Saturday, December 22, 2007

goodbye for now

Having started the school holidays with a leaking roof and a waterfall through the ceiling (ah, the sweet fragility of life) I turn my thoughts to summer holidays. We're going away to Apollo Bay immediately after Christmas, and I'm taking a break from blogging for a few weeks.

It's hard to believe I only started blogging a couple of months ago. It's been a crazy roller coaster ride, alternating between exhilaration and despair, fun and frustration. I need a few weeks off to clear my head, and pray about my priorities for next year. But I've thoroughly enjoyed blogging, especially the to-and-fro with you who read it (thanks!) and, above all, the joy of writing. It's under my skin now, so I'll see you back here mid to late January, God willing.

If you've got any feedback or suggestions for the blog, feel free to comment on this post (or message me privately if you want to and if you're a facebook friend).

I'll finish up with one last conversation with Thomas, appropriately themed given the blogger's dependence on technology:

Thomas (4) - "Mummy, what would happen if I didn't have a head?"
Mummy (39) - "Thomas, if you didn't have a head, you would be dead. You can't live without a head."
(Hmmm, let's see where this takes us...perhaps into a meaningful discussion about life and death...)

Thomas - "Mummy, what would happen if I didn't have a body?"
Mummy - "Thomas, if you didn't have a body, you wouldn't be alive. You can live without legs or arms, but not without a body."
(At this point I'm picturing Thomas as a torso and a head, with no limbs attached, a somewhat disturbing picture.)

Thomas - "Mummy, what would happen if I didn't have a nose?"
Mummy - "Thomas, if you didn't have a nose, you wouldn't be able to breathe, or smell anything. Well, actually, you would be able to breathe through your mouth, but you couldn't smell anything."
(Well, accuracy is important, isn't it?)

Thomas - "Mummy, what would happen if I didn't have eyes?"
Mummy - "Thomas, if you didn't have eyes, you wouldn't be able to see anything."
(This is starting to sound like "There's a hole in my bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza"...)

Thomas - "Mummy, what would happen if I didn't have any hands?"
Mummy - "Thomas, if you didn't have hands, you wouldn't be able to touch things, or carry things."
Thomas - "Mummy, if I didn't have hands, I wouldn't be able to hold a computer mouse."

Well, at least he has his priorities right.

It's definitely time to turn off the computer.

Goodbye for now, and have a happy and blessed Christmas!

Friday, December 21, 2007

heavenly choirs sing

Joseph walks past leading Mary, clad in traditional blue robes, her legs uncomfortably sticking out straight to the sides on the barrel-shaped donkey, like one of those balancing tricks with two forks and a cork wobbling precariously on the rim of a wine glass.

They settle into the stable with absurdly pleased looks on their faces, like any proud new parents cradling their first child. Their tiny black-haired baby looks around sleepily, completely unaware of his (her?) starring role as the divine representative. Joseph whittles a piece of wood, as any good carpenter would, adding his own small verisimilitude (had to look that one up) to the occasion.

A very small green-clad wise man lurches past, clinging white-knuckled to a towering camel, like an absurdly tiny cherry on top of a huge, wobbling cream cake, with an anxious and sea-sick look on his face, as if he was wishing he'd volunteered to be the inn-keeper.

An enthusiastic shepherd, all red bouncing curls and wildly gesturing hands, exclaims at an imaginary angel choir, accompanied by two extremely dour shepherds looking determinedly at the ground and studiously ignoring his gesticulations. No sheep accompany them: I assume sheep are harder to lead than camels and donkeys.

Our 4 year old looks up in confusion, wondering why the sky is innocent of angels, and why there is no "bright light shining", only a sliver of moon and a few reluctant city stars peering from an edge of grey cloud.

Soloists in a dazzling array of colours lead the familiar carols. A Barbie-doll platinum blonde in elegant blue silk harmonises with a slender teenager in ruched peach taffeta, a curly-haired brunette in funky green polyester frills belts out a jazz number, and a woman in black sprinkled with tiny dots of sparkling silver shimmies across the stage. I reflect on how the tiny Christ child grew up to die for all shapes, sizes and stylistic preferences of human being.

And here are the heavenly beings Thomas has been looking for, even if they're not in the heavens tonight: backlit, white-robed angels of both genders appear mysteriously out of clouds of dry ice, raise their arms theatrically to heaven and praise God with heart-felt and fervent "hallelujahs".

It's that time of year again (it seems to come around remarkably quickly) when mum, the kids and I attend "Come Celebrate", the annual carols by candlelight put on by the local churches of Whitehorse, set snugly in Melbourne' Bible belt, and keen to explain the true meaning of Christmas to thousands of people nursing sore tail bones as they perch awkwardly on rugs on the dry, prickly grass of an Australian summer.

Thomas (4) enjoys "the songs, the icecreams and baby Jesus", Ben (7) loves "the sausages and the songs that I know", Lizzy (9) likes "everything", and Andrew (1) is too little to clamber about while we sing to another long ago baby.

As for me, the music is glorious, the children's choir cute, the "Hallelujah chorus" sends shivers down my spine, and who can resist the traditional sight of thousands of candles swaying to and fro (come on, own up), not to mention the key change in the third verse of "Silent night".

I've never attended such an enthusiastic, professional, unembarassed (and unembarassing) evangelistic event before. The evening is a great example of soft-sell pre-evangelism in an accessible, inviting form. And although I would have loved to hear how the Christ child grew up to die for us, at least people are directed to local churches, or to the friend who invited them, to find out more.

An event of this size has an interesting relationship with the secular world.

