Prison Break: Finding Personal Freedom

PB CoverThe BLOG posts from the last few days about worry are a summary of a chapter entitled "Freedom from Worry" in the best-selling book Prison Break: Finding Personal Freedom.
 
The rest of the book contains similar practical teaching about:
  • Freedom from Fear
  • Freedom from Anger
  • Freedom from Depression
  • Freedom from Rejection
  • Freedom from Addictions 
  • Freedom from Spiritual Bondages
You can purchase a paperback version of this book from WORD Australia OR a digital eBook version from Amazon. The eBook version can be read on the Kindle APP which is available for FREE for all devices (phones, tablets, etc) and operation systems (Windows, OS, etc).
 
I hope you find this teaching helpful and beneficial to your life. 
 
Please feel free to pass it on to others. 
 
Thanks. 

No Worries! (Part 6)

Worry
 
Conclusion
 
As you can see from our recent conversation about worry, there are two things not worth worrying about:
  1. Those you can do something about. 
  2. Those you can't do something about. 
Simply take action on the former and trust God and pray about the latter. In other words, don't worry about anything! 
 
WHY break free from worry? 
 
First of all, it doesn't help us at all, unless it leads us to action. Secondly, it takes away our joy. You can't worry and be joyful at the same time! And finally, worry causes us to be consumed and preoccupied with our own needs. 
 
Jesus did actually give us a strategy for conquering worry. He said, instead of worrying, "Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness" (Matthew 6:33). In other words, get busy advancing God's work in the world, helping out, serving, bringing justice, showing mercy, and making a difference.
 
Imagine an entire group of people free from worry and being a blessing wherever they go!
 
That's what Jesus had in mind ... for you and me. 
 
Say it with me, "No worries!"
 
OR Back to Part 1.

No Worries! (Part 5)

Worry
 
Place Your Trust in God
 
Now let's be honest, there are some things on our list of worries that we can't take action on. They are truly beyond our control. Yes, we can pray about them but we can't do anything about them. What do we do about that? 
 
This is where we can make a choice to place our trust in God. The wisdom of Proverbs puts it this way (Proverbs 3:5-6):
 
"Trust in the Lord with all your heart; do not depend on your own understanding. Seek his will in all you do, and he will show you which path to take." NLT
 
Just like the birds of the air and the lilies of the field in Jesus' teaching, we have a Father who watches over us and cares for us. This belief enables us to accept uncertainty and the things in life beyond our control. 
 
Our life is not subject to luck, fate or chance. There is a sovereign God who rules our world and the daily aspects of our life. 
 
Once again, we quote the apostle Paul who wrote (Romans 8:28):
 
"And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose." NASB
 
Notice what it does NOT say:
  • It does NOT say that "God causes all things". He doesn't. We make choices and so do other people. There are other forces at work in the world.
  • It does NOT say that "all things are good". They are not. Sickness is not good nor are accidents nor is divorce nor is redundancy or poverty or war or death. 
  • It does NOT say that "all things have a happy ending." They don't. Not every business succeeds, not every team wins, not each relationship lasts forever, not every venture is incident free.

BUT God does cause all things - the good, the bad and the ugly - to work for an ultimate purpose for those who love him.

Think of the biblical character Joseph. He was betrayed by his brothers and sold into slavery in Egypt. He spent 13 long years in prison. Eventually, when he was reunited with his brothers he said this: "You meant it for evil (what had happened was wrong and painful, it was not 'good') ... but God meant it for good (he used it for a higher purpose)." That's a powerful statement of trust in God's ability to orchestrate the story of our lives for something far greater. 
 
Are there some worries in your life today that are calling out a bold choice from you to trust God ... in spite of their pain and difficulty? 
 
God can be trusted. Like Aslan the lion in C.S. Lewis' series The Chronicles of Narnia, God is not 'safe' (tame) but he is 'good'.
 

No Worries! (Part 4)

Worry
 
Offer a Prayer to God
 
In addition to taking action on our worries, we can also pray and talk to God about our concerns. 
 
The apostle Paul wrote this in a letter to some people living in the city of Philippi the first century (Philippians 4:6-7):
 
"Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus." NLT
 
Sounds like Paul must have heard Jesus' teaching on worry which he gave years earlier. Word of mouth travels fast. 
 
I love how Eugene Peterson translates Paul's teaching in The Message Bible:
 
"Don't fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God's wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It's wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life."
 
I love that phrase "shape your worries into prayers." 
 
Imagine if every time we started to worry we immediately shape that worry into a prayer. We sure would pray more! And we would probably experience far less worry. 
 
Try it today. Use worry as a trigger or reminder to talk to God about your concerns. Even if it is just a silent thought prayer. 
 
What a difference that can make as God's peace replaces worry at the centre of our heart and mind. 
 

No Worries! (Part 3)

Worry
 
Okay, what next?
 
Take action on your worries
 
As you look over your list of worries (you did this yesterday, didn't you?), ask yourself, "Can I do anything about this?"
 
Turn your worries into actions. Re-define them as problems and come up with solutions for each one of them. Then crowd out your worries by actually working on them. 
 
After all, worry can be useful ... IF it gets your attention and motivates you to action. 
 
If the fuel light on your car dashboard is flashing red, don't worry about running out of petrol (or 'gas', for my American friends) or stress about the possibility of having to walk home. Simply turn your worry into an action. Turn into the nearest petrol station and fill up your tank. Worry will disappear immediately! 
 
I know that this is very deep and insightful wisdom for you here ... but imagine if we did this for every worry on our list!
 
Has someone been a bit 'cool' towards you today at work? Don't allow your mind to spend the entire day wondering if they don't like you anymore or if they are gossiping about you. Turn your worry into action. Ask them if everything is alright. It's probably not even about you anyway. 
 
So, you haven't seen someone from your small group for over a month? Don't worry about whether they have left your group or whether they don't like you anymore more. Simply turn your worry into an action and give them a call. There is probably a very good explanation ... and you'll save yourself all that wasted energy on worry.
 
What actions can you take today to start knocking off some of those worries on that list of yours?
 
Tomorrow: Part 4

No Worries! (Part 2)

Worry

Yesterday, we noted that Jesus tells us to STOP worrying. He doesn't tell us HOW to do so, so obviously he wants us to use our common sense and life experience to figure it out. 
 
Here are some practical ways I have found that we can actually do that on a day to day basis, using the acronym STOP.
 
Specify your worries. 
 
Ask yourself, "What am I worried about?" 
 
Often, worry becomes this dark cloud of vague concern that hovers over our mind, ruining our day. That's why it pays to define your worries. Make a list. Get them all out on paper so you can have a good look at them.
 
Research indicates that:
  • 40% of our worries will never happen.
  • 30% are in the past and we can't do anything about them. 
  • 12% are about health and worry makes our health worse!
  • 10% of our worries are about minor or petty things.
  • Only 8% of the things the average person worries about are what we could call legitimate. And half of them, another 4%, are beyond our control. 
So studies tell us that 96% of what we worry about is not worth worrying about! It's a waste of time and energy. 
 
Have you ever used a shopping trolley with one wheel that didn't work? It's so annoying! It's squealing and you're irritated and annoyed. It saps your joy and energy. Well, that's what one negative emotion, such as worry, does to your inner world. 
 
Think about it. Why worry about the unimportant, the unlikely and the irrelevant!?
 
I'll leave you now to work in creating that list ... and we will talk more tomorrow in Part 3

No Worries! (Part 1)

Worry
 
One of the great Australian greetings is, "No worries!" The truth is, we do worry a lot. And let's face it, there is a lot to worry about. We can worry about our health, about our family, our relationships, our money, the weather, our career or job, whether our football team is going to make the finals, and about the future. Then, of course, there are all the global concerns - the economy, the environment, global warming, politics, and the growing threat of terrorism. That's a lot of worry fodder!
 
I have found that the more we worry, the worse we feel, then the worse we feel, the more we tend to worry. One worry feeds another. Out goes our joy. In many ways, worry is simply 'negative imagination'. It's like a downward spiral of anxiety, fear and concern, consuming a heap of our time and energy. 
 
Jesus understood the daily challenges that we face and that's why in one of his well-known sermons ("the sermon on the mount") he spoke about worry. 
 
Here is what he said (Matthew 6:25-34). 
 
"That is why I tell you not to worry about everyday life—whether you have enough food and drink, or enough clothes to wear. Isn’t life more than food, and your body more than clothing? Look at the birds. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, for your heavenly Father feeds them. And aren’t you far more valuable to him than they are? Can all your worries add a single moment to your life?
 
And why worry about your clothing? Look at the lilies of the field and how they grow. They don’t work or make their clothing, yet Solomon in all his glory was not dressed as beautifully as they are. And if God cares so wonderfully for wildflowers that are here today and thrown into the fire tomorrow, he will certainly care for you. Why do you have so little faith?
 
So don’t worry about these things, saying, ‘What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?’ These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs. 
 
Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need.
 
So don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring its own worries. Today’s trouble is enough for today." NLT
 
Basically, Jesus says, if you are worrying ... STOP it!
 
How do we do that? 
 
We will talk about that tomorrow in Part 2 ...

The Book of Job and the Question of Suffering (Part 3)

The-Book-of-Job-Bible-Study
 
Today, we conclude our reflections on the book of Job.

What the book of Job CAN do for us: 
 
1.  It teaches us to be careful and compassionate in how we respond to people who are suffering. When people are suffering, they don’t need theological debates (“maybe this is an attack from the devil”), personal accusations (“maybe God is punishing you for sin in your life”) or advice for a ‘quick fix’ to their calamity (“if only you had more faith in God …”). They need our empathy, our support, and our friendship. In the end, Job’s friends became his enemies and ‘worthless physicians’ who crushed him with their words. Can we do better than Job’s friends?  
 
2. It shows us that the world does not operate by justice. This world is broken and incomplete. It still needs attention. Injustice is still part of the system as it is. This means that suffering should not lead us to look back on our behavior in search for a cause; rarely is there any identifiable one-to-one connection. The world, though under the control of God, is fallen, and as it awaits redemption it is often more chaotic than ordered and coherent. Like humanity, God’s world is a work in progress. Alleviating a measure of suffering, when and where we can, is part of our mandate to 'subdue and rule' the earth. God will eventually align all of Creation with his attributes and establish absolute order in the new heavens and new earth. Until then, we should expect continued manifestations of disorder, which include pain and suffering. 
 
3. It reminds us that God rules the world with a wisdom that is beyond our understanding. When we begin to blame him for our suffering or think that we could do a better job of running the world than him, we move into dangerous territory. God's wisdom is far beyond our ability to comprehend. 
 
4. It raises the question of 'why' we place our faith in God. Is our choice to believe in God only for reward and blessing, either in this life (prosperity) or the next (to gain heaven and avoid hell)? Is it for self-interest, as the Challenger believed it was for Job? Is our faith sustained when our desires are not fulfilled, when healing does not come, when broken homes are not restored, when the goals we pursue remain beyond our reach? Is Christianity merely a 'benefits system' of incentives that results in us losing motivation when there is nothing in it for us? Job shows us that true righteousness should have its desired end in a relationship with God not in gaining reward from God. That is a huge challenge in our consumer driven world. 
 
5. It teaches us to trust that God loves us even when we go through painful situations and we do not understand the reasons why. Like Job did, we can direct our confused questions and perplexing musings to him. During suffering, choose to trust God and believe that he is good and that he loves you ... even when you do not understand. Trust is the way through the struggles of life. 
 
Conclusion
Pain and suffering enter every one of our lives from time to time. I have only lived 55 years and yet I can look back at the death of family members (my own mother died of a sudden heart attack in 1990 and Nicole’s mother died quite suddenly from cancer in 2007), car accidents, personal sickness, mental and emotional challenges, stress and burnout, disappointment,  criticism, gossip, slander, conflict and many other challenges that have touched my life and our family. Of course, some other people suffer far worse and much more deeply. 
 
I still don't understand ‘why’ all of these things have happened. Yes, I have grown and they have developed character in me, as well as empathy for the struggles that other people go through. But I don't fully understand the reasons behind them nor God’s purposes through their occurrence. 
 
Like Job, I have many unanswered questions. Yet I choose to place my faith in God, regardless of my feelings or the perplexity in all this. It’s not easy but I truly believe that God is good, that he loves us and therefore I choose to trust him even when I do not understand. I feel just like the apostle Paul did …
 
“Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely. Three things will last forever—faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love.” 1 Corinthians 13:12-13.  NLT
 
May you too be encouraged in your faith - in the good times and the bad. 
 
P.S. Read Part 1 if you missed it. 

The Book of Job and the Question of Suffering (Part 2)

The-Book-of-Job-Bible-Study
 
Today, we continue our reflections on the book of Job.
 
What the book of Job does NOT do for us: 
 
1. It does not answer the question as to 'why' there is suffering in the world today. Theodicy (the search for the origin and nature of suffering and evil) remains an unsolved mystery. Suffering is not merely a theological or philosophical problem, it is a human problem that no one is immune to, though some people suffer more than others. Yes, God does intend our good (Romans 8:28) but that doesn't mean that we will always figure out how our experiences benefit us (Ecclesiastes 6:12) and our "good" cannot be always defined by our comfort or our success.
 
C.S. Lewis once said, "Pain insists on being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts to us in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world." True, suffering and pain can serve to draw our attention to God, to rely on him and perhaps to engage in self-evaluation. However, we should be cautious to suggest that suffering is always to be viewed as God's instrument for accomplishing any of those goals. We cannot know or assume that there are reasons for our suffering though God does have purposes, though we may never know them fully. 
 
2. It does not validate the long-held ‘retribution principle’ which states that the righteous will always prosper and the wicked will always suffer. In Israelite theology, this principle was integral to the belief in God's justice. Since God is just, they believed that he would always uphold this principle. This also led to the belief that if a person prospered, they must be righteous (i.e. favored by God) and those who suffer must be wicked (i.e. experiencing the judgment of God). However, the retribution principle is too simplistic. Yes, it serves as the basis for general trends in human experience (as presented in the biblical books of Deuteronomy, Psalms and Proverbs) but there are no guarantees and there are always exceptions (Job being a prime example). A person’s sinfulness cannot be inferred when one is suffering nor can a person’s goodness be inferred when one is prospering.  
 
Jesus confronted the retribution principle on two specific occasions. A man born blind was seen by the disciples as caused by sin (John 9:1-3). Jesus shifted their focus from causes (actions in the past) to purpose (God's ongoing plan), offering an expanded theology. As in the book of Job, no explanation for the suffering was given, possible or necessary. More important is the need to trust God's wisdom and to seek out his purpose.  
 
In Luke 13:1-5, the issue concerns whether those who have died in recent tragedies should be considered to have deserved their death. Again, Jesus turns the attention away from the cause and even states that there is not a one-to-one correspondence between sin and punishment. As an alternative, Jesus tells his audience to view the incident as a warning. Once again, as in John 9, he refuses to engage the question of cause and concentrates instead on purpose.  
 
3. Job is not a perfect model of how to respond to suffering. Yes, he never cursed God and he persevered through his trials (James 5:11). He also had a more accurate understanding of God than his friends but he did not have a totally clear perspective on his situation nor a full understanding of the nature of God and his ways, any more than we do today.
 
4. Although God is the central subject of this book (not Job, his friends or the Challenger), it does not fully explain how God is involved in his world. We have to continually maintain the tension of believing that God is not distant (as in deism) nor does he micromanage everything that occurs in our daily lives. There really is no language adequate enough to describe God’s involvement or lack of involvement and simplistic generalisations can lead to flawed theology. John Walton uses the example of gravity: it was created by God from the beginning through his wisdom but each expression of gravity is not necessarily 'caused' by God though it does not operate without him. In the same way, God’s activity is beyond our comprehension and powers of explanation. 
 
 

The Book of Job and the Question of Suffering (Part 1)

The-Book-of-Job-Bible-Study
 
Over the last few months, I have been slowly reading through the book of Job in The Message Bible translation, reflecting on it, and also reading John Walton's excellent commentary on Job in the NIV Application Commentary series, as well as Tremper Longman III's book on Job in the Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms.  
 
The book of Job is a 'classic' in ancient literature and one of the most intriguing books in the Bible. It outlines the story of a man named Job who was one of the wealthiest people in the ancient Near East. Suddenly, a series of tragedies flood into his life, resulting in the loss of his herds and flocks, the death of all of his children, and finally a severe skin disease of some sort afflicts Job himself.
 
The prologue to the story (Job 1-2) shows us some behind the scenes dialogue between God and his divine council, one of whom is called 'the Satan', or better 'the Challenger' (though he does nothing evil in this particular story). God's policies for running the world are under debate and the Challenger states that Job only serves God because of the blessing he has experienced. God disagrees and so the challenge begins.  
 
Job is unaware of any of this dialogue and responds to his tragedies with appropriate grief and mourning (Job 3, 29-31). Three of his friends soon gather and they mourn with him in silence for seven days. Finally, they begin to speak and so begins the dialogues and debates that make up most of the book (Job 4-27). Each of the friends draws upon a variety of sources, including reason (logic), life experience, tradition and spiritual experiences, to try to solve Job’s problem of suffering. After an intriguing poem or hymn about wisdom (Job 28), another friend, Elihu, appears and adds his two cents worth to the dialogue (Job 32-37). He is a raging, young man, directing his passionate speech towards Job because of his apparent self-righteous attitude and towards the friends for their philosophical incompetence. He defends God's justice and views himself as speaking on behalf of God. 
 
Despite the suggestion from his friends that his suffering is a result of his sin and arrogance, Job continues to declare his innocence (not that he is sinless) and wants a response from God. As in a court of law, if Job is guilty, he expects God himself to show up and prove this.  
 
