space. We need to be reassured that the world, the universe, is not in nightmarish chaos, but orderly and stable.
God must be at the centre of things. He must be in the centre of our suffering. What’s more, he must be Daddy. Personal and compassionate. This is our cry.
God, like a father, doesn’t just give advice. He gives himself. He becomes the husband to the grieving widow (Isaiah 54:5). He becomes the comforter to the barren woman (Isaiah 54:1). He becomes the bridegroom to the single person (Psalm 10:14). He is the healer to the sick (Exodus 15:26). He is the wonderful counsellor to the confused and depressed (Isaiah 9:6).

This is what you do when someone you love is in anguish; you respond to the plea of their heart by giving them your heart. If you are the One at the centre of the universe, holding it together, if everything moves, breathes, and has its being in you, you can do no more than give yourself (Acts 17:28).

It’s the only answer that ultimately matters.

Joni Eareckson Tada When God weeps 124-125.

Friday, May 3, 2013

our week

I thought I might start giving you a little picture of our lives each week. (Okay, so probably not every week.) I'm hoping this will:

- be a mini-prayer letter for those of you who support and pray for us
- fill in those of you who are just interested in how we're going
- be an aide-mémoire and a bit of fun!

So here goes! This week,

I thought I had to have my tooth out, but it turns out I don't. For the time being. Seems the problems it would create are as many as the problems it would solve. Which is kind of cheering - and kind of not, as I still have problems with my tooth. And my knees. But that's another story.

Steve is busy with talk-writing. Again. It's that time of year. He's also preaching at a wedding tomorrow. Always a bit scary-making.

Lizzy was on the radio today - for real! - for her media class. She talked about spiders in her bedroom, finding a mouse on her bathroom floor, and her brothers clinking their teeth on their spoons at dinner time. Not sure I will ever show my face in public again.

Ben is in the middle of a migraine. He made it to 2 days school this week. Would have been 3, but the athletics carnival was on *sigh*. Still, we are making steady progress, and he did get to go to work with Dad.

Thomas is 3/4 of the way through a big pile of books for his Premiers' Reading Challenge.  "Just finish one, Thomas, so I can write it down!" - that's me.

Andy keeps begging me to buy star fruit. It's good to see the boy who survives on rice and tomato sauce actually wanting to try something new.

keeping the gospel in your sights in pastoral ministry (or just in life, really)

flickr: Prayer by Chris Yarzab
Late last year, our ministry team looked at 1 Timothy 3 and 4.  We noticed how, smack bang in the middle of these chapters on Christian leadership, is “the mystery of godliness”: that is, Christ our Saviour (1 Tim 3:16 cf. 4:10). In other words, to be faithful in pastoral ministry, you have to keep your eyes on Jesus. You have to fight to keep your eyes on Jesus.

And what a fight you will have on your hands.

I start the year with good intentions. This year I won’t get so swallowed up by everything that needs to be done that I’ll forget the gospel. But by the end of the year I’m in coping mode, and when I’m in coping mode, the gospel is that last thing to come to mind. In this desperate race to the finish line, surely it’s my own efforts that will get me there. If I just knuckle down and get these Bible studies written. If I stay in control. If I keep on top of things. If I wake up earlier, go to bed later. If I…

And in all that busyness, the gospel slips from view, and I’m on a treadmill, endlessly running to keep up.