The mayor, eager to be associated with this successful and seasonal occasion, is nonetheless careful to maintain a tolerant distance. He acknowledges the original owners of the land (now there's a case of too little too late), mentions the importance of driving safely over the Christmas period, and welcomes the various "faith-groups" to the evening (I suppose it's politically incorrect to say "Christian", "church" or "Jesus" in a speech if you're a mayor, which makes me glad I'm not a politician).

The event is sponsored by a local real estate organisation, by all accounts (according to them, at least) from the generosity of their hearts as they get into the Christmas spirit. Their annual Christmas lights competition is clearly motivated by a love of eco-friendly energy (they promise to fund wind-generated electricity to the amount of the most electricity hungry Christmas lights display, another interesting case of too little too late).

The compere, Dennis Walter, well known for hosting such events (as well as for being discovered on Young Talent Time) belts out "O Holy Night" with passion, conviction and a stirring baratone, although, perhaps more used to the secular version of these occasions, he becomes a little stilted when called upon to pronounce such words as "we celebrate the true meaning of Christmas, God's gift of the baby Jesus."

But it's great to hear Santa, his loosely-attached shiny synthetic beard wiggling up and down with every word, passionately preaching the gospel (the best Christmas gift of all, and apparently the reason he got his gig in the first place).

I'm intrigued to hear a wide variety of Christian greetings: the non-Christian presenters wish us a "happy and safe Christmas" and a "successful New Year", while the Christian presenters hope we will have a "happy and blessed Christmas". Two completely different world views and sets of values in miniature.

Give me "blessed" over "successful" and "safe" anytime. Safety and success are wonderful gifts of God, but I would rather be nestled safely in the hands of God during a Christmas car crash or a poverty-stricken year than remain secure without him. Thank God for the baby given at Christmas who makes this possible!

Have a happy and blessed Christmas, won't you.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

meditation on a lettuce leaf

I was sitting in the Maternal and Child Health Care Centre yesterday morning, waiting for the nurse to appear, slightly anxious because I had brought Thomas' yellow record book instead of Andrew's blue one (an essential item on all visits to the nurse). I had been congratulating myself on remembering the record book during my mad rush to get out of the house by 8:45 (after having suddenly realised it was 8:30 and I hadn't showered, dressed Andrew, done Lizzy's hair, put on Andrew's and Thomas' shoes, or finished packing Ben's lunchbox) until I arrived at the nurse and realised I had picked up the wrong book.

So I was sitting there waiting, somewhat anxiously as I explained, while Andrew and Thomas played with the toys, when Thomas said "lettuce!" and pulled out an incredibly realistic toy lettuce leaf. My immediate reaction was to wonder why someone had left a fresh lettuce leaf among the toys, when I picked it up and realised that no real lettuce leaf has the weight and rubberiness of seaweed, let alone a small circle on the back where the rubber/plastic mix has been poured into the mould. But this toy lettuce leaf was meticulously contoured and coloured, perfect in every detail, obviously one of those expensive toy foods. (Those of you who are not parents or childcare providers may be surprised to discover that toy food has a range of accuracy depending on its price, but I assure you it's true. One of the advantages of wealth is realistic plastic food.)

What a miniature world of wonder is the lettuce leaf! Seeing it lying there, in all its perfectly detailed moulded plastic glory, led to a lengthy reflection on how beautifully God has made the humble lettuce. Have you ever noticed how the flesh of the lettuce leaf bulges out between each tiny vein, so that the whole leaf is ruched and fluted? Or how delicately coloured a lettuce leaf is (and no, I'm not talking iceberg, this was your top end lettuce) from palest green at the stem, gradually shading to a rich, deep green at the edges? Or how the texture varies (at least in a real lettuce leaf, not a rubbery plastic one) from the curved firm stem at the heart of the leaf, with its long, straight veins holding the leaf erect, fanning out to the delicately thin, crisp leaf, with its tiny hills and valleys, trimmed at its edges more daintily than any frock, with minutely ruffled edges?

This simple toy lettuce leaf filled me with awe for the God who made real lettuce leaves, with his incredible attention to the beauty of humble things. I guess he could have given us a perfectly flat, spherical, vitamin-filled leaf. Instead, he gave us an incredible variety of lettuce leaves, each one meticulously textured, coloured and detailed, a small object of incredible beauty, if only we stop to look before we crunch. Praise be to the God who created this world so wonderfully, a world in which even the lowly lettuce leaf bears witness to his glory, and fills our hearts, if we take time to reflect for a moment, with awe and admiration for him.

This, by the way, is an example of what the Puritans called "creaturely meditation", much easier to do with a sunset than a lettuce leaf, in which we reflect on how God's character is revealed in the things he has made, and allow them to lead us to him in wonder and praise.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Valley of Vision

One of my very dear friends gave me a CD for my last birthday, which I was very glad to receive, both as a fan of Christian music and a Puritan scholar(!) The CD is Valley of Vision or "Songs for worship inspired by the classic book of Puritan prayers".

The CD is published by Sovereign Grace Ministries, and inspired by the book The Valley of Vision: A collection of Puritan prayers and devotions, published in 1975 by that great preserver of Reformed and Puritan writings, The Banner of Truth Trust. (Martyn Lloyd-Jones was involved in the creation of this trust, a piece of trivia which will no doubt fascinate you, given how often his name seems to be appearing in this blog.)

I spent 5 years studying the Puritan experience of enjoyment of God for my PhD, and my life and ministry have been all the richer for it. I learnt so much from the Puritans' deep and thoughtful appreciation of God's grace, their absolute commitment to serve God with every fibre of their being, their compassionate and experienced teaching on suffering, and their passionate search for communion with God.