Finally, God does show up (Job 38-41). Speaking from the midst of a storm, he rebukes the friends for their flawed thinking about God and how he runs his world. But he doesn't answer any of Job’s questions. Instead, he declares his power and the wisdom of his creation. Job's response to God's first speech is one of awed silence (Job 40:3-5). God speaks again, highlighting two unfathomable creatures - Behemoth and Leviathan. Job's response to God's second speech is one of humility and repentance (Job 42:1-6). He distinguishes between a second-hand experience of God ("my ears had heard") and first-hand experience ("now my eyes have seen"). As a result, he is ashamed of his presumption in challenging God's ways and he regrets his previous statements, his distorted characterization of God, his presumptuous belief in his own understanding, and his arrogant challenges.  
 
The epilogue then details the repentance of Job’s friends (42:7-9) and the restoration of Job to a place of prosperity (Job 42:10-16). 
 
We don't know the author of Job (literary works in the ancient world were often anonymous) or it's date of composition. Most likely it is from the patriarchal period, due to the absence of any reference to covenant or law (although this is understandable as Job was not an Israelite; he was from the land of Uz - 1:1). We also don't know whether the book is based on historical events (a real person named Job) or whether it is purely a literary construction - a 'thought experiment'. This does not affect our interpretation of the book, nor its authority and inspiration as sacred text. Most scholars believe that Job was a real historical person who was righteous and suffered greatly. The story of Job still speaks to us today in profound ways.  
 

Weight Loss Tips

Weight
 
I'm not a doctor nor am I an expert on weight loss, by any means. However, I do know what it is to be skinny and I do know what it is to be overweight. I definitely prefer the former to the latter.
 
I'll never forget one day when I was carrying in a bag of oranges from the car after a grocery shop with my wife, Nicole. She noted that that one bag of oranges weighed 3 kilograms. Being overweight just 3 kgs is like carrying that bag of oranges around ... all the time. It saps your energy and makes you feel more tired. Of course, if you are overweight by 6 kgs or 9 kgs, well that's just a lot more oranges you're taking for a ride ... everywhere you go.
 
I know the challenges of trying to lose weight. Sometimes I feel like I almost need to starve myself in order to lose weight and even when I do, one bad day puts me right back to where I was again. It can be so frustrating and so discouraging. I feel terrible being overweight and I don't like the flab around my stomach, which looks bad and is a health hazard for me. I really want to change but I often struggle to find the discipline to do so.
 
Losing weight takes much more than jumping into some new fad diet. After all, diets only work while you are on the actual diet. We need more holistic lifestyle changes. Shedding those extra kilos takes more than regularly repeating a few motivational mantras such as, "Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels!". It also takes a lot more than mere willpower, something we all have in limited supply. That's why our discipline often slackens by day's end due to something called 'self-control depletion' (our use of will power to resist temptation). 
 
For me, it is all about habits - developing small healthy habits every day. This creates progress over time and assists me in reducing my weight level and then keeping it off. Some form of structure or a set of daily routines helps to eliminate the need for recurring decisions.
 
Here are my TOP 10 habits of behavior and/or thinking for successful weight loss:
  1. Think ahead about your meals for any given day. Where are you eating and with who and what? As you get older you don't need as much food. So plan your meals and food quantities ahead of time. Three bigs meals a day aren't going to help you lose weight. Choose to eat smaller portions of food. Select an appetizer or entree rather than a main. Yes, smaller plates do help you to eat less food.
  2. Eat more slowly. Be the last person to start eating and the last to finish. That way your body gets a chance to know it's full. You probably won't go back for seconds! Eat only until you are 80% full. This slows down the body's metabolism.
  3. Have more home-cooked meals from fresh ingredients. Re-discover the joy of cooking. Learn to eat different types of food too. Prepare big batches and freeze the leftovers. 
  4. Eat as much natural food as possible - fruit and vegetables (prevents over-eating), seeds and nuts, beans and legumes, etc. It's the easiest way to lose weight. It is often neither laziness nor over-eating that makes us fat: it is what we eat. That's why exercising more and eating less will not necessarily prevent us from being overweight.
  5. Avoid processed foods as much as possible (which are full of sugar, salt, and fat). The fast-food industry has a dark side. Learn to not trust your taste buds. Beware of artificial flavoring.
  6. Reduce your intake of carbohydrates. This includes pasta, potatoes, noodles, rice, bread, desserts, and sweets or chocolates. Too many carbs make us fat ... and sick.
  7. Beware of sugar, which is a real killer, working like a drug that leads to addiction.
  8. Drink lots of water - at least 4 glasses a day.
  9. Be physically active - walk, swim, hike. Get plenty of fresh air and sunshine. 
  10. Fast occasionally. It's good for your metabolism. See this excellent article on the benefits of intermittent fasting.
Make modest, incremental changes rather than big, sweeping ones. Make tradeoffs. Remember, the tortoise and the hare. Slow and steady always wins the race. The heavier you are, the more difficult it is to lose weight because you always feel much hungrier. Become aware of the triggers that influence your behavioral goals. Consider the people and situations that influence whether you achieve your goals or not. Feedback teaches us to see our environment as a triggering mechanism. Review every day and implement your learnings the following day. When you drift, simply get back on track. Get some help if you need too. See a doctor, join a gym or find a coach. Accountability and support from others are extremely helpful.
 
If you are keen to do a little extra homework, I have also found these resources very helpful:
Here's to long life and a healthier you!
 
P.S. See also yesterday's BLOG post Weight Loss Musings.

Weight Loss Musings

Weight
 
As a teenager, I was as skinny as a rake. Even my bones stuck out of my shoulders. This often led to questions or laughs from both friends and strangers anytime I took my shirt off, like when swimming.
 
I could also eat like a horse. My dad used to jokingly say that if you were looking for the 'bottomless pit', I was it. I remember never being full. I could eat and eat endlessly. And did I mention that I was skinny?
 
We lived in Portland, Oregon at the time and there was this restaurant called Farrell's Ice Cream Parlor that everyone loved to go to. The biggest item on the menu was 'The Pig Trough'. It was a huge ice cream sundae with too many scoops of ice cream to count, covered with all the sugary goodies - whipped cream, flavored syrup, nuts, etc, etc. It was so big that IF you could eat it all, the restaurant staff would come around with a microphone and a pounding bass drum (the marching band type) and announce your achievement to the entire restaurant, culminated by pinning a big prize ribbon on you that said, "I made a pig of myself at Farrell's." Good fun.
 
Well, after my high school graduation, a bunch of friends and I went to Farrell's. I am a bit ashamed to admit this ... but my friend, Steve, and I, actually finished off TWO pig troughs that night ... each! Needless to say, my stomach was a little queasy night, but I slept it off and life went on. And did I mention that I was skinny?
 
Fast forward to age 40 - my appetite hadn't changed much but I could eat and actually be full. And I wasn't skinny anymore. Since that time, shock horror, I have struggled off and on with this thing called weight loss. At age 55, I weigh myself pretty much every day and there are often groans as I realise I've put on another few kilos. How annoying!
 
I am currently reading the best-selling book Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harai. I was shocked to learn the following:
  • Overeating is now a worse problem than famine in our world. Half of humankind is expected to be overweight by 2030. In 2010, famine and malnutrition combined killed about 1 million people, whereas obesity killed 3 million.
  • Whereas in 2010 obesity and related illnesses killed about 3 million people, terrorists killed a total of 7,697 people across the globe, most of them in developing countries. For the average American or European, Coca-Cola poses a far deadlier threat than al-Qaeda.
  • In 2012 about 56 million people died throughout the world; 620,000 of them died due to human violence (war killed 120,000 people, and crime killed another 500,000). In contrast, 800,000 committed suicide, and 1.5 million died of diabetes. Sugar is now more dangerous than gunpowder.
These facts are quite alarming and should definitely grab our attention. After all, the best gift you can give your family and loved ones is living a long life - staying around as long as you can. None of us can guarantee a long life but we can choose to develop some healthy habits that at least make that a greater possibility.
 

A Bigger World

I hope you enjoyed John O'Donohoe's poem,  For A New Beginning.

It really resonated with me, mainly because of the changes and transitions that Nicole and I have navigated over these last few years. Back in October 2015, I was at Phillip Island with some pastors on a two-day retreat. Early one morning I went for a walk on the beach and down to an area where there is a heap of rock pools. I took the photo below on my iPhone.

IMG_8331 

You can see in the foreground this beautiful rock pool which is a complete eco-system, teeming with life.  For any fish or marine life in there, that is their entire world - and it is a BIG world to them. But an outside perspective helps you to see that there are other rockpools, some of them smaller and some of them even bigger. Then if you dare to look right to the horizon, you will see the ocean. Now there's an even bigger world!

Each of us lives in a context, an environment, a rock pool if you will. We need to find a sense of 'home' there and be rooted and faithful to that world in which God has placed us. But at times, God calls us to leave our comfort zone and move to other places - to another world.

All of these thoughts and insights as I stood on the shore that morning were part of the shaping of my own journey and eventually led to me deciding to leave the world I had been a part of for over 30 years.

That day, as I contemplated all of this, I wrote the following poem - A Bigger World

Seems so big
Everything that is
My world

Seasons come
Seasons go
It's all I know

Yet there's more
So much more
Small world

Stay and shrink
Leave and grow
I don't know

Called to stay?
Or chase my curiosity?
Big decisions

Time to leave?
Or stay the course?
Hard to know

New perspective
Larger horizons
The Truman Show

Fear or faith?
Stay or change?
The Village

New worlds call
Adventure beckons
Freedom song

Out of the box
Break the mold
It will be different

Leap of faith
Faith of leap
Liminal places

Let it go
Don't hold on
Opportunity knocks

Necessary endings
Possible beginnings
Transition time

Out of the cocoon
From dark to light
Metamorphosis

God's world
Bigger world
My world


For a New Beginning

Sunrise-landscape-render-retouches

My wife, Nicole, just returned from a week's Silent Retreat on the beautiful Bellarine Penisula in Victoria. The dogs (we have two - Oscar, the kindest labrador you've ever met, and Nikki, the naughtiest, yet smartest pugalier ever to enter the world) and I managed to survive while Nicole was away. In fact, we had a lot of fun and I enjoyed the time to work in the garden, watch some sport, hone my cooking skills, read a lot, and do a heap of office tasks and projects. 

While away, Nicole sent me this poem by Irish poet, author and priest John O'Donohue called "For a New Beginning". It really captures our personal journey at this stage in the story of our life and was therefore very meaningful to me. I hope it resonates with you in some way too.

Enjoy ...

In out-of-the-way places of the heart,
Where your thoughts never think to wander,
This beginning has been quietly forming,
Waiting until you were ready to emerge.

For a long time, it has watched your desire,
Feeling the emptiness growing inside you,
Noticing how you willed yourself on,
Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.

It watched you play with the seduction of safety
And the gray promises that sameness whispered,
Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent,
Wondered would you always live like this.

Then the delight, when your courage kindled,
And out you stepped onto new ground,
Your eyes young again with energy and dream,
A path of plenitude opening before you.

Though your destination is not yet clear
You can trust the promise of this opening;
Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning
That is at one with your life’s desire.

Awaken your spirit to adventure;
Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk;
Soon you will be home in a new rhythm,
For your soul senses the world that awaits you.

Next: A Bigger World


Finding Happiness (Part 3): Financial Control

IMG_0567

The third ingredient contributing to our everyday happiness (read part 1) is financial control.

Money isn't everything but having enough to meet our own needs as well as to give away to others can create a sense of happiness and freedom in our lives. This has nothing to do with our 'net worth' or waiting until we get that next raise or bonus. It's about how we are managing the resources we currently have. Money is a terrific servant but it can be a cruel taskmaster if we allow it control us. 

Thankfully, we don't have to wait until we have more money. We can start having a sense of financial control ... beginning today. It's about having a common-sense plan that's based on hard work, saving, controlling our expenses, paying down our debts and investing wisely. Anxiety can disappear and, in a matter of time, you can know what it is to be financially free.

Unfortunately, we don't automatically have the financial acumen we need for life when we graduate from high school. Sure, we know a little math and maybe a bit about economics, but young people today often don't learn the keys to good financial management while growing up, unless their parents took the time to teach them and model the way. Thankfully, there are tools and resources to help us acquire the knowledge that we need. And it's never too late to learn.

A few helpful resources for Australians are:

Yes, for less than $60 you can acquire all the knowledge and skills you need to gain financial control. That's well worth it.

Did you know that (all are recent statistics from Scott Pape's book mentioned above):

  • The majority of Australians pay $515 a year in bank fees. Over 10 years, that's $5,150, enough money to take you on a really good holiday somewhere!
  • Your super fund can gobble up a third of your savings in fees. Approximately 90% of Australians don't choose where their super money is invested, so they end up in their fund's default option.
  • The average wage in Australia is $78,832 (the top 0.28% of the richest people in the world by income) yet 62% of us believe we can't afford to buy everything we really need.
  • Australians on average live in the biggest homes in the world. And we need a lot of stuff to fill those homes. And we are one of the biggest waste producers in the world - second only to the USA.
  • Australia has the highest rate of household debt in the world. 
  • Only 7% of Australians have the right amount of insurance. 
  • Most Australians aren't ready to retire financially. Although having the richest people on the planet, one in three retirees lives in poverty due to the high cost of living and many run out of savings 13 years before they die ... one of the worst results in the world.

Thankfully, it doesn't have to be that way. People are often destroyed through lack of knowledge. That's why it is important to "get wisdom". Get around people who know more than you do and be humble enough to ask questions. Be willing to learn. Have a teachable attitude. You can learn anything ... if you only give it a go.

Your money is just that - YOUR money. You got out of bed in the morning, went to work, and earned your paycheck. Why not learn to manage those resources better so you can achieve a greater degree of financial control? It is possible. You can do it. I'll be cheering you on. You'll be glad you did.

P.S. For some more insights on the topic of finance, be sure to check my 3 BLOG posts on Money Talks.


Finding Happiness (Part 2): Strong Personal Relationships

IMG_0567

The second factor that contributes to our happiness (read Part 1) is Strong Personal Relationships.

Each of us is born into a family and a desire for a sense of belonging is a part of what it means to be human. Although the introverts among us tend to be energized by solitude and alone time, most people enjoy meaningful conversation and are enriched by good friendships.

In many ways, relationships are spatial. Most people have lots of acquaintances, many 'friends' or people they know more about or do life together with, but usually only a few close or best friends. Like circles of friendship, the former are further away emotionally while the latter are in close proximity. The key is knowing who is where and how best your constellation of relationships functions in a healthy manner - for everyone concerned. 

We find close friends by first being friendly with lots of people - enlarging our circle of acquaintances. Out of these casual connections, we often find people with common interests or who are of a 'kindred spirit' where there is a mutuality of commonality and enjoyment. With time and effort, close friendships can emerge. And what a gift a good friend is! Of course, to have friends one must be friendly and it is often in giving to others that we also receive. 

How are your relationships going? Who are your friends? Who needs to be closer? Who should you be creating some distance from at the moment (not that you become rude to them but that their proximity is not benefiting either of you)? 

What could you do to strengthen your existing friendships? What conversation do you need to have to take things to a deeper level?

What steps could you take to make some new friends? Where could you meet people with common values and interests?

In most relationships, we get out of them what we put into them. True love thinks about how the other person wants to be treated then grabs the initiative and treats them that way. It's called the "Golden Rule" and it enhances all relationships. 

Tomorrow: Financial Control

For some additional BLOG post around the theme of relationships, see also:


Finding Happiness (Part 1): A Sense of Purpose

Finding-Happiness

Are you happy? 

What does happiness really look like?

Australia's longest running and most comprehensive survey on happiness is conducted by the Australian Unity Wellbeing Index. After 15 years of detailed research, the author of the survey, Deakin University Emeritus Professor Bob Cummins, says he's finally cracked the code to wellbeing, which he has dubbed the ‘golden triangle of happiness':

  1. A sense of purpose.
  2. Strong personal relationships.
  3. Financial control.

Let's take a look at each of these:

A Sense of Purpose

Deep inside of each one of us is a need for a sense of purpose and meaning. What are we living for? What is life all about? Why should we even get out of bed in the morning? Good questions! 

A lot of people simply pursue pleasure (more fun!), possessions (more stuff!) and prestige (more popularity!). Is it any wonder, because the media and our culture bombard us every day with these values. Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with these pursuits. It's just worth pausing and asking if they are worth making the central purpose of our life. 

Pleasure doesn't last that long and before you know it, we need another fix. 

All stuff eventually breaks down and wears out and before you know it we want something newer or better (thanks to the relentless efforts of the multi-billion dollar marketing industry). Years of detailed research proves quite convincingly that once you earn over a certain amount a year, money won't make you much happier. Is it really worth the time and effort to pursue outward symbols of success - owning an expensive home, in an expensive suburb, and driving an expensive car to drop the kids off at an expensive school? Many people bite off more than they can chew. They work more. They stress more. They fight more. Is it really worth it?

Prestige can be elusive too. We can be with the 'in crowd' one day and forgotten the next. If our sense of worth and identity is based on what other people think about us, we will always be vulnerable and at risk to the whims of people's fickle opinions. 

So what are you living for? What is the purpose of your life? These are BIG questions. And it's worth pulling aside from the rat race, even if just for an hour or two, to consider and reflect on them deeply. Life's way too short to be climbing the so-called ladder of success only to get to the top and find it was leaning against the wrong wall.

Tomorrow: Strong Personal Relationships.