So how do you keep your eyes on the gospel? Our leadership group brainstormed and came up with some ideas. Here are eleven of them (I've included a few of my own).
  • Read the Bible for the sake of your own soul. I try to read something every day that has nothing to do with preparing anything. Or when I must read to prepare – and let’s face it, there are times like this – then I try to turn what I read into reflection, repentance, praise and prayer. At the moment I’m preparing Colossians, and I’ve found it helpful to add a psalm to my Bible reading each morning. 
  • Do evangelism. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, that reminds me of the wonder of the gospel like seeing it light up someone else’s eyes for the first time. As I read a gospel with a friend, the very passages that seem odd or embarrassing to me are the ones that impact her most deeply, and I’m convicted afresh of the beauty and power of the gospel. 
  • Pray. Prayerlessness is a vicious cycle: I don’t pray because I’m trying to do things in my own strength; then I have to do things in my own strength because I’m not praying; and, before long, I’m running to keep up, God is out of the picture, and it’s all about my own efforts to stay in control. Prayer reminds me that it’s God’s grace that changes people, not me. 
  • Invite others to teach and admonish you (Col 3:16; Heb 10:24-25; James 5:16). It’s good to confess our struggles to wise, mature believers who hold us to account. Over the years, I’ve prayed with a couple of friends who know me well, comfort and challenge me, and keep my eyes on the goal. I meet with another group of women to pray for our non-Christian friends; this keeps us sharp and gospel-focussed. 
  • Meditate on the gospel. Some ways to bring the gospel to mind include reading, memorizing, meditating on and praying through Bible passages about Jesus;1 listening to gospel-centred music;2 and deliberately making the cross and resurrection part of our daily thanksgiving and prayer. 
  • Let life and leadership be cross-shaped. Like our Lord, instead of lording it over others, we serve (Mk 10:42-45). We choose humility over pride and ambition (Phil 2:3-11). We work hard and endure patiently (2 Tim 2:1-6; 1 Pet 2:20-25). We lay down our lives in love (1 Jn 3:16; 4:7-12). Our leadership becomes a living mnemonic, a reminder to us and others of the cross. And it’s a wonderful, non-vicious spiral: we live this way because of the cross, and living this way, are driven back to the cross; for who can live like this apart from the strengthening grace of God? (2 Cor 4:7-12; Phil 4:11-13; 2 Tim 2:1-6
  • Rest. Every night my head hits the pillow, I’m reminded that I am not God, who alone ‘neither slumbers nor sleeps’ (Ps 121:3-4). A regular day’s rest, enjoying God’s good world and his gift of family and friends, reminds us that God sustains our life and provides all good things. Over-busyness, of course, has the opposite affect: it’s a symptom of I’m-running-the-universe disease, and leads to burn-out and loss of energy and purpose. 
  • Read books about the gospel. I aim to read about one a year. At the moment, I’m slowly working my way through Tim Keller's King’s Cross. Others that have helped me are John Stott’s The Cross of Christ, CJ Mahney's The Cross-Centred Life, and Nancy Guthrie's Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross.3 
  • Set aside a few regular hours for deeper reflection and prayer. Once a week or once a month, I sit in a cafe with an open Bible, a Christian book that I reserve just for this time, and a journal to write down thoughts and prayers; then I go for a long walk and pray. It keeps me refreshed and ready to serve, and the act of writing orders my thoughts and re-orients them to the gospel. 
  • Make teaching gospel-centred. Not in a forced “every Bible study has to end with Jesus” kind of way. But the gospel should be where God’s word drives us. I don’t think I’ve really understood a Bible passage until it brings me back to the gospel naturally, of its own accord, by its own route. 
  • Keep training and leadership gospel-centred. My husband, who heads a ministry team, makes sure that every staff meeting includes time, not just for administration, but also for encouraging each other from the Bible, praying, and discussing big issues from God’s word. It’s a great model for keeping the gospel on the agenda.
Christian ministry is hard, hard labour. It’s a marathon, not a sprint; but sometimes we can feel like we are sprinting! In the constant busyness and exhaustion, it’s tempting to turn to other things besides the gospel for comfort, like alcohol or inappropriate intimacy. It’s tempting to think we can do it all ourselves, until we crash and join the long list of those who’ve left pastoral ministry. I pray that we can remember God’s words to us:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. (Heb 12:1-3)

How do you keep your eyes on the gospel?

1. You’ll find some suggested passages and methods for memorization in my posts a three-course banquet of Bible memorization and A smorgasbord of Bible memorization methods.
2. For example, Sovereign Grace’s Songs for the Cross Centred Life.
3. Others I’d like to read include Don Carson’s The Cross and Christian Ministry; Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey and Andrew Sach’s Pierced for our Transgressions; and JI Packer and Mark Dever’s In My Place Condemned He Stood. ↩

Thursday, May 2, 2013

not rushing, but living, right now

This is one of those extraordinary posts where the author gathers up what you've been thinking - or have been on the edge of thinking - and puts it into words.

I often feel like I am rushing from place to place, never stopping to pray or reflect or consider. In the rush, more and more of what I do is motivated by pleasing people, not disappointing them. I lose sight of what really matters: living to please God.

Recently I've pondered the possibility of pausing from time to time, sitting in a chair and staring out a window, praying and reflecting on Jesus and calming my soul before God, before I rush onto the next task.

I love Zac Eswine's suggestions (shared by Mike Emlet):
So what does it look like to lean against the temptation to be “everywhere-for-all”?
  • Frame your day with pauses that remind you of your absolute dependency on God and ground you in the present. Eswine suggests using the time-honored tradition of breaking the day into four portions—morning, noon, evening, night—and pausing at the beginning and end of each period of time to pray and read Scripture for a few minutes. Although my consistency in this discipline waxes and wanes, I can attest to how it acts as a speed bump to what would otherwise be a frenetic, prayerless, and unreflective day. 
  • Focus on the here and now as you meet with people. Truly attend to the people in front of you—their words, smiles, grimaces, and furrowed brows. So much of interpersonal ministry is being with a person, not arriving at a destination. We are like children on a long car ride who whine, “Are we there yet?” while missing the glory of the ordinary passing scenery, not to mention the blessing (OK, sometimes!) of being together as a family. 
  • Learn to value the ordinary, “exult in monotony” (66). If you don’t do this, you miss much of daily life! Without those eyes to see and ears to hear, it’s no wonder the here and now feels insufficient and the whisper to be somewhere else for someone else beckons. Can you smell the sautéed asparagus? Feel the warmth of your child’s hand? See the impish grin of one of the preschoolers in your Sunday School class? Taste the bitter goodness of that first swallow of morning coffee? Savouring these ordinary moments, gifts from God for a given place and time, reminds us that he will give us what is needful for the moments of ministry as well. 
  • Go to bed! “Sleep is a Sabbath-like act. We rest from it all and leave it all for God’s keeping while we lie motionless in the world for a while” (80). Honestly, this is hard for me. While I don’t have the stamina of twenty years ago, I still am often driven by an everywhere-for-all mentality that trades sleep for the diminishing returns of working late. 
As you lean against the temptation to be omnipresent, expect your heart to push back. Even as I write this I sense the gnawing distraction of other tasks before me—preparing for a conference and a sermon, catching up on counselling progress notes, and making vacation plans. Can I be content with what is before me? 
"We can only be at one place at one time". That is good news! Whether you are in the counselling room or in a meeting or at the dinner table or getting ready for bed, remember that you live for one Person, and he equips you to live faithfully in this one place at this moment in time.
You can read the rest here.