Andrew, Thomas and I were bopping away to "Let your kingdom come" yesterday while eating our tuna& sauce/tuna&rice/tuna sandwich (notice a certain seafood inspired theme here?) when it struck me: isn't it great that prayers which were prayed by God's faithful people 300 years ago can now be heard and sung by us!

The songs are perfect for devotional listening and personal encouragement, and some are suitable to sing in a church context (at least I think so, I'm no expert, so check it out, you musos.)

I have been particularly encouraged by the song "In the valley". I read a friend's Christmas letter yesterday, about her husband's struggle with cancer, and was amazed by how God has grown her in love, patience and wisdom through the terrible experiences they have gone through this year. This song celebrates how brightly God's glory and joy shine in times of suffering:

In the valley

Verse 1
When You lead me to the valley
of vision
I can see You in the heights
And though my humbling wouldn't
be my decision
It's how Your glory shines so bright
So let me learn that
the cross precedes the crown
To be low is to be high
That the valley's
where You make me more like Christ

Let me find Your
grace in the valley
Let me find Your life in my death
Let me find Your
joy in my sorrow
Your wealth in my need
That You're near with every
In the valley

Verse 2
In the daytime there are
stars in the heavens
But they only shine at night
And the deeper that I
go into darkness
The more I see their radiant light
So let me learn that
my losses are my gain
To be broken is to heal
That the valley's where
Your power is revealed
Wonderful, isn't it? Now there's an idea for one of those last minute Christmas gifts!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

the joy of Christmas (shopping)

Last week I went to the shops for my second (and last) extended session of Christmas shopping, a necessary annual re-entry into the world of spending, after 6 months of very little spending as I attempt to pay back our credit card debt.

As I wandered aimlessly back and forth along the aisles of Greensborough Shopping Plaza, I could feel the soporific spending state creeping over me once more, induced by the hermetically sealed, climate controlled, bewildering world of the modern shopping mall, deliberately created for maximum loss of control.

I could sense the subtle pull from within and without: "Come's not that much...the kids will love bought one last year...they'll be disappointed if you don't buy it this's on sale...go on, buy just one more, it will be useful..." I was encouraged that I managed to resist the siren call, with 1 or 2 exceptions. What was at first a struggle has finally become a way of life.

So what have I learnt so far? I look back on 6 months of spending less than I have spent over a similar period for many years, and realise that lower spending has become habitual. I no longer feel like rewarding myself, as I did earlier, with that one thing I've always wanted once the debt has been paid off. In fact, the idea of buying expensive things I don't need has (at least for now) become slightly repellent.

After 15 years of battling the temptation to over-spend, I no longer expect it to go away just because I don't feel tempted right now. I know from many, many bitter experiences how quickly a mood of over-confidence can be overtaken by a bout of helpless spending. I know that, like an alcoholic at their most clich├ęd, I will live with this temptation for the rest of my life. I will always have to be careful.

And knowing how easily I am still tempted, I will persist with my main strategies. I'll continue to avoid shops whenever I can, preferring the quick grab to the long, slow shop. I'll keep boycotting catalogues, and buy items at full price, not on sale, if it means only visiting the shops once (better $20 more for 1 full-price item we need than $200 for 6 sale items we don't need).

Above all, I'll continue to resist the unspoken assumption that I have a right to regularly buy new things. I no longer budget a generous amount for the kids' and my personal spending each week - in fact, this has probably been the most effective change I have made this year.

They say it takes 28 days to form a habit. Well, I now know it takes 3 months to produce a mood of over-confidence, 4 months to reach a state of discouragement, and 6 months of slow, hard slog to create a new lifestyle. And the rest of my life to live it, with God's help.

Monday, December 17, 2007

a reverse fairytale

Once upon a time there were twin sisters.

One, like all the best fairy-tale princesses (she, however, was only an aspiring princess) had curly blonde hair, pink cheeks and rose-bud lips, as blithe and bonny as a May day. Her name, somewhat predictably, was May. Her sister had straight hair of an indeterminate shade of mousy brown, a sharp nose, a single long hairy eyebrow, and a worried forehead. Her name, perhaps also somewhat predictably, was Mabel.

(At this point we pause to apologise to southern hemisphere readers - that's most of you - but "November day" didn't sound quite right. Also to anyone called Mabel, it's really a lovely name, but I had to choose something, and Mabel echoed May nicely. May and Mabel. Notice that? And I actually like brown hair, the mousier the better. I mean it. My own hair is a particularly fetching shade of mouse. And while I don't have a sharp nose, a single hairy eyebrow, or curly blonde hair, I like lots of people who do.)

When they were 5, May could often be seen skipping gaily through fields of daisies, dangling a basket of blooms over one arm, avoiding wolves because they might dirty her frock; or charming wealthy bachelor uncles with a simpering smile and a shake of her well-brushed curls. Mabel was generally to be found with a stubborn expression, her head buried in a book; or with scratched limbs and twig-filled hair, her overall-clad legs dangling from a tree branch.

At the age of 15, May spent hours each morning applying quality beauty products to her flawless skin, was always fetchingly attired in a full-skirted dress, and was frequently surrounded by a bevy of the local lads. Mabel's face was a patchwork of acne, her forehead bruised from frequent contact with posts while reading and walking simultaneously, and her (admittedly rather lovely) eyes hidden behind thick black-rimmed glasses. The local lads tended to avoid her.