Here are a few other BLOG posts that might be helpful as you reflect on your sense of purpose:


The Greatest Love Song of All Time (Pt.2)

SA
 
Hopefully, you’ve had a chance to read through the Song of Songs - an extraordinary love poem.
 
How can we apply the insights from this love poem to our own lives today?
  1. What efforts are you making to keep the romance of your love relationship alive? What things can you do to cultivate a greater desire for the one who you love?
  2. In what ways can you further affirm the value and dignity of the opposite sex/gender?
  3. Wisdom calls us to loving and exclusive commitment, not to a rampant promiscuity which turns sex into a mere commodity. Read Proverbs 5:15-19 and reflect on the impact of more readily available pornography on genuine love. 
  4. In the beginning, men and women were made as equal partners in life and vocation, both being given involvement in the reproduction and dominion mandates (Genesis 1:26-28). What steps can you take to work against the embedded hierarchy and patriarchy that still dominates our culture, including within the Christian church? 
  5. Society today often demeans sex from it's God given purpose while the church often suppresses open conversation about sexuality. How can we contribute to a more healthy openness about sex and love, in our families and communities?

The Greatest Love Song of All Time (Pt.1)

SA
 
Everyone likes love songs. They fill the radio waves throughout the day. I can still remember enjoying the crooning voice of Lionel Richie singing "Hello, is it me you're looking for?" in my late teens. There is something deeply profound about the desire and yearning of one person for another. We call it love. 
 
The Bible contains many diverse types of literature, including poems, prophecies, narratives and of course, songs. The book of Psalms is literally a psalter, or collection of songs, expressing the full range of emotions of the human heart. But then we have that small little book at the end of the Wisdom Literature section called Song of Songs. That title means it is being declared as the best song of all. It's a bit like the phrase "holy of holies", which means the holiest of all holy places. This is the greatest song of all songs - and it's a love song, a sensual and erotic one at that!
 
That's pretty remarkable. This book is also unusual in the Bible in that it mentions God indirectly perhaps once (8:6), and most likely not at all. It also does not refer to the main Israelite traditions of the Exodus, the Torah (law), the covenants or the ancestors. Its central concern is about sexual love. It joyfully celebrates physical love and a couple's committed relationship. That should serve as a rebuke to Christians who find no place for love and sex in their Christian thinking and living. 
 
Of course, conservative interpreters throughout the centuries found all of this a bit too embarrassing so resorted to an allegorical approach, rather than a literal one, declaring this as a love story between God and his people. One interpreter even declared the woman's breasts as representing the Old and New Testaments! Now there is some creative, mental gymnastics. 
 
Before you start reading Song of Songs, maybe for the first time, here are a few pointers:
 
  1. The date of composition is uncertain and the author of this song in unknown. Solomon has been thought to be the author by some but the inclusion of his name (most references are in the 3rd person and he never speaks in the text) could refer more to sponsorship or dedication. His reputation for womanising does not harmonise with the apparently exclusive devotion of the lovers in this text. Some have even proposed a female author, but it remains impossible to prove.
  2. There are two main characters in the text - one man and one woman. There is no narrator intruding into the conversations. These persons are in love and the dialogue is charged with emotional content. 
  3. This is love poetry. The sequence of lyric poems form a series of episodes with some plot and theme development, but S1there are some abrupt shifts of scene and audience, which can be confusing and yet engaging at the same time. Poetic images abound - with heaps of simile and metaphor (many of them mixed!). There is much imaginative activity here. And the language can seem quite foreign to Western ears. There is military language (bodily parts being likened to towers, troops, banners, shields and warriors), architectural imagery (a house and a wall), family images, natural and agricultural imagery, wild animal images (the gazelle, stag, lion and leopard), specific geographical imagery (places as diverse as Kedar, Mount Gilead, Lebanon, En Gedi, Damascus, Hernon and Jerusalem), landscape elements (mountain, valley, garden, vineyard, orchard, pools and fountain), spices and incense, metals and gems, and frequent references to wine, suggesting the intoxicating nature of this love relationship. The regular blurring of a distinction between image and association (for example, shifting between an actual landscape and the landscape of the human body) only heighten the growing emotion of this love poem. 
  4. This book promotes a positive view of human sexuality, as a normal part of God's "very good" creation. These lovers express their desire for each other and speak of delight in each other's presence. Together or apart, each admires the other's body. As originally portrayed in the garden of Eden, they are "naked and unashamed" before God and each other (Genesis 2:25). They issue repeated invitations to each other. They are single-minded in their devotion to each other and their relationship. Most remarkable is the fact that there is no mention of procreation, showing that child-bearing is not the only legitimate aim of sexual relations.
  5. There is a mutuality in this love relationship. In fact, this book is also unusual in the biblical library, in that it gives S2 the central place to a woman's voice unmediated by a narrator. She is the speaker in the majority of verses and has the first and last words. There is no hint of hierarchy or patriarchy here. The man and woman are equals - in value and personhood. In fact, there is an interesting reversal to the Eden statement "your desire shall be for your husband" (Genesis 3:16) with the woman's declaration, "I belong to my lover, and his desire is for me" (7:10). [It is disappointing that some English translations have chosen the words "Lover" and "Beloved" to represent the male and female characters in this love poem since this implies male initiative and female passivity, which is exactly the opposite of what this love poem portrays.]
  6. There is a time for love to awaken. The woman in this love poem speaks to "the daughters of Jerusalem" several times, repeating this advice/warning: "Do not arouse or awaken love until it so desires" (2:7; 3:5; 5:8; 8:4). Love requires restraint at times, saying 'no' to the immediate in order to say 'yes' to what may be even better in the longer term. Yes, waiting and delayed gratification are part of a maturing love. Don't be too hasty in love. 
  7. Human love is a picture of the love God has for his people. The apostle Paul likens marriage to the relationship between Christ and the church (Ephesians 5:22-33). Therefore, we can include allegorical readings with literal readings of the Song of Songs, though it is not the sole purpose of the book. 
Enjoy your reading! I love the Message Bible translation.
 
Part 2 tomorrow ...

Easter Reflections

E

The signs of Easter are all around us - cooler weather, school holidays, an upcoming long weekend, hot cross buns and extra church services to cater to people's faith which comes in all shapes and sizes. For many people, it is also a time to reflect on some important events that took place over 2,000 years ago - the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. No doubt, this is the foundation of the Christian faith. If Christ did not die and rise again, then our faith is useless (1 Corinthians 15:13-14).

The Gospels all tell us WHAT happened during this Passion Week. Tragically, Jesus was betrayed, denied, falsely accused and eventually killed by the cruel death of crucifixion at the hands of the Romans. Thankfully, three days later he rose from the dead and was seen by numerous witnesses. We are then told that Jesus ascended into heaven from which he would one day return.

This was all done to fulfil what the prophets of long ago foretold. But what was going on with Jesus on that cross? What was God up to? WHY did Jesus die? Disciples of Jesus, critics of Christianity, and biblical scholars have been reflecting on, discussing and debating the answers to these vital questions for centuries now. More recently, the conversations have increased and some of the typical trite answers are being questioned as being inadequate. 

One of my favourite thinkers and writers is N.T. Wright. As one of the world's leading Bible scholars, he has written numerous books about Jesus, the apostle Paul and the New Testament period. His most recent book is called The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus' Crucifixion. He argues that the Protestant Reformation did not go far enough in transforming our understanding of its meaning. Wright argues that Jesus’ death on the cross was not only to forgivd us of our sins; it was actually the beginning of a revolution commissioning the Christian faithful to a new vocation — a royal priesthood responsible for restoring and reconciling all of God’s creation. Wright argues that Jesus’ crucifixion must be understood within the much larger story of God’s purposes to bring heaven and earth together. The Day the Revolution Began offers a grand picture of Jesus’ sacrifice and its full significance for the Christian faith, inspiring believers with a renewed sense of mission, purpose, and hope, and reminding them of the crucial role the Christian faith must play in protecting and shaping the future of the world. 

Another thought-provoking recent publication is The Crucifixion of the Warrior God by pastor and author Gregory A. Boyd. Boyd proposes a revolutionary way to read the Bible in this epic but accessible study. A dramatic tension confronts every Christian believer and interpreter of Scripture: on the one hand, we encounter Old Testament stories of God commanding horrendous violence. On the other hand, we read the unequivocally nonviolent teachings of Jesus in the New Testament. Reconciling these two has challenged Christians and theologians for two millennia. Throughout Christian history, various answers have been proposed, ranging from the long rejected explanation that these contrasting depictions are of two entirely different gods to recent social, cultural, and literary theories that attempt to dispel the conflict. The Crucifixion of the Warrior God takes up this dramatic tension and the range of proposed answers in an ambitious constructive investigation. Over two volumes, Gregory A. Boyd argues that we must take seriously the full range of Scripture as inspired, including its violent depictions of God. At the same time, he affirms the absolute centrality of the crucified and risen Christ as the supreme revelation of God. Developing a theological interpretation of Scripture that he labels a "cruciform hermeneutic", Boyd demonstrates how the Bible's violent images of God are reframed and their violence subverted when interpreted through the lens of the cross and resurrection. Indeed, when read in this way, Boyd argues that these violent depictions bear witness to the same self-sacrificial nature of God that was ultimately revealed on the cross. 

Two books well worth reading, as we continue to seek to mine the depth of the significance of what took place that first Easter.  

For my own personal reflections on some of the various answers to why Jesus died, see my previous BLOG post Why Did Jesus Die? based on a message I gave on Good Friday a few years back. 

One thing we know is that Easter is a revelation of the love of God for all humanity.

The apostle John put it so eloquently:

John 3:16. For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. NLT

Why not take a few moments to reflect on the lyrics of this hymn of praise: Oh, Love of God. My favourite version of this song is by Kelly Willard and it is available to listen for free on You Tube.

I pray many blessings on you and your family this Easter.  


The Quest for Life's Meaning (3)

Ecclesiastes-background-001
 
Ecclesiastes is a controversial book - is it a positive affirmation of the joy of life or a deeply pessimistic view of the world? Either way, it resonates deeply with the existential struggles of people today. The book takes us on a roller-coaster ride as the main character sets out to explore the meaning of life. We too are to wrestle actively with the difficult questions and real issues of life.

Throughout the Quester’s journey, there is a constant tension between the 'utterly enigmatic' nature of life as he discovers it under the sun and the call to 'seize the day', eating and drinking and enjoying what God has given to us. These can be referred to as the carpe diem passages (which increase in emphasis throughout the book’s journey), such as the following:
 
Ecclesiastes 5:18-20. Even so, I have noticed one thing, at least, that is good. It is good for people to eat, drink, and enjoy their work under the sun during the short life God has given them, and to accept their lot in life. And it is a good thing to receive wealth from God and the good health to enjoy it. To enjoy your work and accept your lot in life—this is indeed a gift from God. God keeps such people so busy enjoying life that they take no time to brood over the past. NLT
 
Here is a transforming vision of eating and drinking, of enjoying one's work and one’s wealth, and of sustaining joy. This is to be seen as a gift from God (see also 2:24-26; 9:7-10 and how the apostle Paul picks this theme in Colossians 3:17) who created all things for his pleasure (Revelation 4:11). As Irenaeus once said, “The glory of God is the human person fully alive.” This involves joy even in the midst of the contradictions and enigmas we experience in life (see 1 Peter 1:8).
 
All of this is a mystery that needs to be held in tension, being difficult to resolve. Like chasing the wind, we know that the wind is real but it is impossible to grasp. So life has meaning but it can be hard to get a handle on. The resolution to the paradox is found in "the fear of God" which enables one to rejoice and apply oneself positively to life in the midst of all that one does not understand, including especially death. It is a call to rejoice and remember our Creator by enjoying his good gifts and obeying his laws (see 11:7-12:7). We can wrestle with reality at its darkest points and still testify to the joy of God. Like the Quester, we can affirm joy over despair while still struggling with how to relate the two. As Craig Bartholomew writes, “His autonomous epistemology takes him toward skepticism but his Jewish background and faith provide him with an undeniable shalomic perspective on life” (p.355). Enigma remains but it is enveloped with meaning. It’s a meaning that comes from refusing to forget the God who created everything. Despite the difficulties, paradoxes, unanswered questions and mysteries of life, life can be lived on a firm foundation of faith and trust. 
 
Here’s the narrator’s conclusion:
 
Ecclesiastes 12:8-14. Keep this in mind: The Teacher was considered wise, and he taught the people everything he knew. He listened carefully to many proverbs, studying and classifying them. The Teacher sought to find just the right words to express truths clearly. The words of the wise are like cattle prods — painful but helpful. Their collected sayings are like a nail-studded stick with which a shepherd drives the sheep. But, my child, let me give you some further advice: Be careful, for writing books is endless, and much study wears you out. That’s the whole story. Here now is my final conclusion: Fear God and obey his commands, for this is everyone’s duty. God will judge us for everything we do, including every secret thing, whether good or bad. NLT
 
Anything we pursue on this earth in order to find meaning and satisfaction from tends to disappoint, as least in the long run. But when we discover a peace and a joy in a connection with the God who transcends yet pervades this world, we are able to express and experience that joy even in the daily aspects and routines of our life. We live more content, we are more attentive to all that is talking place around us, and we understand that everything belongs and everything is a gift.
 
Ultimately, it is Jesus who redeems us from the futility of life and ushers in the great feast of the kingdom of God. Yes, all of creation continues to groan but with a hope that death is not the end and that the story of redemption is yet to be finished. In the meantime, like Jesus, we can celebrate the life that God has given us and feast in joy, living fully present in each moment of our day. After all, Jesus literally ate his way through the Gospels, bringing joy and hope to whoever he encountered along the way. 
 
May we do the same.

The Quest for Life's Meaning (Pt.2)

Ecclesiastes-background-001
 
The book of Ecclesiastes is a fine piece of inspired literary work, carefully crafted to convey an important message about the quest for the meaning of life. There is a Narrator who frames this royal story (1:1-11 and 12:8-14), a story which is made up of the actual words and thoughts of someone we will refer to as the Quester (1:12 - 12:7). The Quester is also called the Preacher, the Teacher, the Wise Man or Qohelet (Hebrew for 'preacher’).
 
Solomon is the stated identity of the Quester (1:1) but some biblical scholars now choose a later date and see this as royal Solomonic fiction, though based on actual historical experiences. See Craig G. Bartholomew's excellent commentary on Ecclesiastes in the Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms series (Tremper Longman III, Editor) for more background detail.
 
The theme of the book is stated loud and clear right up front (1:2) - "Utterly enigmatic, utterly enigmatic, everything is enigmatic.” This Hebrew word hebel is used 38 times in the book and can be translated as vanity, absurdity, futility, transience, uselessness, vapor/breath, chasing the wind, and meaninglessness. Enigmatic or 'chasing after the wind' are alternative translations. 
 
This provocative summary of the Quester's search for meaning (his epistemology) is shocking coming from the ruler of God's people (1:1), but anticipates the journey he will embark on and the conclusions he will come to. He is talking about human life and experience (anthropology), not God and or the universe in general (cosmology). This summary statement does not close the debate but rather opens it - the shock of the statement engages the reader in the Quester's own struggle as they begin to wrestle with how a wise person akin to Solomon could make this sort of statement. 
 
After stating the theme of the book, the key question being pursued is presented (1:3) - "What is the benefit for humankind in all one's labor at which one labors under the sun?"
 
The word translated “benefit” is used 10 times in the book and refers to advantage, profit, benefit, additional edge, or meaning for our labor (work). The word “humankind” is used 49 times and shows how the pursuit is about fundamental questions about the nature of human existence. The phrase “under the sun” is used 29 times, showing the Quester’s concern with the whole range of the human experience. The word “labor” is used 22 times and "to labor" 13 times, referring to work, toil, labor, struggle and pain - all sorts of human endeavor.
 
Although this is the main question being pursued, there are actually 32 questions in the book of Ecclesiastes. That’s 12% of the book’s entire content! Questions drive the intellectual challenge, inviting the reader to participate in the struggle to find the meaning of life. Never be afraid to question. 
 
The Quester considers all of life under the sun. Here is a brief overview of his quest:
  • Pleasure and the good life (2:1-11) - abandoning himself to the pleasures of wine, extensive building projects, gardens and parks, the accumulation of wealth and treasures, music, sex, and so on.
  • The problem of death and one's legacy (2:12-23) - the repetitiveness of history, the end of life for all in death, and one's lack of control over one's legacy,
  • The mystery of time (3:1-15) - the limits of human life, namely birth and death, and the range of activities that make up human culture, including agriculture, war, reconciliation, medicine, grief, celebration, and so on.
  • The problem of injustice and death (3:16-22) - if death is just the end, then humans are no better than animals, and there will never be a time for judgment,
  • Four problems - oppression, rivalry as the motivation for work, isolation in work and life, and the problem of government (4:1-16).
  • Public worship (5:1-7).
  • Oppression and profit, along with its dangers (5:8-17).
  • The problem of riches and wealth (6:1-12).
  • Knowing what is good for one (7:1-13) - the nature of the good life.
  • Moderation in folly and wisdom (7:14-22).
  • The enigma of political rule (8:1-9).
  • The problem of delayed judgment (8:10-17) - including the lack of observable justice and the longevity of people favoring evil.
  • The fate of death and the gift of life (9:1-12).
  • The example of a city (9:13-18).
  • Wisdom, folly and rulers (10:1-20).
  • Living with the uncertainties of God's providence (11:1-6). 
There is no sacred/secular dualism here. It is a comprehensive survey of the variety of areas of human life and experience. 

The Quest for Life's Meaning (Pt.1)

Ecclesiastes-background-001
 
Every since I was a kid, I have loved books. Whether it was visiting the local library, hanging out in my dad’s office, or sitting reading encyclopaedias while my parents were visiting with friends, books were a doorway to a world of experience, information and knowledge. Books awakened in me a passion for learning and discovering new ideas about anything and everything. 
 
My fascination for books drew me to the Bible. The Bible is an amazing book, or more accurately, a collection of stories, writings, songs, poems and prophecies. Like a huge library, the diversity throughout the various books of the Bible is quite extraordinary. I have my favourite parts of the Bible but I have enjoyed venturing to some of the less travelled sections too. As a pastor once said when I was younger, “If you want to know God’s will for your life, read all the verses you haven’t underlined!” There’s some truth in that. 
 
One of my favourite sections of the Bible is what is referred to as the Wisdom Writings found in the Old Testament - Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs.
  • The book of Psalms is a poetic and literary sanctuary where humans share their joys and struggles with brutal honesty in God's presence.
  • The book of Proverbs describes wisdom, which is the ability to see life from God’s perspective and translate that into daily skills for living. As a teenager, I often read a proverb a day and found much practical guidance from this sacred text. The sages often sought to motivate wise behaviour by linking it to reward, but in reality, bad things happen to good people, and as a result, the wise are not always rewarded as they expect. This raises the question of the justice of God.
  • Both Job and Ecclesiastes struggle with the apparent disconnect between God's justice and our actual experience of life as it happens.
  • Finally, the Song of Songs is a passionate love poem that reminds us that God is interested in more than just our brains and our spirits; he wants us to enjoy our bodies and our sexuality is part of us as humans being created in the image of God. As a teenager, I must admit wandering inquisitively to the pages of this book during many a boring sermon! 
Just over a month ago, I gave my last sermon as Senior Minister of a large church in Melbourne. In that message, I shared some reflections on the meaning of life from my current vantage point. What has meaning for us changes over time and as you grow older, this question of what really matters seems to increase its volume in our heads and hearts.
 
As an overflow of this, I have recently been reading slowly through the books of Ecclesiastes, a book that I think everyone should read at least once a year. In this unsettling book, the main character outlines his quest to find meaning and satisfaction in life as he continually turns to consider, know, search out and seek. The reader is drawn along the quester’s journey as he recalls a series of dead ends that he pursued. Like meandering through a complex maze or labyrinth, meaning in life is sought through an extended variety of avenues. It is a long journey and one of doubt, questioning, uncertainty and ambiguity. At times there is hope, while at other times there is only despair at the paradoxes that life brings. The book calls the reader to engage with the excruciating tension of this journey and enter the conversation it evokes. 
 

The Beauty of Sleep

727FD0A4-9B69-424B-98CD-D037B4FBA8D5

I'm on holidays and I'm loving every minute! My time off started just over 3 weeks ago. The difference in this break is that it began with me finishing employment at the same place for over 32 years. Needless to say, I have been gradually starting to relax and unwind, although it has taken discipline to not focus on what I have 'done' at the end of any particular day. My productivity bias is very strong!

One thing I have noticed is how long and how deeply I have been sleeping. I guess you don't really know how tired you are until you slow down or stop for a while. I said to Nicole one morning this week that it felt like I had slept at a much deeper level than I had ever experienced in my life before. Like peeling an onion, another layer of tiredness seems to be lifting off me.

When I was younger, I envied people who could survive on only a few hours of sleep a night (or who could work right through the night without a hitch!). I tried to do the same, with initial excitement about all those extra hours I'd be able to free up for work and accomplishing the many projects I was interested in. Well, it didn't last very long. I soon learned that sleep is like a bank account and you can't keep making withdrawals without it eventually bouncing through lack of deposits!

I discovered that like most people I need about 8 hours of sleep a night to function best during the day. Yes, I can survive an occasional late night or early morning here or there, but regularly deviating from this daily rhythm doesn't work for me in the long run. I need a good night's sleep - every day. And that's okay.

How have been sleeping lately?

A good night's sleep is a beautiful thing, renewing our entire being - physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. It's amazing how even challenges or problems look at little different in the morning after a quality sleep. It's a bit like a mental reset, a fuel tank refill, a windscreen wiper clean, or a computer reboot.

Here are a few tips I've found helpful for having a good sleep:

1. Make sure your bedroom is as dark as it can be, with no light creeping in.
2. A room that is quiet is also important.
3. Getting to bed a few hours before midnight seems to help a lot.
4. Don't eat late at night or too soon before going to sleep. Your stomach will be digesting all night ... and oh that breath in the morning!
5. Don't drink too much late at night. I try not to drink anything after 8.00 pm. It reduces trips to the toilet during the night.
6. Avoid engaging in highly mentally stimulating activities just before bed. Do something more relaxing.
7. If you are having trouble sleeping, chat to your doctor.

Good night :)


Another Work Week ...

Work

As we come to the end of the weekend (a long one for those living in Victoria and Tasmania, Australia), another work week awaits for most people. It is interesting that in the ancient Hebrew mindset, the day begins in the evening - with rest (see Genesis 1 where it repeatedly says "... and the evening and the morning were the first day"). We are to fill our tank (with physical, emotional, mental and spiritual energy) and then work from this position of fullness. This is in stark contrast to the common Western worldview that sees the evening or the night as recovery time after a day's work. It's only a slight paradigm shift but what a world of difference this kind of thinking can make.

Breathe in ... then breathe out.

Fill up then pour out.

Rest ... then work.

Even Jesus often ended the day or began the day in solitude, before the crowds of people, with all of their needs, concerns and questions, started to gather around him. 

After Jesus had dismissed the crowd, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone. Matthew 14:23. 

Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. Mark 1:35. 

This was a regular occurrence in Jesus' life and obviously was a key habit undergirding his life and ministry work. Of course, if he needed this kind of refueling and recalibration, how much more do we in today's demanding, pressured and fast-paced work environment. 

Here are some suggestions for making the most of each of your days this coming work week:

1. Stop whatever you are doing, find a comfortable place, be still and simply notice what is taking place around you. 

2. Set aside 10 minutes to focus on your breath. Breathe IN ... slowly ... then breathe ... OUT slowly. As you breathe out, let go of worry, anxiety, fear, anger and envy. As you breathe in, thank God for his joy, his peace, his love, and his comfort.

3. Take a few moments to slowly read the poem Morning Moments.

I hope you have an enjoyable and meaningful week.


Reflections on Midlife

In my recent farewell address, I noted how differently you see life at age 55 compared to your early 20s and 30s. When you are young, you think you will live forever! But life and time do move quickly. The stages of life seem to progress with increasing speed: childhood, adolescence, early adulthood, midlife, mature adulthood and late adulthood and before you know it, the end of life is in sight. Yes, it's a sobering thought.

As we move into another weekend, why not take some time aside, find a quiet place, and reflect on your own life. Where have you come from? Where are you now? Where are you going? What time is it for you? What is your current stage of life and how should that inform the way you live and what is important to you (see links to various BLOG posts above)? 

Recently, I was doing just that - reflecting on my own stage of life: midlife. It is an interesting time for me. I haven't been this way before. This is new territory. I am at a different stage of life. At 55 years of age, I'm not yet 'old' but I'm definitely not 'young' anymore. I feel different and I see things differently.

I am at a different stage of my spiritual journey. My faith in God is deeper. But I have given up the need for everything to be black and white. I've accepted that there is a lot of grey in this world. I'm comfortable with mystery and paradox - in who God is and in the universe he created.

I am a different leader than I used to be. I don't 'need' a bigger church to feel good about myself. I don't 'need' another significant conference speaking invitation to feel important. Anything 'additional' is a simply a gift from God, not a goal to be strived towards nor the result of me praying hard enough.

With that context, I share with you a poem I wrote on the 18th December 2016 called 'Midlife': I hope it is an encouragement to you, as well as a challenge to live your life to the full.

5c9fd667f6370934bd30544d08d0cdd7

Ageing body
Agile mind
Still feel young
But feeling the grind

Caught between two generations
Elderly parents
Growing kids
Not old but no longer young

Crazy busy first half
Don't want a repeat
What has meaning now?
How do I want to live?

Glitz and glitter
No longer attracts
Climbing the ladder?
Not on that wall

Very aware of my frailty
The shortness of life
The length of eternity
What really matters now?

Family and friends
Being over doing
Character over achievement
Who am I becoming?

Life is a gift
The clock is ticking
But no need to rush
Enjoy this moment fully

Time to reflect
Need to take stock
Halftime
Midlife

Crisis or opportunity?
You decide
Follow the crowd
Or the road less traveled?

Selah


My Farewell Address: The Meaning of Life

What does one say in a farewell address?

In biblical times, we have a record of parting words from people such as Jacob (Genesis 49:1-33), Joseph (Genesis 50:24-26), Moses (Deuteronomy 31:1 - 32:47), Joshua (Joshua 24:22-28), David (1Chronicles 29:10-20), Jesus (Matthew 28:18-20 and John 13-17) and Paul (Acts 20:18-25).

In modern times, we can consider the farewell speeches of kings, presidents and prime ministers, as well as sports personalities, actors and entertainers. Whether it's Michael Scott saying 'goodbye' on the TV series The Office, Truman exiting The Truman Show (“In case I don't see you, good afternoon, good evening and good night!”) or Bilbo Baggins's speech in Lord of the Rings at his 111th birthday party ("I don't know half of you half as well as I should like, and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve!"), we all seek to say something meaningful in significant moments such as this.

I am 55 years of age and I see and feel things very differently than when I was younger. Life goes way too fast, kids grow up far too quickly, and as a result you start to ask questions about what it all means and what really matters. 

People have grappled with the question of the meaning of life since time began - whether it be Solomon, the ancient philosophers, or Victor Frankl and his associates in a Nazi concentration camp during the Holocaust wondering what they would live for ... if they survived. 

For me, there are three pursuits worth giving my life for:

1. Love God.

CSEach human being is born with longings and cravings for something or Someone beyond themsevles - for transcendence. C.S. Lewis once said,  “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”

God is personal and if we seek him with all our heart we will find him. I first heard God speaking to me when I was 19 years of age as I meditated on the story of a young boy named Samuel in 1 Samuel chapter 3 of the Old Testament. It's one thing to know about God or even to study God but it is another thing to have a relationship with him. Some people find God within the walls of a church. Others find him outside of the halls of religion. After all, the whole world is a Temple where God dwells. We are each invited into the life of God who is Trinity - Father, Son and Spirit. Some days God is silent .... but God is always there. 

Jesus himself said that the most important commandment was to " love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind" (Matthew 22:37-38).

2. Love People.

Jesus went on to say, "A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:39-40). Jesus summarised over 600 Jewish laws into two simple practices: love God and love people. 

Elsewhere, Jesus gave us some good advice as to how to truly love people:

“Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you. This is the essence of all that is taught in the law and the prophets.” Matthew 7:12. NLT

We call it the Golden Rule: think about how you want to be treated, then grab the initiative and treat people that way, especially those who are different than you. If you are white, what would it like to be black? If you are straight, what would it be like to be gay? If you are an Australian citizen, what would it be like to be a refugee? If you are a Christian, what would it be like for a Muslim or a Hindu to move into the neighborhood? If you are healthy, what would life be like in a wheel chair? 

Sadly, in many parts of our world, Christianity has degenerated into primarily a ‘system of beliefs’ rather than a ‘way of life’ characterised by love. Jesus did not say, “The world will know that you are my disciples by your statement of faith”. In fact, the Bible isn't a theology book… it is a grand redemptive narrative - a love story of God at work in our world throughout history. People write theology - some of it is good and some of it isn't (because it doesn’t reflect God accurately). Even our creeds are inadequate. The famous Apostle’s Creed, often used as the marker of orthodox Christianity, doesn't even mention love or justice, two topics Jesus constantly talked about. It also has no reference to mission, something Jesus was passioante about in his farewell address (Matthew 28:18-20)!

So let's hold our beliefs, statements of faith, and creeds lightly. Don’t be too quick to push people away who see or believe differently. Try saying something like, “Help me understand.” But let's hold love very firmly. It is the mark of a true follower of Jesus.

3. Serve the World.

BoothIt is said that the Founder of The Salvation Army, General William Booth, once sent a telegram to officers around the world to remind them of the main focus of their work. The telegram contained only one word - "others." That single word captured the foundation for the entire organisation.

In the same way, God desires each one of us to discover, develop and deploy our gifts and talents for the benefit of others. The apostle Peter put it this way:

1 Peter 4:10. God has given each of you a gift from his great variety of spiritual gifts. Use them well to serve one another. NLT

Life is not about YOU. Don’t end your life only to look back and find it was a SELFIE video!

When we look at all of the problems in the world today, it is easy to ask why God doesn't do something. But the prophet Isaiah tells us that God is actually waiting for us to act!

Isaiah 59:16. "God was amazed to see that no one intervened to help the oppressed." NLT

As they say in chess, “It’s your move!”

Chess

P.S. You can watch the video of the entire farewell service at CityLife here. My message starts just after the 59:50 minute mark.

See also Time to Say Goodbye

P.S.S. To be notified by email about any new BLOG posts, simply sign up in the upper right hand side of this BLOG page.


The Stresses of Church Work

STRESS_Open

I would never suggest that pastors and church leaders work harder than other people ... but church work has its unique challenges and pressures.

Here are five of them:

1. Ministry work is never done. It is open ended. There is never full closure. There is always more to do. It just keeps coming at you - day after day, week after week. There are no finish lines. Finish one counselling appointment and there's another one coming. Get through last weekend and there's another one coming. Preach that sermon and you'll need to start preparing the next one - and it needs to be even better (the continual pressure of forced creativity). Today a baby is born. Such joy. Tomorrow, a church member dies, a tense conflict erupts, or a married couple files for divorce. Such sadness and pain. It's an emotional rollercoaster. And it just keep going. Ministry is relentless. Listen to talk-back radio on Friday afternoons and everyone is saying, "Thank God it's Friday!" Listen to pastors and they're probably thinking, "My God, it's Friday!"

2. There are no boundaries. Ministry and church work will fill as much of your life as you allow it too. Most people have a job, a family and a church community they are a part of. There is usually appropriate segmentation between those spheres. Have a problem with someone at work? At least you can head home or to church and put it behind you for a little while. Have a problem at home? At least you can go to work and get it off your mind for a bit. Pastors don't have that privilege. Work is church is family. One big circle. If something isn't going well, it fills all your world.

3. Not everyone likes you and your family. This is really hard to understand - because us pastors  are such nice people! But it is a reality of life. Criticism will continually come and often from people who really don't even know you. 

4. You can never please everyone all of the time. At any given moment in time, someone is not happy with the way things are. There isn't enough worship, Bible teaching, evangelism, prayer, social justice, mission, or whatever. The sermons are too shallow or too deep, too funny or too serious, too long or too short. The music is too loud or too soft. The lights are too bright or the room is too dark. It goes on and on and on.

5. Much of your life is in the fish bowl. Everyone is watching you and your family ... all of the time. I can never forget going to a men's public toilet on my day off while Nicole was shopping. I was standing at the urinal doing what men do, when someone leant over and said,"Excuse me, are you Mark Conner?" They had heard of me and obviously wanted to chat. Can't even pee in peace!

All of this adds up to quite a lot of stress. No wonder there are 13,000 ex-pastors in Australia today and surveys reveal that 50% of those still in church work are emotionally depleted, depressed or clinically burnt out. It's not easy work.

That's why pastors need our support, encouragement, and prayers.

Of course, it is possible to not only survive the pressures of church work but to actually thrive as a pastor or church leader. How? Only through healthy habits


What's Next?

Whats-next-jpg

After you say goodbye, what's next?

What’s Next for Me
I’ve been on church staff for the last 32 years and led the worship ministry as a volunteer for 5 years before that … so that's 37 years of continuous leadership responsibility. You can’t question my commitment :)

Now that I am finished with my Senior Minister staff role, I will take a few months off - a rest, a 'drinks break', a sabbath.

On top of the full array of regular Sunday church services over the last 30-40 years, I've been involved in Saturday night church services for 18 years now and double services for about 8 years. That's some crazy busy weekends. And a lot happens between weekends. Just like chefs know that a meal is gobbled up much quicker than the time it took to prepare it, so ministry preparation takes much more time than the actual ministry moments of meetings led, sermons preached, or people interacted with. My last sermon as Senior Minister only lasted a little over 30 minutes ... but it took 55 years to prepare. 

I am not retiring. Once our rest time is over, we will be open to any new assignments that God may bring our way. 

What's Next for CityLife

CityLife is Jesus' church. I didn't start it. It was already 28 years old when I became its leader and I've done my best to lead it over the last 22 years. A new season is about to begin.

Change is not always easy. There will be some grief and some loss. But endings make way for new beginnings. Yes, things will be different but the church’s mission remains the same.

I've encouraged the church to give the next Senior Minister, Andrew Hill, and his wife Leanne, their full support, encouragement, and prayer. After all, church ministry can be quite stressful (see my next post: The Stresses of Church Work).

Jesus said to his disciples that it would be good that he left because then he would send the Holy Spirit. I'm not suggesting I'm Jesus (!) nor is Andrew the Holy Spirit but change can be a good thing. I’ve given 22 years of my life to this role and I believe I have brought the church as far as I can. CityLife will benefit from new leadership with abundant energy and fresh vision for its next chapter.

Coming Up: My Farewell Address


Time to Say Goodbye

Fare

Last weekend was my final weekend speaking at CityLife Church as it's Senior Minister. It was a very emotional time for both Nicole and myself, but with a real sense of celebration of all that God has done. We are deeply grateful for the many words of encouragement, 'thank you' notes, gifts (I felt like a Christmas tree!), and the parting love offering from the congregation. Thanks to Peter Sheahan and the Board of Elders, as well as Peter Leigh and Daljit Gill for arranging all of this. We felt very honoured. 