When they were 20, May received countless proposals from all the princes of neighbouring lands, but refused every one, for she really loved only herself. She eventually condescended to bestow her hand on a ridiculously wealthy film star with the distinction of royalty. Mabel received a single wedding proposal from a local farming lad, of no great handsomeness or charm, who was able to see past her unbrushed hair and off-putting expression. She accepted him (as in all the best fairytales) because she perceived his faithful and loving heart.

At 35, May had preserved her looks through the cunning use of certain horrendously expensive beauty treatments, her flat stomach with the help of a personal trainer, and her serene expression (frown lines are so unappealing) by employing a live-in nanny to raise her spoiled daughter. She was beginning to worry about the appearance of faint lines around her constantly pursed lips. Mabel had 6 (or was it 8) children, and the kind of stomach you get after 6 (or was it 8) children, also flabby arms and some grey hairs, and a rather hoarse voice after years of shouting to get her children's attention. She did have some rather fetching laugh-lines, although she never could see it.

By 50 May still looked 35, for at that point she had begun a series of facelifts, collagen and botox injections which, while they left her face looking rather frozen, at least preserved it from wrinkles of any kind. She could generally be found surreptitiously admiring her appearance in the nearest shiny surface. Mabel was a grandmother, her once mousy brown hair a rather dull grey, and her lap spread into the kind of lap so inviting to grandchildren; but her wrinkled face had a happy and well-loved expression gained through years of affectionate embraces. She was often seen carrying a basket of home-baked goodies to anyone in the village who was sick or housebound.

By 70, May no longer looked 35, but a rather stretched-looking 50, with a severe expression permanently fixed on her face from a lifetime of looking down her nose at those less blessed by nature than herself. People tended to avoid her, for they disliked her constant whinging about the attention she deserved and no longer received. Mabel was cared for by her 25 doting grandchildren, her face such a mass of wrinkles that it had crumpled like soft crepe paper. Oddly enough, people called her beautiful, attracted to the serenity and tenderness of her expression.

Only one of them lived happily ever after.

Which, as Aesop would say, is not to say that you shouldn't get beauty treatments, just don't expect them to give you beauty of any real or lasting kind.

Friday, December 14, 2007

a divine wink

Have you ever had one of those moments when you feel like God has tipped you a divine wink?

As you know if you've been reading this blog, I've been working very hard on my godliness when it comes to greed and over-spending. An overloaded credit card has provided the impetus, but the main motivation is to learn to obey God in my use of money. So there are many small moments when I resist the temptation to buy something we don't really need.

The other day I saw a little book in the newsagent with clever home hints about removing difficult stains. Having recently fought a prolonged battle with rust on Lizzy's white pants, I noted the cheap price, and had a look inside, but thought "I could save the money and look this information up on the internet" so didn't buy it. Another tiny victory in the battle with self.

Well, the time has arrived for Christmas raffles at school and kinder. You know the ones: where you pay $10 for 10 tickets and watch as huge baskets of goodies are handed out to other families, in yet another Christmas moment of generous giving (don't worry, I am going somewhere with this).

When we don't win a prize, I'm disappointed for the kids, but slightly relieved myself. What do people do with all those miniature Christmas puddings, Santa teatowels, and packets of shortbread? Last year at our school, one family staggered home with first and second prize, including an entire laundry basket full of stuff to add to their waistlines and give to friends and relatives to share the joy of extra padding.

We've never won anything apart from a small Easter basket containing a chocolate bunny and a pink stuffed rabbit when Lizzy was in kinder. So I was surprised and pleased when Thomas' name was pulled out at the kinder Christmas party today, and he won third prize, a basket of goodies large enough to be exciting but not obscenely huge.

We're waiting until the older kids get home to plunder it, but I've peeked through the cellophane (who could resist?) Imagine my surprise when, among the chocolate Santas, Christmas mugs, lolly-filled plastic candy canes and M&M alarm clocks, I saw a small, thin blue volume called Super Stain Remover, a rather unlikely inclusion in a Christmas hamper.

A reminder that God gave us, his miniature images, our sense of humour; that his care for us is kind, tender and gentle; that his providence is an excellent example of micro management; and that he loves to encourage us to keep going in our quest for godliness. And a tiny reflection of the sparkle of joy in the universe.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

the attack of the killer credit card continues...

We left the last installment of that exciting saga aaargh! I've maxed my credit card! with me lying helpless on the floor, under ruthless attack from a red plastic rectangle. At that point I was struggling to pay back a credit card debt which had reached epic proportions 4 months earlier. Nearly 2 months later the battle continues.

Like the horrified viewer of an action movie, I've been observing with fascination the various stages of my 6 month battle. The opening scene, as in every good James Bond movie, began with the first horrified glimpse of the villain ("We owe HOW much?") followed by a riveting action sequence in which no quarter was given to the enemy (a month of extreme parsimony - "Lollies? No, we can't afford lollies! We need to pay back our debt!")

As every dedicated movie viewer knows, at this point the villain apparently disappears, stunned by the ferocity of the attack, leading to a burst of fatal over-confidence on the part of the hero: me. Weeks of self-control and an annual government tax payout enabled much of the debt to be paid off, leading to confident promises of rewards to self. ("When this is over - soon! - I'm going to buy that expensive item I've always wanted!") As my father dryly observed, getting into more debt is a funny way to celebrate getting out of debt, but it all seemed so easy.

But the one thing you must never do when dealing with an enemy is to turn your back. For like every good movie villain, my nemesis was biding his time, waiting for the moment when I let down my guard to attack with renewed vigour. At about the 3 month mark, there was a week or so of over-spending on unnecessary Christmas presents for the kids, at which point I realised that the battle may not be so easy after all.