It has been an honour and a privilege to be the Senior Minister at CityLife for the last 22 years. Nicole and I are very grateful for the opportunity we have had to serve this amazing group of people over so many years. I’ve grown, I’ve changed, I've learnt a lot (often through my mistakes!) and I’ve had many wonderful opportunities to use my gifts, build relationships, create meaningful experiences, and see God work in and through our church.

I am very proud of who CityLife has become - particularly the culture of welcome, generosity and outreach that pervades the church. The Church has grown in size and quality, men and women serve and lead alongside each other (some of our best leaders, pastors and speakers are women), there has been no scandal, and we have had healthy leadership transitions. Of course, my greatest joy has been intersecting with God's work in individual people's lives. I only wish I had had more time to slow down and speak to each person, hearing more of their story and getting to know them better. That's hard with around 10,000 people who now call CityLife their church home.

As I reflect on the last 32 years of being on church staff, it is very clear to me that, “No one achieves anything alone!” At this time, I want to give thanks to:

  • Our founding pastor, Richard Holland, for believing in me as as 20Something and encouraging me into church ministry.
  • My parents, Kevin and Joyce Conner, for all they have sown into my life since I was a child.
  • The church leadership team of elders, staff, ministry leaders, and volunteers who I have served alongside over the years. Special thanks to my personal assistant Sue Veal and to Peter Leigh and Daljit Gill, my two associates for over 20 years. I couldn't have done it without you!
  • Our faithful prayer partners: Gurmit Gill, Stan and Coral Leigh, Miva, Anthony Storey, Linda Leigh, Anne Otyek and Ray Henderson.
  • Finally, thanks to my family - our three amazing kids, Josiah, Ashley and Natasha (who have sacrificed a lot and have been my best fans ... and critics!), and to Nicole - still my best friend after 30 years of marriage. My most enjoyable and effective years were when we were leading side by side. I look forward to our future together.
  • And most of all to God … without him I could be or have done nothing. I am indebted to his daily grace, wisdom, courage, strength and faithfulness over so many years now.

Many of you know my story, but let me recap … 

I'm a PK, a "Preacher's Kid", or a TO as my dad used to call me - a "Theological Offspring". When I was younger, my dad used to say to me, "If you can get out of church miniustry, son, get out of it! But if God has called you, you won't escape it." Well, that "call" did come, and quite early - at the age of 10. I wasn't sure how it would unfold, but it did. First through worship ministry, then youth ministry, and eventually as as Senior Minister. 

In many ways, I consider myself a “reluctant leader”. Not that I don't enjoy leading but I’ve been thrown into the deep end many times with new responsibilities. Over time I have learnt a lot and eventually I have really enjoyed everything I have done ... but before long, another door seems to open. In many ways, my journey has been very much about responding to opportunities that have come my way, to new open doors, and to other people's encouragement.

Why change now?

This is not a sudden or reactionary move. I considered another 5 years or 10 years but "sooner rather than later” seemed to be the best decision for me and the church. I remember praying one morning and asking God, “Would you be okay if I finished up as Senior Minister?" I sensed a warm smile and a softly spoken ,"Of course." A calling is never meant to be linked or bound to a particular role or expression of ministry. We must follow our curiosity and not allow a calling to ever become a sense of duty or obligation. Nicole once asked me, "Would you apply for your job today, if you didn't have it?" That's a good question. I enjoy a lot of what I do but CityLife has become a very large organisation, the Senior Minister role is a big responsibility, and it is a burden that never goes away. I'm at a stage in life where I'd like a smaller world not a bigger one, a slower pace not a faster one, a simpler life not a more complex one. So here we are ...

How do I feel?

Check out my recent poem: The Finish Line.

Coming Up: What's Next? 

In the mean time, you might want to check out Home - Seasons, for some insights on the apostle Paul's departure from 3 years of significant ministry in the city of Ephesus. There are some excellent lessons we can glean from this story about endings and new beginnings. 


Who have you been eating with?

Dinner

One day Jesus was having dinner at the home of one of the top Pharisees (the religious leaders of his day). As always, there was some lively and interesting conversation around the dinner table. Near the end of this meal, this happened ...

Luke 14:12-14. Jesus turned to the host. "The next time you put on a dinner, don't just invite your friends and family and rich neighbors, the kind of people who will return the favor. Invite some people who never get invited out, the misfits from the wrong side of the tracks. You'll be — and experience — a blessing. They won't be able to return the favor, but the favor will be returned — oh, how it will be returned! — at the resurrection of God's people."

Who have you been eating with lately? 


The Story of Your Life

Story-of-your-life

I love the idea of life being like a story. History itself is a narrative of the story of the human race of which we are all a part. Within that grander story, every one of us has a story to tell. Your life is your story. Your story is your life. 

Like a story, your life has a beginning, a middle, and an ending. There is a theme, characters, subplots (work, family, health, happiness, friendship), trajectory, and tone.

 What kind of story is your life?

  • A comedy?
  • A drama?
  • A thriller (horror) movie?
  • A romance or a love story?
  • An action movie?
  • A fairy tale?

In reality, each of our life stories is an EPIC. It’s a long journey with many scenes, experiences, twists and turns, characters, and smaller individual story lines. It's our own personal growth adventure!

Right now, I'm reading a very interesting book called Step Out of Your Story: Writing Exercises to Reframe and Transform Your Life by Kim Scheinderman. Drawing from a number of disciplines, including narrative therapy, she presents life as a spiritual story which we are co-authoring. She suggests that we "can re-imagine ourselves as the hero of our own unfolding story, with the power to reclaim our personal narrative through choice and voice ... rather than remaining entrenched in tales of victimisation and martyrdom."

Here are a few questions for you to reflect on:

1. It's been said that most people spend more time planning their holidays than they do planning their lives. When is the last time you took some extended time aside to think deeply and honestly about your own life?

"Men go abroad to wonder at the heights of the mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the long courses of the rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motions of the stars, and they pass by themselves without wondering." St. Augustine - Confessions.

2. If you could view your life as a story, what is the 'narrative arc' of your story so far? Are you happy with where the story is going?

3. Who is writing your story? Is it really you ... or are you simply following the scripts of other influential and even well-intentioned people in your life?

"Freedom begins the moment you realise someone else has been writing your story and it's time you took the pen from them and started writing it yourself." Bill Moyers

[Watch the movie The Truman Show for a classic example of a person living out someone else's script]

4. Use a third person lens as you look at your life.

  • Draft a brief character sketch of the main character (the protagonist) of your story - YOU.
  • What does this character want out of life? What are their motivations, dreams, and aspirations? 
  • What is getting in the way? What are the obstacles (or antagonists), whether people, emotions or things?
  • What's at stake? How intense is the character's motivation? How much do they care? What is to gain by overcoming the obstacles? What is to lose by failing to do so?

Notice how different you write about, or see yourself, when taking a somewhat neutral observer/onlooker role.

5. The biblical character of Joseph went through a horrible family ordeal of rejection and betrayal. Yet at the end, when re-united with his brothers, he said, "You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good" (Genesis 50:20). Without denying his painful past, how did Joseph learn to tell his story from such a redemptive perspective? How can we learn to re-tell our own stories with more of a redemptive spin that allows for God's providence in all things - the good, the bad and the ugly?

"What matters in life is not what happens to you, but how you remember it and how you tell it." Gabriel Garcia Marquez

6. In one of the darkest times of ancient Israel's history, the prophet Jeremiah said this:

"For I know the plans I have for you," says the Lord. "They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope." Jeremiah 29:11.

How could this powerfully, positive statement inform your understanding of God's intentions for the remainder of your story, regardless of what has been in your past?

Whatever your story has been so far, may your next chapter truly be your best chapter yet!

See also: Storyline: Understand your Story

Psalm 9:11. Sing your songs to Zion-dwelling God, tell his stories to everyone you meet. MB

Psalm 145:4. Generation after generation stands in awe of your work; each one tells stories of your mighty acts. MB

Matthew 13:3. Using the boat as a pulpit, Jesus addressed his congregation, telling stories. MB

Mark 4:30. Jesus said, "How can we picture God's kingdom? What kind of story can we use?" MB


Trinity

A few years ago, when I was on a week-long prayer and silent retreat, I had just finished dinner and I walked out to the retreat centre's garden area. A lot of it was over-grown and unkept but there were some beautiful spots. Great places to sit, meditate, reflect and pray.

I had this image of being invited into fellowship with the Trinity. I put 3 chairs in a semi-circle in front of where I was sitting - one for the Father, one for the Son, and one for the Spirit. It was quite impacting. I could feel their warmth and love. [See the photo below which I took]

Trinity Chairs

I had a few reflections at the time:

  1. This is the centre of reality as it exists - one God living in a community of 3 persons.
  2. I am invited into this divine centre. Not alone, but with others too.
  3. It is a fellowship characterised by love. I too am loved, cherished and I have dignity and honour - because of who I am.
  4. My relationship with the Trinity is to be one of intimacy and closeness - I am a family member (not an employer) and a son (not a servant).
  5. I am to feel at “home” here, not a stranger or a visitor, who is somewhat awkward. I must admit, I didn’t feel as comfortable as I think I should have, which showed that I had not been living in the sense of intimacy and partnership that was available to me. Why the distance?
  6. Sometimes it felt like I was just sitting there alone and God was merely a figment of my imagination ... like the place was empty of life. At other times I sensed God's presence tangibly ... though quiet and peaceful. God was just there. Then occasionally, God would speak ... sweeping over my heart and mind with a rush of thoughts. I realised that I was more wired for God doing  something and if not, I quickly headed back to what I was doing ... rather than being content to just be together.
  7. Thinking about my proximity with the Trinity. Am I content just to be still and present with God OR does something always need to be happening for me to remain attentive?
  8. When it says that God walked and talked with Adam and Eve in the Garden, it must have been the Trinity, not a single God! I too can walk and talk with the Trinity wherever I am. Where are they? Behind me, alongside of me or ahead of me? Think spatially.
  9. What will dictate my direction today? The Spirit is like the wind. You aren’t sure which way it is coming from or where it is going. Jesus said, “Come and see”. He didn’t give his followers an answer or a plan but rather an invitation. It was an invitation into a relationship and a journey together that would unfold along the way.
  10. Trinity fellowship leads to amazing resources for life and ministry - love, power and wisdom, ALL I need or could ever want.
  11. Where is the Trinity inviting me to today? Where are they drawing me? What are they drawing me into? Will I follow? Or will I get busy doing things I want to do. Will I get distracted and preoccupied with trivial matters? The choice is mine. The river is there. The Spirit calls, “Come and drink” and “Come up here”. Will I hear and see what God is showing me today? Prophets look and listen. They feel the pathos of God and know his thoughts. Apostles hear instruction and receive revelation. They are commissioned and sent ones. Ambassadors, representing heaven’s throne room. Called, then sent. Come, then go.
  12. What am waiting for? What else could be worth my time and effort? How deceptive the enemy is in alluring me away from this water of life to other containers that contain no lasting life at all.

Trinity ... is it time for you to join the dance?

SEE also: An Invitation and the poems Invitation and Morning Moments.

 


Time

Good morning, everyone.

It's hard to believe it, but Christmas is over and the new year is well underway. I've just returned to work after 3 week's of holidays and I only have 6 more weeks before I finish up in my role as Senior Minister as CityLife Church. I turned 55 years of age back in October and for me, time seems to be moving faster as life goes on. 

I was reflecting on this one morning last week and put a few words together around the theme of 'time' - in my amateur form of poetry. Have a read. Slowly. Savour the words. Think about your life. Enjoy.

Clocks

Tick tock
Hear the clock
Always moving forward
Relentless motion

A new day dawns
Sun rising
Before long
Afternoon arrives

Then a setting sun
Evening again
The darkness of night
Another day gone

What's it all mean?
This thing called life
Searching for a purpose
Need to get it right

Something to decide
Or something to discover?
Make your own way
Or listen for the Other?

So fragile, so frail
So short
A blip in time
Blink and it's gone

History
Geography
Science
Faith

Memories
Experiences
Dreams
Hopes

Yesterday
Today
Tomorrow
Now

This moment
Right here
Breath of life
Be fully present

Time ...


Are You Ready for the New Year?

NY

Well, Christmas 2016 is done and dusted. Now it’s time to prepare to enter a new year. During transitional seasons such as this, it’s always good to stop and do three things: Reflect, Review and Re-calibrate. 

Firstly, reflect on the year that is about to finish. What happened? What went as expected? What surprises came your way? What are you thankful for? What pain did you experience? What will you be glad to put behind you?

Secondly, review. What did you learn? We sometimes believe that we learn from experience but this is not necessarily true. It is easy to repeat the same patterns year after year. It is only when we reflect on and review our experiences that we have the potential to turn them into insight and hopefully into lasting life change.

Finally, recalibrate. What lessons from this year will you take into next year? What will you do differently next year? What will you stop doing? What will you start doing? What adjustments do you need to make? What is ‘true north’ for you? Success is not always about going faster but rather about making sure we are heading in the right direction with our lives.

I encourage you to set aside some time to do these three vital tasks. You’ll be glad you did.

Here’s to a terrific new year, moving into all the good things God has in store for you!

P.S. To help you in this process, be sure to check out some of my earlier New Year's BLOG posts:


Merry Christmas (2016)

Dog

Merry Christmas!

Last weekend, I participated in my final Christmas Carols production at the church where I have served for over 30 years. It was a fun time together - singing carols, listening to our amazing singers, musicians and creative teams inspire us, watching the bright-eyed children, and sharing about Jesus as THE gift we all need at Christmas. 

I do pray that you have an enjoyable Christmas and holiday season. It's been a joy to share with you via this BLOG through the year and I look forward to what is yet to come as we continue on this journey called life. 

P.S. Over the years,  I've written a variety of posts about Christmas. Here are a few for your enjoyment:


The Finish Line

Finishline

Today was my last official day of work for 2016. I spoke at all 5 of our church's Christmas carols presentations this weekend. It was a lot of fun and it was great to see so many people there, especially so many visitors.

It's now 2 months and 8 days till I finish up in my role as Senior Minister of our church. That's 70 days all up but once you take out holidays and some days off, I only have 31 days of actual work left. That's hard to believe! Especially after being employed for 32 years at the same place. 

Early this morning, I was thinking about and reflecting on the idea of a 'finish line' and wrote this poem. Wherever you are in your race, may you be encouraged today.

Ah, I can actually see it now
The finish line
An end to this race
It's not far away

Hard to explain the feeling
To lay down a burden
To let it all go
To actually be done

Surreal but exhilarating
Grief for sure
But more so relief
A fitting conclusion

It's been a long race
Many twists and turns
Hills and valleys
Seemingly unending stretches

Sunshine and rain
Joy and pain
Good friendships
Yet times of feeling alone

Bursts of great speed
Times of catching my breath
Seasons of clarity
Other times only a mist

At times it felt like forever
A race with no end
Caught in a calling
Be faithful to the end

Drinks break ahead
Refresh and refuel
Celebrate the day
Hear the 'well done'

Then what?
Who knows
Another race?
Time will tell

Enjoy the finish line ...


What Would Jesus Say to Santa Claus?

It's hard to believe we are just 10 sleeps away from Christmas! 

I really enjoy the Christmas season. It's a time to enjoy family and friends, way too much delicious food, some time off and a reminder of God's greatest gift to our world - Jesus Christ. Of course, most followers of Jesus know that Jesus probably wasn't born on 25th December. No shepherd worth their salt would have their sheep out in the fields in the northern hemisphere at that time of year! And we know that Christmas has a lot of trappings that had nothing to do with Jesus' arrival over 2,000 years ago.

In reality, the early Christians borrowed a pagan festival from the Roman Empire and added new meaning to it. I guess in some ways we could say that today the pagans are returning the favour, as much of the Western World seems intent on removing anything 'Christian' from Christmas, with nativity scenes and some Christmas carols being banned. 

 Over the years, I've written many posts about Christmas. One of the most popular was from a message I gave back in 2008 entitled "What would Jesus say to Santa Claus?" I thought I'd re-post it this year for your enjoyment.

Merry Christmas!

Santa

What Would Jesus Say to Santa Claus?

Have you noticed that Santa Claus has gradually been taking centre stage at Christmas of late and that Jesus has been forced to take more of a back seat? Who is this Santa guy and where did he come from?

Christmas is the most widely celebrated holiday in Western world. It was Pope Gregory that established 25th December as the supposed birth of Christ. "Christmas" literally means "mass of Christ". Christians after the time of Constantine converted a number of pagan festivals, adding Christian elements to them. To the December winter solace and various harvest festivities, they added a nativity crib and the singing of Christmas carols. Eventually, the Santa Claus image emerged - with sled, reindeer, and a sack of toys. It was an American invention that first appeared in a 1868 drawing. However, the Father Christmas legend was based somewhat on a fourth century bishop by the name of Saint Nicholas.

So anyway ... what would Jesus say to Santa Claus? Here's what I think he might say ...

1. "Thanks for encouraging the spirit of giving." Yes, I think Jesus would have something positive to say to Santa Claus. We live in a world of increasing selfishness. Christmas is a time when we think more about others, which is a good thing. The world becomes a better place when we adopt more of a giving attitude in life, as well as one of gratitude, affirmation, and encouragement.

2. "True fulfilment is not found in things." Santa’s focus at this time of year is based on a belief that more things will make people happier. But people need more than mere things. Things may be nice but ultimately they never fully satisfy. What we really need is the love, peace, and joy that only God can provide through a relationship with him and with other people. Let's "love people and use things" - not the other way around.

3. "Good works aren't enough." Santa's philosophy in life is one of being rewarded for what you do - for being nice rather than naughty. The truth is that none of us are ever good enough. All our efforts fall short. That's why Jesus came - to live and then to die for our short-comings ... and then to offer us eternal life ... as a free git, not as a reward for our good deeds. Christmas is not about what we have done but about what God has done for us ... in Christ.

4. "You're not the reason for the season." Christmas is about Christ. Jesus came to earth as the Saviour of world. He is the eternal Son of God who arrived on earth 2,000 years ago. Santa Claus is a recent addition, an add on. This celebration isn’t about him. Jesus Christ is the most influential person in history. We mark time by his very arrival. Jesus is the "hinge of history". Let's keep the "Christ" in Christmas. Remember, HE is the real reason for season!

5. [Spoiler ALERT!] "You're not real, but I am." Santa Claus is a figment of people’s imagination, a mythical hero. Sorry kids, but Santa isn’t real (parents, ease it to them slowly!). He's merely a character - like Mickey Mouse or Buzz Light Year. Jesus is real. You can’t see him but he is alive. He is not a myth or a legend or an imaginary person. He is not only real, but he’ll be back. However, his second coming won't be like his first coming. He will come in power and glory and every eye will see him.

Can you see that the Gospel of Jesus is quite different than gospel of Santa Claus? Where is the focus of our faith today? In Santa Claus or Jesus Christ? Jesus is knocking at door of each person's heart. Do we have room for Jesus? I believe that he is the true and living God, the Prince of Peace, the Saviour of the world, offering us forgiveness and real life. Let's turn to him and place our faith in him today. Let's follow him and live for him.

Christians: don't picket Santa Claus! Don't become an old scrooge or a humbug Christian. Just because Santa is an anagram for Satan doesn't mean that he is the devil incarnate! Jesus Christ is the true meaning of Christmas. Let's bring him back to centre stage!

P.S. For background on the concept of "What Would Jesus Say ..." see this previous post.


The Great Unknown

Sometimes in life we experience 'more of the same' as we deal with the familiarity of routine. At other times, there is the adventure of new things and of entering uncharted waters. That's my life right now.

I am in the process of transitioning out of a staff role at CityLife Church where I have served in various roles for almost 32 years, and for 22 years as the Senior Minister. I'll take 6 months off when I finish at the end of February 2017 then see what new opportunities may present themselves. 

I am also living between our new home in the Sunshine Coast and my continuing ministry work in Melbourne. Talk about liminal spaces. It's a bit like walking back and forth through the wardrobe door into Narnia. "Yes, I remember you!" Exciting but scary. 

During times like this, I find my times of prayer, solitude and reflection even more valuable. My journal is my listening book, enabling me to share my heart and see what God might say to me. I also dabble in a little amateur poetry.

Here is something I wrote a few weeks back that will give you a window into my soul right now. Maybe some of you can identity with it, especially if you are in a season of change right now. It's called "The Great Unknown".

Unknown

About to jump ...
Into the great unknown
No guarantees
No promises

A blank page
A new start
Time to reboot
Owner's reset

Start again
Completely new
Identity search
Who am I?

Lay it all down ...
Achievements and trophies
Titles and positions
Applause and fame

Into the unknown
Stripped bare
Naked yet free
Having nothing yet everything I need

Into the cocoon
Dark and cold
Unsure and unclear
Ready to die

Yet there will be a light
At the crack of dawn
Resurrection
New life

Caterpillar to butterfly
Metamorphosis
Deep change
Transformation

Time to really live
Spirit breath
Life source
Soul force

Across the threshold
What will I see?
Leave the past behind
Time to be me

Discover, discern
Destiny, design
Holy whispers
Divine fingerprints

Into the great unknown ...

[Photo by Thomas Frost Jensen taken in Trolltunga, Norway]

[Read more of Mark's poetry]

 

Is it time to SLOW DOWN a little?

Slow

Many years ago, not long after moving to Chicago into a new fairly high pressured ministry position, John Ortberg asked his mentor, Dallas Willard, “What do I need to do to stay healthy and alive spiritually?” Long pause. “You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life”, he said at last. Another long pause. “Okay, I’ve written that down”, John told him, a little impatiently. “That’s a good one. Now what else is there?” John had many things to do and this was a long distance conversation, so he was anxious to cram as many units of spiritual wisdom into the least time possible. Another long pause. “There is nothing else”, Dallas said.

Hurry is the great enemy of spiritual life. Hurry can destroy our souls and can keep us from living well. As we pursue spiritual life, we must do battle with hurry. For many of us the great danger is not that we will renounce our faith. It is that we will become so distracted and rushed and preoccupied that we will settle for a mediocre version of it – preventing us from a depth of spirituality. We will just skim our lives instead of actually living them.

Today, many of us suffer from what has come to be known as ‘hurry sickness’. We are a generation that is not into ‘good food’ or ‘cheap food’ but ‘fast food’! Even after fast food was introduced, people still had to park their cars, go inside, order, and take their food to a table, all of which took time. So we invented the Drive-Through Lane to enable families to eat in their cars, as nature intended.

Meyer Friedman defines ‘hurry sickness’ as “above all, a continuous struggle and unremitting attempt to accomplish or achieve more and more or participate in more and more vents in less and less time, frequently in the face of opposition, real or imagined, from other persons.”

Ruthlessly eliminating hurry from our lives does not mean we will never be busy. Jesus often had much to do, but he never did it in a way that severed the life-giving connection between him and his Father. Jesus was often busy, but never hurried.

John Wesley, at the age of 70, said, “Though I am always in haste, I am never in a hurry because I never undertake any more work than I can go through with perfect calmness of spirit.”

Hurry is not a disordered schedule. Hurry is a disordered heart. “Busy” is an outward state (many things to do). “Hurry” is an inward state – inaccessible to God, preoccupied, caught up with my own concerns, not fully present. It is an inward state of being ‘hassled or frantic’.

What are the symptoms of ‘hurry sickness’. John Ortberg, in his excellent book The Life You've Always Wanted, lists these for starters:

1. Constantly speeding up daily activities. We read faster, talk faster and even when listening, nod faster to encourage the talker to accelerate. At the stoplight, if there are two lanes and each contains one car, we find ourselves guessing – based on the year, model and driver of each car – which one will pull away the fastest. At the grocery store, we try to discern the quickest line. Then we keep track to see where we would have been.

2. Multi-tasking. We try to do as many things at one time as possible.

3. Clutter – lots of stuff and gadgets.

4. Superficiality – lack of depth.

5. An inability to love. Love and hurry are fundamentally incompatible. Love always takes time and time is one thing hurried people don’t have.

6. Sunset fatigue – we come home too tired, too drained and too preoccupied to love the people who are most important to us. We rush constantly and we live with an underlying tension.

Jesus never hurried. If we are to follow Jesus, we must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from our lives – because, we can’t move faster than the one we are following.

We can become unhurried people. Practice ‘slowing’ – drive in the slow lane, put your horn under a vow of silence, eat your food slowly, take the long check out line or don’t wear a watch for a day. Often hurried people are actually less productive.

The theology behind all of this is that God never requires more of us than we can do.

F.W. Boorham, an Australian writer, once said, “One of the supreme aims of a man’s life is to secure a margin. A good life, like a good book, should have a good margin. The most winsome people in the world are people who make you feel that they are never in a hurry.”

When people are with you do they feel like the most important person in the world?

The kingdom of God is not a hurried kingdom. We cannot do anything of quality when we are in a hurried inner state. Also, when we are tired or exhausted we don’t connect well with God or people.

One of the keys to developing a depth of spirituality is eliminating hurry from your life.

After all, God will not compete for your attention.


Spiritual Disciplines - Growing Spiritually (Part 8)

SG

A Few Important Qualifications

Here are a few important truths about ‘spiritual disciplines’ (from John Ortberg):

  • “Spiritual disciplines are not the barometer of spirituality”. The true indicator of spiritual well-being is growth in the ability to love God and people (see 2 Thess.1:3). The real issue is what kind of people were becoming NOT the exercises of spiritual disciplines we may be engaging in. We engage in spiritual disciplines not because they prove how spiritual we are but because they can lead us into God’s life.
  • “Spiritual disciplines are not necessarily unpleasant.” Sometimes, we wrongly think that for an activity to count as a spiritual discipline it must be something we would rather not do. However, if we are training for a life characterised by love, peace and joy then we should assume that some of the practices are going to be enjoyable, especially when we understand their purpose and benefit to our lives. Also, all the disciplines are ‘self-validating’, in that we should see the fruit of their exercise in our lives.
  • “Spiritual disciplines are not a way to earn favour with God.” Salvation is not something we have to work for. It is a free gift of God’s grace. Paul says, “Work out your salvation” not work for”. Spiritual disciplines are not about trying to be good enough to earn God’s favour. They have value only as they help us to change and grow. They are a “means of grace”. They are activities that we engage in to open ourselves up to God’s transforming power. Always, the purpose is freedom and life. This is not a competition with others. Disciplines are not ‘righteousness’; they are ‘wisdom’.

Creating a Spiritual Growth Plan

Life should be viewed as a circle with God at the centre and everything else finding its meaning and perspective from that ‘centre’. God wants to be involved in every area of your life – not just your spiritual life. All of life is to be done with God. He is interested in every aspect of our lives (Col.3:17). Paul is saying that our entire lives – from the moment we wake up until the time we lay down to sleep – be lived out ‘in the name of Jesus’. That is what discipleship is all about. How is this going to happen? Well, one thing we know for sure - we are unlikely to do this if we adopt a casual or haphazard approach to our lives. We need vision, intention and means. ‘Means’ include not only a variety of ‘spiritual disciplines’ but also a ‘plan of action’ for their implementation in our life. Certain things are ‘basic’ and should be done by every Christian. Other exercises can be added in with a specific focus and possible for a specific season of time. Use creativity and be willing to experiment. What disciplines you decide to practise regularly will depend on your own sin tendencies that you are seeking to resist as well as the opportunities for loving service to God and others. Create a plan to strengthen and overcome your weaknesses. Some spiritual disciplines can be done simultaneously. Some of these can be done with other Christians, which makes their practice more enjoyable.

The first five disciplines we covered could be referred to as 'disciplines of engagement' as they refer to things we do in an active manner. They are helpful for dealing with sins of omission. The last five disciplines can be referred to as 'disciplines of disengagement' as they involve not doing something. They can be helpful in overcoming sins of commission. We need both types of discipline, kind of like breathing in and breathing out. A good balance is essential.

‘Hurry’ is a great enemy of our spiritual life. For many of us the great danger is not that we will renounce our faith. It is that we will become so distracted and rushed and preoccupied that we will settle for a mediocre version of it. We will just skim our lives instead of actually living them. Ruthlessly eliminating hurry from our lives does not mean we will never be busy. Jesus often had much to do, but he never did it in a way that severed the life-giving connection between him and his Father. Jesus was often busy, but never hurried. “Busy” is an outward state (many things to do). “Hurry” is an inward state (inaccessible to God, preoccupied, caught up with my own concerns, not fully present). God will not compete for our attention.

Reflection Questions

  1. Reflect on your experience, if any, with each of the spiritual disciplines. Which ones have been most helpful in your own spiritual growth?
  2. What are the dangers of making the practice of spiritual disciplines THE mark of spirituality?
  3. Think about the difference between being ‘busy’ and being in a ‘hurry’. What things can we do to ‘slow’ down our lives so we can experience a greater quality of life?

Spiritual Disciplines - Growing Spiritually (Part 7)

SG

Today we will look at three final spiritual disciplines or exercises:

8. Fasting. In fasting we choose to intentionally go without something for a period of time (usually something pleasurable but not necessarily sinful). It could be food (in a variety of forms) or some other activity (TV, music, etc). Jesus assumed that his disciples would fast (Mt.6:16-18) as he himself did (Mt.4). Fasting teaches us a lot about ourselves. It quickly reveals how much we are dependent on the pleasure of eating. It also demonstrates how powerful our body is and especially our appetite! Fasting seeks to confirm our dependence on God by finding strength from him alone. After all, it is not food that gives us true life; it is God’s word to us (Mt.4:4). Life is much more than food (Lk.12:33) and our belly is not our god as it is for others (Phil.3:19. Rom.16:18). Fasting is one of the more important ways of practising the self-denial required of everyone who would follow Christ. Fasting teaches self-control and therefore trains us in restraint with regard to all our fundamental drives. We learn the value of ‘contentment’ (1 Tim.6:6). Fasting is not an easy discipline but its practice yields great benefits in our lives, especially when accompanied by time in prayer and other disciplines.

9. Sacrifice. Sacrifice is giving away something we really value (time or resources) or giving until it costs us quite a bit. It helps to remind us that in God we have all we need and to remember to hold on to things lightly so that they don’t have too strong a hold on us. Jesus calls us to invest our time, talents and finances into the expansion of his kingdom on earth (Lk.18:18-23). We live in a culture that is obsessed with ‘greedy getting’ God calls us into a kingdom where his values are ‘generous giving’. God calls us to a life of ‘giving and receiving’ not one of ‘getting and keeping’. Will we pass this resource test? Again, the amount is not as important as the heart attitude and the motivation (Lk.21:2-4). As a response to his sacrificial love (Jn.3:16), God calls us to a life of sacrifice (Rom.12:1-2). Sacrifice moves the heart of God like nothing else! When we sacrifice we move into a different dimension of faith and often we’re surprised at the results.

10. Secrecy. In secrecy we abstain from causing our good deeds and qualities to be known. It involves doing a good deed while intentionally remaining anonymous. This is an important spiritual discipline recommended by Jesus himself (Mt.6:1-6). Jesus’ point is that our very nature is to try to impress others. He is teaching us that true spiritual maturity means that we don’t feel the need to congratulate ourselves because we’ve gotten something right. The discipline of secrecy exists to liberate those who are trapped by the desire to ‘be seen’ or to impress others. Many people live in what we could call ‘approval addiction’ – bondage to what others think about them. Their sense of identity, esteem and value is wrapped up in other people’s appraisal of our worth. Some practical ideas: immerse a person in prayer and don’t tell anyone, make a generous donation to a ministry or send a sacrificial gift to someone in need – and keep it anonymous, commit a random act of kindness or intentionally down-play any position, expertise, accomplishments or knowledge you may have.

Part 8.


OMEGA: How Will It All End?

Endtms

'End Times' Fever

One of the last questions Jesus’ disciples asked him was about the end of the world (see Matthew 24:1-3). After the resurrection and at the end of Jesus’ ministry on earth, he ascended up to heaven. As he did, two angels appeared and boldly proclaimed, “Why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven (Acts 1:10-11).” The last recorded words of the ascended Jesus are in the book of Revelation. They were to the church and he said, “Yes, I am coming soon (Rev.22:7, 12, 20)!” Ever since that time people have looked for and anticipated the second coming of Jesus and the end of the world. This began with the New Testament believers and has continued right through history but has intensified in recent years. End times fever is alive and well! That’s why it’s important for us to have a clear understanding of the end times so that we are not swayed by various trends or world events.

Observations about the Second Coming of Jesus

1. Jesus will come again. The early church held strongly to the belief that Jesus would come again as he said he would. A common phrase among them was “Maranatha”, which means, “Come, O Lord! (1 Cor.16:22)” The second coming of Jesus Christ is mentioned 318 times in the 216 chapters of the NT. That’s 1 in every 25 verses. Some entire chapters are given to this subject (Mt.24. Mk.13. Lk.21. 1 Cor.15) and three New Testament writers wrote entire books about it (1 and 2 Thessalonians. Jude. Revelation). Jesus said he would come again. Peter, Paul, John, James and Jude all speak of his coming. Not one New Testament writer fails to mention it. There are more references to this subject that any other New Testament teaching. Every time we take communion or the “Lord’s supper” we proclaim the Lord’s death “until he comes” (1 Cor.11:26). Jesus will return to the earth literally, visibly (“every eye will see him”), physically and personally just like he came. It will be the “same Jesus”, not another. He will come personally to receive us to himself (Jn.14:3). Unlike his first coming, which was in great humility and lowliness, his second coming will be in great glory with his angelic hosts accompanying him (Mt.16:27; 19:28; 25:31).

2. No one knows exactly when. Jesus will return in the Father’s appointed time. No one knows the exact day or hour (Mt.24:36. Mk.13:32. Acts 1:7. 1 Thess.5:2. 2 Pet.3:10. Acts 3:19-21). People who try to set dates or times bring discredit to the Christian faith and cause people to mock (2 Pet.3:4). We can, however, know the “times and seasons”. If we study God’s Word and listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit, we can be aware and ready for his coming. We don’t have to be caught “off guard” like the religious leaders were at Christ’s first coming. Dogmatism and intolerance on exact details is not wise. The Scribes and Pharisees missed the first coming of Christ because it did not happen just the way they thought it would. For those who are unprepared, his coming will be like a “thief in the night” – suddenly (Mk.13:36) and unexpectedly (Mt.24:36-51; 25:1-3. Mk.13:32-37. Rev.3:3; 16:15. 2 Pet.3:10. 1 Thess.5:1-11). Therefore, we need to be spiritual awake, watching and ready.

3. The second coming completes what Jesus began at his first coming. At the cross Jesus conquered Satan, sin, sickness and death. He said, “It is finished”! However, we live in the time of the end, which involves a tension between the “now and the not yet”.