We now reach the inevitable moment when the villain has regained the advantage, and has the hero tied down helplessly while he threatens him with assorted weaponry. The particularly perceptive reader may have noticed the subtle air of despair which permeated my earlier blog ("They're red. They're rectangular. They're deadly.") When I wrote this, about 4 months into the battle, the debt had crept up again, and I was despairing of ever being able to pay it back.

Two months later, and the villain and the hero remain locked in combat. For at the 6 month mark - that's right about now - I am still struggling to pay back the last portion of our debt. Dollar by discouragingly small dollar, it has crept gradually down, then up again thanks to the inevitability of Christmas, then hopefully down again in the months ahead.

Of course, you all know what the final scene is supposed to look like. It's a vicious, bloody, protracted action sequence, culminating in the moment when the hero finally prevails, destroying his opponent once and for all. More agonizingly long weeks of resistance and self-control until that moment when my debt is finally paid off, never (we hope!) to be seen again.

But how will the story end? Like the most ruthless of action heroes, will I take a pair of scissors to my red, rectangular, plastic enemy, ignoring its pleas for mercy ("but you need me! what will you do without me?") and cut it into tiny pieces, destroying it once and for all?

Stay tuned for the next exciting installment.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

love without boundaries

Yesterday I blogged about how "conscientious" Christians like me often obey God from fear of failure or God's displeasure, rather than from a desire to please the God who loves them. This morning I was walking and praying, and thinking about God's love for me, when it struck me: God's love has absolutely nothing to do with what I do!

Well, duh, I hear you say, that's just the gospel, I know that already. But I am blown away by it every time. I know God loves me, but surely it's because Jesus' death means he has to, not because he wants to! How could God possibly regard me with love, affection and joy when I disappoint him (and myself) so often?

But then I remember that God chose me to be his own before he laid the foundations of the world, long before I had done anything good or bad:
For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will. (Eph. 1:4-5; and see Rom. 9:11; Deut. 7:6)

He didn't send his Son to die for me because I was obviously trying really hard to be good, but when I hated him with every fibre of my being:
But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. ... [W]hen we were God's enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son. (Rom. 5:8)

I find it nearly impossible to believe, aware of my imperfections as I am, but the fact is that he sees me - me! - as holy and perfect, flawless and beautiful in his sight:
He has reconciled you by Christ's physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation. (Col. 1:22)

And I am so incredibly precious to him, that he actually rejoices over me with singing!
The LORD your God is with you,
he is mighty to save.
He will take great delight in you,
he will quiet you with his love,

he will rejoice over you with singing. (Zeph. 3:17)

God's love is free and joyous. He doesn't love me because he needs to, or because I deserve it. He loves me simply because - well, because he loves me. His love doesn't vary according to how obedient I've been or how lovable I feel. The measure of how precious I am to him is the infinite value of his only beloved Son. His love for his people knows no limits and no boundaries.

Monday, December 10, 2007

obeying God for all the wrong reasons

I have finished (at last!) that fantastic but slow-to-read book, Martyn Lloyd Jones’ Spiritual Depression. Read it! - I'm sure you'll find a chapter dealing with the main causes of spiritual discouragement in your life.

For me, if there's any one issue which has hampered my joy in God over the years, it's my perfectionism. So I was excited to find that chapter 12 addresses the “conscientious type of person ... who says, not, ‘Now I am converted, all is well’, but rather, ‘This is a great and glorious life, and I must live it.” (p.164, italics added)

That I would put myself in the “conscientious” camp should come as no surprise to friends, family, or readers of my blog. In that significant source of self-knowledge, the facebook big 5 personality test, I scored highest for conscientiousness.

The other day, even when the librarian allowed me to borrow 1 extra book over the 3 item limit for books on a topic (rainforests, for Lizzy's school project) I felt compelled to put it in the return slot in case another parent needed to borrow it.

In Sunday School as a 10 year old, the teacher asked what we wanted most of all. The other kids mentioned toys; I said “to be able to obey God in everything”, and I was completely sincere (not to mention an unbearable prig.) I saw this as an indication of godliness until about 15 years ago, when I realised it represented an unhealthy obsession with perfection.

Conscientious Christians, according to Martyn Lloyd Jones, tend to turn Christianity into a new law. They treat holiness as a great task, and “plan and organise their lives and introduce certain disciplines in order to enable them to carry it out”. (p.166)

I'm no longer a great follower of rules and disciplines, but I used to come up with all kinds of programs for self-improvement. I've given up on them because I've found that I become exhausted, anxious and guilt-ridden when I inevitably fail to live up to them.

I'm fascinated to see that according to Lloyd-Jones, the concientious Christian's main motivation for obedience is actually fear:

a) An inappropriate fear of God the Father, as if he is “a task-master…constantly watching to discover faults and blemishes in them, and to punish them accordingly.” (I find it really hard to view God as a loving Father, rather than as someone who wants me to obey the rules.)
b) A "fear of the greatness of the task" because "they are in trouble about ... the possibility of ever really living this life as it should be lived.” (The main emotion I feel in the face of God's or others' demands is fear of failure.)
c) A "craven fear" of the power of the devil. (I can’t relate to that so much, but this probably shows how little we talk about the devil these days.)
d) A fear of the “sin which is within themselves. They spend their time in denouncing themselves and in talking about the blackness and darkness of their own hearts.” (Ok, ok, now I’m ashamed of all those blogs where I anguish over minor sins!)

And how’s this for an insight worthy of a modern psychologist: these fears are “ultimately a fear of themselves and a fear of failure.” (p.169)

So what's the solution? Martyn Lloyd-Jones answers this from Romans 8:15-17:
1. To realize holiness is not something God expects me to do alone, for he has given me his Spirit to help me.

2. To be assured by the Holy Spirit of my new relationship to God, which gives me new motivations for obedience:

a) God is my Father. So we don’t obey to reach a certain standard, but “to please God because He is our Father…to show Him our gratitude for all He has ever done for us.” (p.172)
b) I am now part of God's family, so I obey because "I belong to God and…must glorify him.” (p.173)
c) The Holy Spirit lives within me. Conscientious Christians should actually avoid praying too much about their sin (a wonderful point you’ll often find in Lloyd-Jones!) and simply believe that God’s Spirit will empower them to obey. (p.173)
d) My destiny is to live with God forever. Holiness is “not a question of keeping to a standard” but “a question of getting ready for the place where you are going ... You are destined for heaven and for glory, and…all the things you see inside yourself and outside yourself cannot prevent that plan from being carried out.” (p.174) (Go on, do yourself a favour, read that quote again, it’s fantastic!)

The conclusion is quintessential Lloyd-Jones – “Work out this theme”, reflect on what you already know to be true. “Lay hold of it, appropriate it, practise it. Do not worry about what you feel. The truth about you is glorious …Take your full salvation and triumph and prevail.” (pp.174-5)

It’s easy to obey God for all the wrong reasons: to attain certain standards, to practise spiritual discipline, to please a harsh task-master, to avoid punishment, or (my own tendency) to feel better about myself because I am closer to perfection.

Instead, I would love to learn to obey God for the right reasons: because he is my loving Father and I delight to please him; because I belong to him and long to bring him glory; because his Spirit has already given me the power to obey; and because I am getting ready for heaven, which not even the sin I see so clearly can keep me from – a place where all God’s people will perfectly and joyfully obey him for all eternity.

Friday, December 7, 2007

health update

Well, I had the ultrasound and everything looks ok in the health department, which is a great relief, although slightly embarassing since it makes me look completely ridiculous after my worries about death and cancer two weeks ago. And of course, it still leaves me wondering exactly what's wrong, so I'll have to learn to trust God with my uncertainties.

But you know what? I don't mind looking foolish if in some small way it's encouraging for you to hear about my worries and fears, and how God has dealt with them. Perhaps some day you'll be in a similar situation, or perhaps you were encouraged to hear how God's grace meets all our needs. Or perhaps you thought I was a bit of an idiot, and that's ok, I agree with you entirely.

Paul once said that, in contrast to the "super-apostles" with their human wisdom, he was glad to look weak and foolish in order to preach the gospel of Christ (1 Cor. 1-4; 2 Cor. 11-12) Unlike Paul, I'm aware that it's not the gospel which is making me look foolish, I'm quite capable of that on my own. But I am happy to look like a bit of a fool if it is for your encouragement in Christ.

In fact, I've found blogging to be an excellent exercise in vulnerability and occasional embarrassment. And in the end, what matters is what people think of God, not what they think of me. So be patient with me as his wisdom is made apparent in my foolishness, and his strength is made apparent in my weakness. He deals so wisely and tenderly with us all!

Thursday, December 6, 2007

in praise of an ordinary man

This one’s a love letter, so you may want to stop reading now. It’s written in praise of an ordinary man: greying hair, bald patch, paunchy stomach, like so many middle aged men.

He enjoys watching footy, has to fight his inner urge to call the umpires “white maggots” (well, he did before they started wearing fluorescent green), and thinks insulting his mates is a form of affection. He would rather eat an overcooked steak at home than cordon bleu cuisine at a restaurant, refuses to engage in political correctness, and wears thongs with jeans as a deliberate fashion statement. In other words, your original Aussie male, only more so.

He is no way a romantic. Flowers are for the birth of children (that makes 4 bunches so far – apart from the occasional birthday). Nor is he into sharing his feelings. Inquiries as to how his day went are often answered with a brief “It was fine, thanks”. If he is sick, I will only realise 7 days into his cold, when the huge piles of tissues around the house begin to claim my (admittedly somewhat wavering) attention. Subtle requests for sympathy (the drooping shoulders, the just-within-earshot sigh) are often regarded with a kind of bracing stiff-upper-lip attitude, and more overt stories of my woes are greeted with advice as often as comfort. A “men are from Mars” kind of guy, then.

Yet he is one of the most loving people I know. Like many husbands and fathers, he works hard at a demanding job to provide for his family, but chooses inconvenient hours so he can spend time with them. When he's exhausted, he doesn’t moan and complain, but gives as much energy as he can to his wife and children. He is wonderful with his kids, and he’s an incredibly patient teacher, showing them how to ride a bike or kick a footy. He has an irreverent sense of humour, a tenacious integrity and a sometimes blunt (but gently delivered) honesty: you always know that what you hear from him is the truth. He loves his family quietly but deeply, you can’t help but be aware of it, and he is capable of great kindness, sympathy, tenderness and affection. He is my bedrock, the one who grounds me. He is that extraordinary thing: an ordinary family man.

I don’t think any of this is unique: but I do think we often fail to appreciate it. This ordinary kind of man is undervalued in our society, which values intense romantic feeling over the hard yards of everyday love and commitment. We expect men to be like women, offering sympathy, never advice; gossiping about every detail of their day; giving the kind of instant empathy supplied by our female friends. Yes, some men excel at these things; yes, it is good to communicate and feel deeply; yes, these are virtues men can learn from women. But we should also value and learn from the typical virtues of men: their courage, their integrity, their forbearance, their ability to laugh at themselves and others, the way they give of themselves for the sake of their families, the sacrifices they make so they can spend time with those they love.