  • “Already” Satan is conquered (a defeated foe), but “not yet” has his final judgement taken place. In between, he continues to try to deceive the nations and must be resisted.
  • “Already” sin has been atoned for and forgiveness is freely available, but “not yet” do we see sin totally eradicated.
  • “Already” sickness has been defeated but “not yet” do we see sickness and disease totally removed from the earth.
  • “Already” death is defeated but “not yet” do we see death destroyed. Our bodies are all ageing and unless Jesus returns beforehand, we will all die.

The contract has been signed and paid in full but we are living in this “in between time” before what has been legally accomplished becomes a complete reality.

  • There is coming a day when Satan and his demonic forces will be judged and cast into a lake of fire for eternity.
  • There is coming a day when sin will be cleansed from the earth and from our lives.
  • There is coming a day where sickness and pain will be no more, where suffering ceases.
  • There is coming a day when death, our last enemy, will finally be destroyed.

That “day” is the second coming of Jesus Christ. So the kingdom is both present (“already”) and future (“not yet”). Until then, we stand firm and continue to pray, “Your kingdom come. Your will be done.” This prayer is a request for God to reign and to manifest his love, justice and mercy in the earth. Our hope is rooted in Christ’s work of redemption that began on the cross and will be completed at his second coming.

The Bible and the End Times

There are a number of books and passages in the Bible that deal specifically with the ‘time of the end’ and the second coming of Jesus. Obviously, the book of Revelation would be the primary source of information concerning the end times. It is a fascinating apocalyptic book with much prophetic symbolism in it that makes it somewhat difficult to interpret. Over the years there have been a variety of approaches to interpreting the book of Revelation (as well as the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 24). There are three broad categories of how people have interpreted this book through the centuries:

1. The Preterist (‘past’) View – this view understands the events of Revelation as having been fulfilled in large parts in the first centuries of the Christian era. In effect the book was written to comfort Christians, who suffered persecution from Rome and also from Judaism. Revelation’s fulfilment is all in the past. We don’t need to be looking for anything happening today that corresponds to its prophecies.

This view has a lot of merit. The book of Revelation was written to real people and real churches in the first century and it had specific relevance to what they were going through. It meant something to them and they would have been able to gain understanding about the times they were living in and to draw comfort and hope from it. In fact, the arguments for a direct correlation between some of the prophetic pictures in revelation and to events in the first century are quite convincing. However, in addition to this, like all biblical books, I believe that Revelation also speaks to believers in all generations and times of history. We must not limit its meaning and application to the first century. In fact, like all prophecy, there are often layers of application to people in different times and circumstances without taking away the direct significance to the first hearers. 

2. The Historicist View (‘literal’) – this view sees the events of Revelation as unfolding throughout the course of history. Another variation of this view it what is referred to as a ‘Futurist View’, which argues that the events spoken about in Revelation (particularly chapters 4-22) await the end times for their historical fulfilment.

This view has some good things going for it. The first coming of Jesus historically fulfilled a whole variety of prophecies from generations earlier, and with amazing accuracy. It seems sensible to acknowledge that the same thing will happen with his second coming too. Unfortunately, the task of trying to identify contemporary events with prophecies from Revelation is fraught with danger and must be done very carefully. Otherwise, believers can be caught up in a ‘conspiracy theory’ obsession that only leads to fear and speculation and doesn’t really help anyone.

3. The Idealist View (‘figurative’ or ‘spiritual’) – this view is reluctant to pinpoint the symbolism of revelation historically with any specific social or political events. Rather it sees Revelation as setting forth timeless truths concerning the battle between good and evil that continues throughout the church age. The challenge is to be faithful to Christ and expectant of a victorious future not to seek any literal or chronological interpretation.

This view also has some real merit. There is a lot of prophetic symbolism in Revelation that paints pictures of spiritual activity in the heavens that can’t be fully understand in human or historical terms. However, to limit the entire book to only spiritual matters without any direct correspondence to events on earth would seem an inadequate approach.

As you can see, each one of these views has strengths and weaknesses. I believe that proper interpretation includes the best aspects of all three views.

An Order of End Time Events

We will now look at a possible order of end time events. It is important to mention that dogmatism and intolerance on exact ‘end time’ details are not wise. The Scribes and Pharisees missed the first coming of Christ because it did not happen just the way they thought it would. Every one of us is in danger of doing the same with the second coming. Here at CityLife, we have no official ‘party line’ when it comes to end time teaching. We allow for diversity on the details of these types of matters After all, we’ll probably all be a little right and a little wrong about how it’s all going to happen. I’m sure there will be a few surprises for everyone!

Let’s look at what will likely happen before, at and after the second coming of Jesus. Of course, I encourage you can do your own reading, study and research on this important topic.

Things to occur before the second coming of Jesus Christ 

Negative things to occur:

1. Increasing spiritual darkness (Is.60:1-3). Jesus told us that the last days just prior to his coming will be similar to the days of Noah and the days of Lot (Lk.17:20-37). He said that there would be great deception (Mt.24. 1 Tim.4:1) with many false prophets and false “Christ’s” appearing (Mt.24:5, 11, 23-26. 2 Thess.2:1-12. Rev.13). We are told of a great “apostasy” or “falling away” of many who are struggling to hold on to their faith in Jesus Christ (2 Thess.2:1-3. Mt.24:12. Heb.6:3-8).

2. Great Tribulation (times of ‘pressure’). There will be a time of great tribulation (Mt.24) and “terrible times” (2 Tim.3:1-7). Wars, diseases and earthquakes will increase (Mt.24:6-7. Rev.6:1-17). There will be times of intense persecution of believers for their faith (Mt.24:9-10, 21).

3. The revelation of the Antichrist. The title ‘antichrist’ refers to someone who is ‘against Christ’ or who sets themselves up ‘instead of’ or in competition with Christ. Jesus himself predicted the appearance of “false Christ’s” (Mt.24:5). There is a ‘spirit of antichrist’ at work in the world (1 Jn.4:3). The apostle John tells that there will be ‘many antichrists’ in the last day (1 Jn.2:18). There also seems to be an indication that there will be one very strong individual Antichrist (‘the’ Antichrist) who will be revealed in the last days before Jesus returns (see 2 Thess.2:1-12). The Antichrist will be revealed and will set up his kingdom for a time (Dan.2, 7, 11. Rev.13; 19:11-21). Satan knows that his time is short and in the last days he will throw everything he can against God and his work on earth.

4. God’s judgements will be revealed (Rev.14:7; 16:7). These judgements are outlined under the seven seals, seven trumpets and seven bowls of anger to be poured out on the earth (Rev.6-16), as people reap the consequences of their decisions and actions.

Positive things to occur:

1. A worldwide outpouring of the Holy Spirit on all people (Joel 2:28-32. Acts 2:17-21. James 5:7-8). This began on the day of Pentecost and will be completed in the “last days”.

2. A great spiritual harvest. Many people will become followers of Jesus and there will be a great harvest of people brought into the kingdom of God. The gospel will be preached to every nation and people saved out of every nation or “people group”, before the end comes (Mt.24:14). Revelation tells us about a multitude of people worship around the throne from ‘every tribe, language, people and nation’ (Rev.5:9). We still have more work to do here.

3. A glorious church. The church of Jesus Christ will be united (Jn.17), glorious (Eph.5:25-27) and victorious (Mt.16). The “last day” church will be greater than the first church (Acts 3:19-21). We are not there yet.

4. The fulfilment of all true prophetic words. All words spoken by the prophets will be fulfilled (Acts 3:19-21). Not one word spoken by God through his prophets will be left undone. Everything will come to pass. In fact, one reason I don’t believe Jesus will come back tonight, is because there are a number of things yet to be accomplished before he returns.

Darkness and light (Prov.4:18-19. Is.60:1-3), the mystery of lawlessness and the mystery of godliness, the weeds (tares) and the wheat are growing together as the coming of Christ draws near. The evidence of many of these “signs” is all around us today and they will increase in intensity as the return of the Lord comes closer. We live in exciting yet challenging times.

Things to occur at the second coming

1. The appearance of Jesus in glory. Jesus’ return will be with “a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God” (1 Thess.4:13-18). He will return in great glory, the glory of his Father (Mt.16:27; 19:28; 25:31). The angelic hosts will accompany him. Every eye will see him (Rev.1:7). John gives us a vivid picture of Jesus riding on a white horse – eyes blazing with fire, a two-edged sword coming out of his mouth, his robe dipped in blood and the armies of heaven riding with him (Rev.19:11-16).

2. The resurrection of the righteous. All believers who have died “in faith” will have their bodies resurrected and will live forever with a glorified body (1 Thess.4:13-18. 1 Cor.15:51-57. Heb.9:28. Phil.3:20-21). In that sense Jesus is coming ‘with’ his saints. This refers to all of the righteous believers who have died in faith since time began – their spirits are in heaven right now but they are waiting in expectation for the resurrection and glorification of their bodies.

3. The ‘rapture’ of remaining believers. Although the word ‘rapture’ in not mentioned in the Bible, the concept is. Jesus will return for (those who are “alive and remain” and escape death) and with his saints (those who “died in faith”). In this sense, Jesus is coming ‘for’ his saints – those who are alive and remain on the earth when he returns (1 Thess.4:16-17). There is a generation that will never die. Jesus will come in their generation while they are still alive and they will be "caught up" to meet him int he air. Many have hoped to be a part of that company and we do too.

What a day that will be! It will be more dramatic, more explosive and more exciting than any movie you have ever seen. The second coming is a great source of comfort and of hope for us as believers. There is coming a time when pain, crying and suffering will be gone. We will be reunited with our loved ones who have died and gone to heaven.

Things to Occur After the Second Coming

1. Judgement and reward for believers. Believers will appear before the judgement seat of Christ, which is not about salvation but about reward for the good works we have done (2 Cor.5:10).

2. Judgement of the devil. The devil will be judged and cast into a lake of fire for eternity (Rev.20:10). This judgment has been a long time coming being prophesied about in Genesis 3:15 and initially enacted by the work of Jesus on the cross and his subsequent resurrection.

3. Eternity in either heaven or hell (based on our choices in life). There will be a judgment for unbelievers, the great white throne judgement where the book of life will be opened. Those who names are not in the book of life will be cast into a lake of fire (Rev.20:11-15) where the devil and his angels are.

The godly, those who have accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour, will live forever in heaven with the Lord (Rev.21:27). Heaven will be a place like nothing we have ever experienced – more wonderful than we could ever think or imagine. God’s heart is that no one perish but that all have an opportunity to receive forgiveness and eternal life (2 Pet.3:9). Hell was made for the devil not for people. God does not wish anyone to end up in hell, that’s why he sent his Son.

Another area of debate amongst end time theologians is when the ‘millennium’ spoken about in Rev.20:1-6 will be. The ‘millennium’ is a 1000-year period where believers will rule and reign with Christ on the earth as a reward for their faithfulness. Some people believe we are in the millennium now and therefore that the second coming occurs after it (post-millennialists). Some people believe that it does not refer to a literal period of time but rather is symbolic of the entire period between the first and second comings of Christ (a-millennialists). Still others believe the second coming will occur before it (pre-millennialists). The challenge for all interpreters is that Revelation 20 is the only explicit reference of the millennium in the Bible and there is no mention of the relation of the second coming to the millennium in the actual text (whether it is before or after). Personally, I don’t think we’re in it now (you call this rest?). I tend to think it will be after the second coming but even that view has some challenges. We should not be dogmatic because there are too many unknowns.

4. The creation of a new heavens and a new earth (see 2 Peter 3:1-13. Rev.21). The end of the biblical story (Revelation 21-22) return us to a new world without sin, suffering or death, just like God originally intended (Genesis 1-2).

How should we then live?

We should live ready for Christ to come at any moment (Lk.21:34-36) but working diligently as if he may not come back in our lifetime. We should avoid extremes (over-preoccupation with a sneaky rapture vs. trying to create heaven here on earth). As Tony Campolo once said, “Any theology that does not live with a sense of the immediate return of Christ is a theology that takes the edge off the urgency of faith. But any theology that does not cause us to live as though the world will be here for thousands of years is a theology that leads us into social irresponsibility.”

1. Live with full devotion to the Lord. Be prayerful and watchful. Love him with all your heart and develop a close relationship with him. Many nominal believers will be shocked on that day (Mt.7:21-23). Don’t be caught without “oil” (Mt.25:1-13). Be spiritually awake, refusing to allow lethargy or apathy into your heart (Mk.13:32-37. Rom.13:11-12. 1 Thess.5:1-10).

2. Live your life in light of eternity. What we do in time echoes through eternity. We have only one life to life. This is not a dress rehearsal or a practice run. This is the real thing so give it all you’ve got. Use your gifts, talents and abilities for the benefit of others (Mt.25:14-30. 2 Cor.5:10-11. 1 Cor.3:1-15). We will be rewarded for faithfulness with what we have been given, not because of the gifts we received or the positions we held.

3. Live with an evangelistic edge. Make heaven’s priority yours. Be stirred to a spirit of evangelism. Build relationships, take risks, look for opportunities, share your faith and invite people to church and to Christ. Join God in his mission in the world.

Life is short, live wisely! Know God’s will, seize every opportunity and invest your time in things that count for eternity (Eph.5:15-17).

Extra Reading

There are a variety of views within the Christian church about all of these ‘end times’ matters. With so many unknowns, it is wise to hold our own views about the future cautiously and with an open mind. Here is some recommended reading for those who’d like to dig a little deeper.

  • Four Views on the Book of Revelation, edited by C. Marvin Pate (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1998).
  • Three Views on the Rapture: Pre-Tribulation, Pre-Wrath, or Post-Tribulation, edited by Craig A. Blaising (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 2010).
  • Three Views on the Millennium and Beyond, edited by Darrell L. Bock (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1999).
  • Four Views on Hell (Second Edition), edited by Preston Sprinkle (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 2016).
  • Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World, edited by Clark H. Pinnock (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1996).
  • Four Views on Eternal Security, edited by J. Matthew Pinson (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 2002).
  • Four Views on the Role of Works at the Final Judgment, edited by Robert N. Wilkin (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 2013).

Sample Reflection Questions

  1. What evidences do you see of ‘end times fever’ today?
  2. Have your ever read the book of Revelation? How did you find it? Did you understand it? Discuss the various ways people interpret this book. What do you think about them?
  3. When do you think that Jesus will return? Soon? In our life time? In another generation?
  4. What are some things happening today that may indicate that Jesus is coming soon?
  5. Do you ever think about the second coming of Jesus? What do you think that day will be like?
  6. Do you think the church, in general, focuses too much on ‘end times’ or not enough?
  7. Consider the things to occur before the second coming. Do you believe Jesus may come back tonight? If so, why? If not, why?
  8. Reflect on eternity – heaven and hell. What do you think they will be like?
  9. How does your belief in the second coming affect your daily life?

End Times Fever

End

The topic of the ‘end of the world’ has been one of interest to humans since time began but it has intensified in recent years.

Church History

Here is a quick overview of what has taken place from the end of New Testament times up until today:

1. Many people have speculated about the time of the second coming and the end of the world as we know it.

  • Even in 100 AD there were believers who thought it was immanent.
  • In the early 200s, Hippolytus of Rome predicted that Christ would come in 496 AD, working out this date from studying the book of Daniel.
  • Another Syrian church leader led his people out into the desert to await the second coming – only to be disappointed when it didn’t happen.
  • Another leader from northern Asian Minor predicted that Christ would come in a year’s time. His people trusted him and when the year went by they were devastated.

2. Many people speculated about the great tribulation.

  • In 303 AD great persecution broke out against the church and there was speculation that the dreaded tribulation may have arrived, with the Roman Emperor Diocletian as the first beast in Revelation 13 and his Caesar Galerius as the second beast.
  • When persecution ceased under Emperor Constantine in 312 AD and the church entered into a period of favourable treatment, many thought that the Millennium (1,000 years reign with Christ spoken about in Revelation 20:1-6) had arrived and that Christ’s coming was near.

3. Then just before the year 1000 AD there is evidence of more millennium and end of the world fever.

4. When the bubonic plague swept across Europe in the 1300s killing 40% of the population many people thought the end of the world was near.

5. There were many radically apocalyptic movements in the Middle Ages.

6. Many people have speculated about the Antichrist.

  • Frederick the Roman Emperor who died in 1250 AD.
  • Luther believed that the Catholic Pope at that time was the Antichrist. Of course the Pope at that time, Hadrian VI, thought that Luther was the Antichrist because of his attacks on the Catholic Church at that time.
  • Many other individuals in history have been given this label too – from Nero to Napoleon to Hitler, from Ronald Wilson Reagan to Henry Kissinger.

7. In the 1800s …

  • Many American Protestants believed that they were living in special times and that current events were hastening the coming of God’s kingdom to earth. Through people such as Jonathan Edwards and a number of great religious awakenings there was a belief that the church would rule supreme throughout the world and all evil would be suppressed ... then Jesus would come.
  • Great evangelistic preacher Charles Finney said that “if the church will do her duty, the Millennium may come in this country in three years.”
  • The American Civil War was the first event to burst this balloon of optimism. Factors such as immigration, urbanisation and industrialisation created numerous problems for the nation and people began to realise that the world was simply not getting better.
  • A church going farmer named William Miller was convinced upon studying the Scriptures (particularly the prophecies of Daniel) that that the world would end in 1844 (25 years from when he made this prediction). Optimism filled the air as did millennial dreams. Miller and his associates began travelling everywhere preaching at camp meetings and distributing all kinds of literature. Crowds of people gather in city after city to hear sermons such as, “Are you ready to meet the Saviour?” It is estimated that more than 50,000 people believed Miller with as many as a million others who were curious and expectant. When March 21, 1994 passed and nothing happened, Miller had to confess his error and acknowledge his disappointment. But one of his followers found a verse in the OT about a tarrying time of 7 months and 10 days (Hab.2:3. Lev.25:9) so a new date was set – Oct.22, 1844. When the second date came and went, just as the first one, most of Miller’s followers were completely disillusioned, Many became bitter and Miller died in 1849 a discredited and forgotten man.
  • By the end of the 1800s, events such as political corruption, international conflicts such as World War I, earthquakes, changing weather patterns, polio and flu epidemics, the rise of cults, and the sinking of the Titanic signalled worse times – not better. These events seemed to be proof to many that the end of the age was rapidly approaching.