Let’s celebrate true manhood, in all its gentleness, loyalty, honesty, patience, love, service and strength.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

our virtual Jesse tree

This year I'm finally getting around to doing something with the kids I've been planning for years: a Jesse tree in the days leading up to Christmas. A Jesse tree is similar to an advent calendar, except instead of a Christmas picture and a chocolate, every day we read a Bible passage and the kids get a lolly to make it fun (leading to lots of seasonal peace and joy on earth: "I want the strawberry lolly!" "No, I want strawberry!" "But I don't like pineapple!")

You're also supposed to hang up appropriately themed Christmas decorations to go with each Bible passage, but I haven't got that far. Instead, I created a virtual Jesse tree, courtesy of facebook: every day a growing gift or hatching egg appears on my profile, accompanied with a Bible verse and a passage to read out. Have a look at my facebook profile and click on the eggs and growing gifts if you want to see the themes and verses.

We started on December 1st with the story of creation, and how God made the world through Jesus, accompanied with a picture of a frog on a Christmas ball (well, frogs were part of creation, weren't they?)

Day 2 brought the story of the first sin, and a growing gift of caramel apples (yes, I know the forbidden fruit wasn't an apple, but you try finding the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil on facebook).

On the 3rd day we hatched a dove from an egg, read the story of the flood, and talked about how Jesus saves us from God's judgement.

Day 4 brought a sunflower with a baby's face, and the story of baby Isaac. We read out God's promise of people, land and blessing to Abram, and talked about how these were fulfilled in Jesus.

We're having a lot of fun, and hopefully the kids are becoming familiar with some Biblical theology, as well as earning a free trip to the dentist. I'm trying to teach them how God's saving plan through history leads to Jesus, and how he is the fulfilment of all God's promises.

One of these days I would like to create my own version of the Jesse tree, with a story from Biblical theology and a relevant description of Christ (good shepherd, the lamb of God, the suffering servant) every day. If I ever get around to it, and if I'm still blogging, I will post it here so you can read it. Until then, our virtual Jesse tree will have to do.

Lots of versions of the Jesse tree are available on line, but some are a little odd, so check the Bible references carefully. Until I create my own, we are taking ours from Kent and Barbara Hughes, Disciplines of a godly family, pp.162-88.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

eternity touches the present moment

You may have noticed the "warning to my readers" in the top right corner of my blog, a quote which describes how I feel about people assuming I'm "godly" because I advise them to be godly. I found it in the facebook profile of Tom Cannon, who used to be the RMIT Presbyterian chaplain, and who apparently feels the same way. It's from a book of poems by Wendell Berry, an American philosopher, essayist, poet and novelist.

Which led me to reading the only book by Wendell Berry I could find in our library, Andy Catlett: Early Travels, a lyrical, evocative tale of American country life in the early years of the last century. I won't quickly forget scenes like that of 9 year old Andy being welcomed into the sunlit tobacco barn on his grandfather's farm, listening to his elders' banter as they sort the crop with skillful fingers.

In the following passage, the narrator, Andy Catlett, reflects on the death of his uncle, the first of many losses during the Second World War, and the end of his own childhood innocence:
And his [death] began a series of deaths and losses that in the coming years would change the world as I had known it ... The losses and griefs that are passing always over the world would come to us, breaking like waves upon the family houses ... and so that year of 1943 was in a sense my last year of innocence, of the illusion of permanence and peace. I was about to enter the time that is told by change, by death and loss ... By now, of all the people I have been remembering ... I alone am still alive. I am, as Maze Tickburn used to say, the onliest one.

Time is told by death, who doubts it? ... Time is only the past and maybe the future; the present moment, dividing and connecting them, is eternal. The time of the past is there, somewhat, but only somewhat, to be remembered and examined. We believe that the future is there too, for it keeps arriving, though we know nothing about it. But try to stop the present for your patient scrutiny, or to measure its length with your most advanced chronometer. It exists, so far as I can tell, only as a leak in time, through which, if we are quiet enough, eternity falls upon us and makes its claim. And here I am, an old man, traveling as a child among the dead.

We measure time by its deaths, yes, and by its births. For time is told also by life. As some depart, others come. The hand opened in farewell remains open in welcome. I, who once had grandparents and parents, now have children and grandchildren. Like the flowing river that is yet always present, time that is always going is always coming. And time that is told by death and birth is held and redeemed by love, which is always present. Time, then, is told by love's losses, and by the coming of love, and by love continuing in gratitude for what is lost. It is folded and enfolded and unfolded forever and ever, the love by which the dead are alive and the unborn welcomed into the womb. The great question for the old and the dying, I think, is not if they have loved and been loved enough, but if they have been grateful enough for love received and given, however much. No one who has gratitude is the onliest one. Let us pray to be grateful to the last. (pp.133-4, my emphases)
There is an earthy human wisdom here, born of the ongoing struggle to work the ground, and the universal experience of grief and loss. It reminds me of the melancholy wisdom of Ecclesiastes, that description of life "under the sun" as perceived by human wisdom:

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them, a time to embrace and a time to refrain, a time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to throw away, a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak, a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.

What does the worker gain from his toil? I have seen the burden God has laid on men. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live. That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil—this is the gift of God. I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that men will revere him.

Whatever is has already been, and what will be has been before; and God will call the past to account.

... So I saw that there is nothing better for a man than to enjoy his work, because that is his lot. For who can bring him to see what will happen after him? (Ecclesiastes 3:1-15, 22)

In the midst of the ongoing, seemingly meaningless cycle of birth and death there are good things to be enjoyed: satisfaction in our labour; earthly happiness; beauty, however fleeting; simple pleasures like eating and drinking; and human goodness.

But the Bible ultimately goes beyond human wisdom. For Berry, meaning is only found in this life, which is "redeemed by love", and the "great question" is whether we have been grateful for love. Ecclesiastes, on the other hand, eventually looks beyond this life to God's eternal judgement, concluding that we have a duty to "fear God and keep his commandments" during our days on this earth (Eccles. 12:13-4).

Interestingly, both Berry and the writer of Ecclesiastes speak of how eternity touches human experience. Ecclesiastes says that God has placed a sense of eternity in every human heart, even if his ways remain mysterious to human wisdom (3:11; c.f. Romans 1:18-32). Berry writes that we experience eternity in the present moment as "a leak in time, through which, if we are quiet enough, eternity falls upon us and makes its claim".

C.S.Lewis also observed how eternity touches the present moment in The Screwtape Letters (remember this is a devil speaking, so the "Enemy" is God):

The humans live in time but our Enemy destines them to eternity. He therefore, I believe, wants them to attend chiefly to two things, to eternity itself, and to that point of time which they call the Present. For the Present is the point at which time touches eternity. Of the present moment, and of it only, humans have an experience analogous to the experience which our Enemy has of reality as a whole; in it alone freedom and actuality are offered them. He would therefore have them continually concerned either with eternity (which means being concerned with Him) or with the Present - either meditating on their eternal union with, or separation from, Himself, or else obeying the present voice of conscience, bearing the present cross, receiving the present grace, giving thanks for the present pleasure. (pp.76-7)
According to Lewis, for God every moment of eternity is real and present, but as humans, we experience only the present moment as real. We often try to live in the past (through regret, guilt, or an idolatrous sentimentality) or the future (through anxiety, fear, and dread) but all that is really given to us is the present moment. God does not promise to give us grace to face all the imaginary horrors which may come to us, but only grace to face the trial he is giving us right now. We prepare for eternity by setting our minds on the hope that is to come, and by living for God moment by moment.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones, in Spiritual Depression, which I've been reading recently, makes a similar point: that many of us live in fear of the future because we doubt whether we will have sufficient faith to face the trials which may come. We forget that God has promised to give us the grace we will need when we need it, grace that doesn't depend on our strength, for God has enabled even little children to suffer and die bravely for their faith (ch.7, pp.101-2). God gives us grace for the present moment, and will give us grace for all the moments to come, whatever they may be.

Finally, in a time when I anticipate losing someone dear to me, I find myself immensely comforted by Berry's description of how the "losses and griefs that are passing always over the world...come to us, breaking like waves." For all of us there is a "a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance" (Eccles. 3:4). Though nothing feels lonelier than grief, in a sense those who suffer are never alone. All our losses and griefs have been, and are being experienced by many people the world over, in a vast community of sorrow.

If others have found the courage to face sorrow and suffering, perhaps I will too, with God's ever present grace. Which doesn't make grief any easier: but it gives me hope. A sure and certain hope, not only for God's grace during this life, but also for an eternal future whose joys will go far beyond the uncertain happiness of this world. And gratitude, too, for the love of God and others which, in ways great and small, enfolds and supports each of us.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

another reminder to be thankful and generous

Last night I was catching up on all the YouTube videos my facebook friends have posted on my fun wall recently (thankyou, facebook friendly folk) I came across this one, "The Miniature Earth", and found it extremely timely, after blogging a few days ago about learning to be more thankful for how much I have.

Perhaps it will help you and me to be more thankful and generous, especially with all the money we're no doubt going to waste on presents for people who have far more than they need during the next few weeks. In Steve's family we're giving each other charity gifts this year, and suddenly I'm incredibly grateful to be getting less and giving more.

The Miniature Earth

Saturday, December 1, 2007

the genesis of a rainforest diorama

What do you get when you cross 1 child's enthusiasm for their first school project with 1 mother's pedantic perfectionism? A rainforest diorama in a box.

Take some aluminium foil and shape it into a tree:

make some more trees and put them in a box:

mould a forest floor to fit the box, attach the trees, and cover the foil with paper mache:

paint the paper mache:

drape the trees with vines, and add a monkey:

paint a background inside the box:

mould a frog out of coloured paperclay or plasticine:

add a cardboard tree fern, a corpse flower, and a crocodile:

hang a butterfly and an eagle:

add a tree snake, orchids, pitcher plants, a parrot, and a jaguar:

add tissue paper leaves, cellophane water, a flying parrot, and a river dolphin:

and label everything.

One rainforest project complete!

Lots of fun and a lot of hard work! In case you're wondering, yes, I did help Lizzy with the fiddly bits - foil moulding, paper macheing, painting trees - but she painted the box, made the animals and flowers (with a bit of guidance), cut out the fern leaves, and stuck on the labels by herself.

And if you're feeling at all inadequate, my fellow mothers, about all the rainforest dioramas in a box which you have never made with your children (yes, I know how you think) keep in mind that we have never made one before either (I've never even done paper mache with my kids before, I admit it) and will probably never make one again. I'm hoping Ben will choose a rock pool habitat for his 3D project when he's in grade 3. Cardboard starfish in a that sounds easy.