8. After World War II (the 1900s), there was further eschatological frenzy. The world definitely wasn’t becoming a better place – two world wars, a depression, Hitler, Mussolini, holocausts and environmental crises proved that. Atomic weapons with incredible destructive power now left no safe place on earth. The USA and the Soviet Union entered the Cold War. A host of prophetic and apocalyptic literature rolled off the evangelical presses in the 1960s through to the 1980s.

  • One example is Hal Lindsay whose book, The Late Great Planet Earth, became one of the best selling non-fiction books of the 1970s, selling more than 35 million copies and was translated into 50 languages. The book focused on outlining all of the signs of the times – everything from the Antichrist to the battle of Armageddon. He predicted the return of Christ in 1988 and the rapture of the church 7 years earlier. Obviously, as that date came and went, Lindsay made some changes to his predictions.
  • Christian rock singer, Larry Norman, wrote a song entitled, “I Wish We’d All Been Ready”. This song is played several times in the movie The Thief in the Night (1972), the first in a four-part film series. It focused on all the sings of the end – a one world government, a bar code ‘mark of the beast’ and an appeal to become a Christian now.
  • In America, one minister released a book in the early 1980s entitled, “88 reasons why Jesus will come back in 1988”, selling many 1000s of copies to gullible Christians. Interestingly enough, he issued a sequel the following year, “89 reasons why Jesus will come back in 1989.” I assume the extra reason was because he didn’t come back in 1988! Anyway, we haven’t heard much from him since.
  • Other people have predicted dates such as 1994 and 2000 as the end of the world. Anyone remember Y2K? Well, as you can see, we’re still here!

Contemporary Culture …

Many movies made in the last few decades today make us aware of an end times –movies such as Mad Max, The Terminator, Armageddon, Deep Impact, The Matrix and The Day After Tomorrow all have some sort of apocalyptic or ‘end of the world’ theme.

One of most popular set of Christian novels is the Left Behind series created by Tim LaHaye. TIME magazine named this as one of the best selling fiction books of our times (over 65 million copies have been sold) and acknowledged its contribution to the frequent conversations emerging about the end of the world. The twelfth book in the series, The Glorious Appearing, focuses on what happens with those who are left behind after the Rapture. Tim LaHaye passed away in July of the year and the area of 90 ... leaving us all behind.

Just this week, there was an news article saying that Nostradamus (the French seer from the 1500s who wrote down many prophetic sayings) predicted that Donald Trump would win the American Presidency and the end would come soon after. Others are saying that the occurrence of three super moons this year is a sign of the end. 

Yes, end time fever is alive and well!

Well, how will it all end?

See my next BLOG post "Omega: How Will It All End?"

[Much of this information has been gleaned from the Christian History magazine (Issue 61), The End – A History of the Second Coming]


Spiritual Disciplines - Growing Spiritually (Part 6)

SG

Here are some more spiritual disciplines ...

6. Solitude. Solitude is intentionally spending time alone with God away from people and from busyness or distractions. We choose to be alone. It is one of the most important and fundamental of the spiritual disciplines, especially if we are to do some of the other disciplines well. Jesus spent a lot of time in solitude throughout his life (Mt.4:1-2; 14:23. Lk.4:42; 5:15-16; 6:12). Jesus taught his followers to do the same (Mk.6:30-32). Take some regular time for solitude, preferably each day. Begin the day with some time alone with God. Take breaks during the day and end the day reviewing the day with God. It is also good to have occasional extended periods of solitude (half a day, a day or a few days throughout the year). Solitude is about withdrawing from conversation, from the presence of others, from noise and from the constant barrage of stimulation (phones, TV, friends, music, books, newspapers, etc). If we never pull aside into solitude we can tend to hide beneath the busyness of our life and never really find ourselves or God. As a result, our spiritual growth and development can be stunted. In contrast, when we choose to make time to be alone, solitude provides an environment for us to find ourselves and to find God in the deep places of our heart. We also gain clarity and perspective on our lives, our ability to plan is enhanced. Much growth and change can emerge from these times.

7. Silence. In silence, we close off ourselves from ‘sounds’, whether those sounds be noise, music or words. Silence can be frightening because it strips us as nothing else does, throwing us upon the stark realities of our life. It leaves us with just ourselves … and God (Is.30:15. Ecc.3:7. Ex.14:14. Ps.4:4; 37:7; 46:10. Hab.2:20). Silence creates a break from the world that is bombarding us. Silence positions us to listen to God. There is also the silence of ‘not speaking’. Talking often gets us into trouble. In the practice of silence we learn the value of words. James says, “Be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry (Jas.1:19).” Practice in ‘not speaking’ can help us gain better control of our tongues so that they don’t go off ‘automatically’ as much. It helps to create a ‘gap’ where we have more time to consider more fully what we’re about to say and the impact of those words (see Mk.14:61). It also allows us to stop managing the world and especially our appearance in the world. We stop trying to impress people with what we know and what we can say. Become conscious of conveying grace from your speaking. This comes from an inward quietness where you take time to receive from God things that will benefit those who are listening to you (Eph.4:29).

Part 7.


Update on Mark and Nicole Conner

Change
 
At a Special General Meeting on 6th October, the CityLife members confirmed by an overwhelming majority the unanimous nomination by the Board of Elders of Andrew Hill as the next Senior Minister of CityLife Church (read my initial announcement about leadership transition back in February 2016, in case you missed that).
 
I congratulate Andrew on this appointment and look forward to working with him over the next few months to ensure a smooth transition for him and the church. Good days are ahead. 

February 2017 will be a big month for our church as we celebrate our 50th anniversary (11-12th Feb), have my farewell (18-19th Feb), and have Andrew's official induction as the new Senior Minister (25-26th Feb).

What's next for me? Once I finish in my current role at the end of February 2017, I will take 6 months off then most likely move into a montage of contributions, including some more writing, mentoring/coaching of leaders, and speaking/travel. Of course, Nicole and I are open to anything God may bring our way in terms of a new assignment. We have decided to relocate to the Sunshine Coast, Queensland as our base for this next season of life and ministry.

Thanks so much for your prayers and support during this significant period of change for us and CityLife Church.
 

Spiritual Disciplines - Growing Spiritually (Part 5)

SG

Another spiritual discipline ...

5. Serving. A very important discipline is the discipline of ‘serving’. It helps us to work hard against our ingrained bent towards self-centredness. Naturally, we’d all prefer to ‘be served’ than to ‘serve’. However, in the kingdom of God, God calls us all to be servants – to take on the nature of Christ and to choose to serve others, willingly and joyfully (Mt.20:25-28. 1 Cor.12:7. 1 Pet.4:10). We are called to serve - at home, at work or school, in our neighbourhood and in our church family.

When we don’t adopt the posture of a servant we continue to live life centred on ourselves and as a result we can tend to become self-absorbed, proud and unattractive people. When we choose to serve, we please God by imitating him, we make a difference in the lives of others and we position ourselves for growth in humility, character and genuine love.

Reflection Questions

  1. Consider the difference between the concepts of ‘trying’ and ‘training’.
  2. What do you think of when you hear the term ‘spiritual disciplines’?
  3. Jesus intended for his disciples to know the fullness of his joy. Is being a Christian seen as a joyful experience by the world today? If not, why not and what can be done about it?
  4. Think about the most impacting prayer time you’ve ever had. What happened?
  5. How does fellowship and relationship with other people help us grow spiritually?
  6. What are the spiritual growth benefits of serving?
  7. Out of the five disciplines discussed so far, which one spoke the most to you? What could make the biggest different in your spiritual growth? Is it … celebration, prayer, the Bible, fellowship or serving?

So far we have looked at five common spiritual disciplines that can help us grow spiritually - celebration, prayer, the Bible, fellowship and serving. These are all disciplines of ‘engagement’ - things we ‘do’ to help us grow spiritually. They are all ‘action orientated’. Next, we will look at another five spiritual disciplines that will also be a help to us.

Part 6.


Spiritual Disciplines - Growing Spiritually (Part 4)

SG

Some more spiritual disciplines ...

3. The Bible. The Bible is the Word of God. It contains his thoughts about life. It is our guidebook for life – how we are meant to live in the kingdom of God here and now (2 Tim.3:16-17). God’s Word is given to us not just to give us ‘information’ but to help bring about a ‘transformation’ in our life. Paul speaks about us being cleansed by ‘the washing of water by the word” (Eph.5:26).

Read, study, memorise and meditate on the Word of God (Ps.1:1-3). Get his thoughts into your heart and mind. Ask God to speak to you as you read. Your goal is to encounter God through his Word. Have an open heart. Desire change and transformation. Determine to be responsive and obedient. Remember it’s not always ‘how much’ you read but ‘how’ you read that makes the biggest difference.

God’s Word is powerful! It can literally change your life! When I choose to ignore God’s Word I remain stuck in my natural habit patterns, deceived by the subtle lies of the enemy and I never enter the fullness of the life God has for me. When I choose to saturate my heart and mind with the Word of God, I am filling my inner world with God’s heart and God’s wisdom for life. As I embrace and then apply God’s Word, it can literally transform me from the inside out.

4. Fellowship. Spend time with other believers. Christianity is not a ‘solo sport’ or ‘do it yourself religion’. It is a community or family of believers following Jesus together. Sometimes it can be easier to be alone but God wants us to enter into the discipline of fellowship. It’s in interacting and relating with other people that we have the potential to grow and change. We can learn a lot just through being with other people – observing and listening to what God is doing in their life (Acts 2:42-47).

We must focus on doing things that build loving and healthy relationships. We must also avoid things that destroy relationships. Jesus’ number one command or instruction to his disciples was that they love each other as he had loved them (Jn.13:34-35). THE measure of our spiritual growth is the indication that we are becoming a more loving person which shows itself in our increasing ability to get along well with other people – even difficult people (1 Cor.13). Our ability to get along with a wide variety of people is not only God’s will for our lives but it is essential for success in life.

Part 5.


Spiritual Disciplines - Growing Spiritually (Part 3)

SG

Spiritual Disciplines

Spiritual disciplines are like ‘habits of effectiveness’ for the spiritual life, much like exercises, are used to develop habits of effectiveness for other areas of life (sport, music or language). Richard Foster says, “The disciplines place us before God so that God can transform us.” They get us in God’s presence so he can grow us. A ‘discipline’ is an activity within our power that enables us to accomplish what we cannot do by direct effort. The effect of the discipline is to enable us to do what needs to be done when and as it needs to be done (see Mt.26:41. Josh.1:8. Ps. 119:9, 11). Today we want to talk about a number of spiritual ‘disciplines’ or ‘exercises’ that can help us change and grow.

1. Celebration. Choose to celebrate. Choose to enjoy God and the life he has given you. Joy is at the heart of God’s plan for human beings because joy is at the heart of God himself. The trouble is that most of us seriously under-estimate God’s capacity for joy. The truth is God is the happiest being in the universe. Yes, he also knows sorrow, but like his anger that is only a temporary response to a fallen world. Joy is God’s basic character and as people created in his image, he wants us to know joy in life (Ex.23:14. Dt.26:11; 28:47-48. Ps.16:11. Jn.15:11-12). Jesus lived a life of joy and celebration – despite the fact that he was acquainted with grief and sorrow. He calls us to do the same.

We can make a choice to rejoice – to embrace an attitude of gratitude that focuses on the good things in life rather than the bad (Phil.4:4. 1 Thess.5:16. Ps.9:2). You can be a joyful person. The biblical writers would not command it if it were not possible. But joyfulness is a learned discipline. We have to take responsibility for our joyfulness and for some of us this may not come easily. Too many Christians never engage in the discipline of celebration. They’re grumpy, sombre and negative. They don’t laugh enough. Let’s face it, most of us worry too much, complain too much and get angry too often. We lose our joy over the silliest things!

The psalmist says, “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it!” He doesn’t say, “Yesterday was God’s day – how happy was I then.” Nor does he say, “Tomorrow will be the great day – I’ll just endure things until then.” He says, “This is the great day to rejoice!”  True joy, it turns out, is often ‘in spite of’ something. If we don’t rejoice today, we may not rejoice at all. If we wait until conditions are perfect, we will still be waiting when we die. If we are going to rejoice, it must be in this day.

Celebration can literally change the climate of your inner and outer world! Things such as praise, worship and thanksgiving are all ways we can celebrate God. When we don’t celebrate, we get caught up in the negativity and temptations of this world and we greatly hinder our own personal growth. We become ‘victims’ to our circumstances. When we choose to celebrate, we embrace the very heart of God and his joy can transform our inner world. We become ‘victors’ over our circumstances.

2. Prayer. Talk to God. Obviously, prayer is an important part of developing our relationship with God but it is also a spiritual discipline to help us grow and change. Talk to God – praise and thank him, tell him how you feel, ask for his help, talk to him about others and pray for them (intercession), use your spiritual language and listen for his voice (listening prayer). Some people find the use of a journal or diary helpful so they can write out their prayers (Ps.82:8).

Jesus was a man of prayer and he calls us to be people of prayer (Mt.14:22-23. Lk.6:12). God responds to heartfelt honest prayer. He is not looking for empty tradition or religiosity. Just consider Jesus’ many teachings on prayer (Mt.6:5-15. Lk.18:9-14). Other people can pray for you but no one can do your praying for you! There’s no single ‘right way’ to pray - just do it! Find a quiet place OR talk to him in your car on the way to work or pray silently in the midst of a crowd. Learn to ‘practise the presence of God’ (Brother Lawrence) by being aware of him all throughout the day. This is a discipline that you can learn.

When we don’t pray, we’re basically saying, “God I don’t need you right now, I’m coping quite fine by myself.” When we choose to pray, we’re saying, “God, I love you and I need you in my life.” The difference between those two approaches makes all the difference in the world when it comes to who you are becoming and the amount of change taking place in your heart and life.

Part 4.


Spiritual Disciplines - Growing Spiritually (Part 2)

SG

Spiritual Growth is a Process

When we commit our lives to Christ, a new life begins (2 Cor.5:17). We are “born again” or have a chance to start over. It’s not just turning over a new leaf. It’s getting a new life and a fresh start. We now have a new nature and the indwelling Holy Spirit. God then begins a process of change in our lives (Gal.4:19). This reality shouldn’t make us slack but it should make us both patient and persistent in our spiritual journey.

Spiritual Growth is a Partnership

Spiritual maturity occurs through a team effort between God and you. Believers are to ‘work out’ their salvation while God is at work within them, enabling each one to will and to act for his good purpose (see Phil.2:12-13). It is a partnership between God and us. We have to assume our share of responsibility while we also require God to infuse our choices with his power in order to counteract the effects of sin.

God “works in” us by His mighty power. God is involved in the process of spiritual maturity (1 Thess.5:23-24). He gives us his Word, which contains his instructions for life (2 Tim.3:16-17) He gives His Spirit by whom all true change occurs and He works through the circumstances of our life, whether good or bad, to develop his character in us (Rom.8:28-29).

We are to “work out” our salvation. God will do His part as we do ours. Sanctification also requires our cooperation. We must renew our thinking (Rom.12:1-2), daily depend on the Holy Spirit, make choices in alignment with his will and seek to respond correctly to the circumstances of our life. Spiritual maturity doesn’t just ‘happen’. It requires our deliberate and intentional focus and effort (2 Pet.1:3-9).

Note that Paul does not say “work for” your salvation. To work for something means to try to earn it or deserve it. The Bible clearly teaches that salvation is not something we have to work for. It is God’s free gift of grace. Paul says, “Work out your salvation.” He is talking about a “spiritual workout”. In a physical workout, you develop or tone your muscles. In the same way, each believer needs to do some spiritual exercises, which are far more profitable than physical exercises (1 Tim.4:7-8. 1 Cor.9:24-27). We often think that being a Christian is about trying hard to be like Jesus. Spiritual transformation is not a matter of trying harder, but of training wisely.

Summary

Sanctification is a process that begins at new birth and goes on for a lifetime. The process will be finally complete when Jesus Christ returns and “we shall be changed” (1 Cor.15:52-53). Then “we will be like him, for we will see him as he is” (1 Jn.3:2-3). Should this truth make us slack? Definitely not! John goes on to say, “Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure (1 Jn.3:2-3).”

God is at work in your life right now – through His Word, His Spirit and the circumstances of your life. Are you responding and partnering with him? Are you renewing your thinking patterns, depending on the Spirit and responding properly to the circumstances you are in right now? As we do our part, God will do his and we will experience spiritual growth.

Reflection Questions

  1. How is it possible for someone to be a Christian for many years yet not really change?
  2. Discuss Rick Warren’s five myths of spiritual maturity and where you think they come from.
  3. ‘Holiness’ (or sanctification) was once a very strong emphasis in the church world. Today it is not talked about that much. Why do you think this is so and what are the results of it?
  4. What do you think of when you hear the word ‘legalism’? Why do you think legalism (an overly strong focus on externals) often becomes a substitute for authentic transformation?
  5. Discuss John Maxwell’s statement, “Most Christians are educated beyond the level of their obedience.” Is this true? Why do you think so? What can we do about it?
  6. Share about an area where you’ve really been able to change or grow in. How did this change occur?

Part 3.