Living life with intention, purpose and love

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Happy [very belated] New Year! I was intending to post this in January, then February, then March – oh well, back into blogging now, so hopefully will have more regular posts from now on.

I was having a trip down memory lane late last year, listening to some bands on YouTube that were favourites of mine when I was in university (as an aside, how often is it that the type of music we listen to in our late teens is the type of music we continue listening to throughout our life – there must be some neuroscience research backing this up!). I ended up watching some Sinch video clips and saw in the comments section of one of them that one of the band members, Jay Smith, had been diagnosed with ALS (aka Lou Gehrig’s disease) a few years ago.

After a quick search on Google I discovered that, while paralysed and unable to speak, Jay Smith leads an extraordinary life of advocacy and love. He founded Every90Minutes, which advocates for finding a cure for ALS, but what really resounded with me was an article of his that I read titled My Life As A Snowman, particularly the bolded part of the following quote:

You see Frosty is more than just a balled-up mound of dirt and snow, he’s a guy with a real existential problem on his hands. Instead of moping around with his corn-cob pipe and button nose, he recognizes his limited time and decides to live with intention, purpose, and love. He doesn’t worry about his withering body or going out into town looking like a freak whose eyes are made of coal.

As we enter 2017 my prayer is that we will be a people who live with intention, purpose, and love.

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Amazement

One of our family traditions during the Advent season is to visit a local church (St John’s Golden Church) which has a ‘Festival of Christmas Trees’, with trees decorated by both people in the church and various community organisations. The Christmas trees are all through the church auditorium, in the café, up hallways, and in other rooms. They’re everywhere!

When we visited last year Son#1, who had just turned two at the time, was amazed. He walked up and down the hallways stopping at each Christmas tree saying ‘That’s a pretty one… that’s a pretty one!’

I love how young kids can be so easily amazed by things. It’s a shame most of us lose that child-like amazement as we grow up.

Amazement and Christmas have always been linked. In Luke, after the angels tell the shepherds about Jesus’ birth, the shepherds hurry off to find this baby in a feeding-trough. After seeing Jesus, Luke says the shepherds told everyone and that all who heard were amazed.

The reason for their amazement? Here was the fulfilment of prophecies from long ago. Here was the saviour, the Messiah, the King. God arriving in the flesh as a little baby. Jesus was here, and that was amazing!

Maybe we all need a bit more child-like amazement in our lives. What better way to start than by spending some time this Christmas being amazed by Jesus. That he was born into our world to be our saviour, Messiah, and King.

Thank you God for sending your son: our saviour, our King.

May we be constantly amazed by this love that you have shown the world.

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Changing how we communicate the good news

good-news1

At a recent work team building day (which I missed, unfortunately) we had a guest speaker, Dr Paul McDonald, who talked about his research into sustainability and neuroscience. Paul is a lecturer at Victoria University and is due to publish a journal paper on this topic next year.

Talking with others in my team about what Paul presented intrigued me, so I managed to get hold of his paper and have a read…

In layman’s language, he’s basically saying that the typical way that we communicate sustainability and the need to be sustainable doesn’t work. Often it depends on the use of scare tactics to push people to more sustainable measures – in practice, he says, this just triggers a flight response and people tune out.

Also of issue is that we humans are an inherently stubborn bunch and not quick to accept change (often people know something to be true, but they don’t truly believe it to be true; there’s no emotional connection to the issue, so there’s no change).

He emphasises the need for a better way to communicate sustainability. Reframing how sustainability is communicated so that it’s in a positive manner (not focused on doom and gloom, fear and academic facts).

Reading this got me thinking about how often this is also the case for the good news and how we communicate it.

I’ve been reading a lot of Tom Wright recently – his presentation and communication of the gospel (or the good news) strikes a resounding note with me. It’s far broader and wide ranging than the traditionally taught ‘gospel’. I find myself in the same camp as whoever said this in reference to Wright’s book Surprised by Hope:

“If this book is true,” he said, “then my whole life has to change.” (link)

I can’t help but think we need to communicate the good news differently (and more fully, for that matter).

In Simply Good News Wright talks about how the good news is often watered down and communicated as about ‘me and my relationship to God’ or about ‘going to heaven’. He writes (bold emphasis mine):

Let’s be clear. The relationship each of us has with God is hugely important. It is also vital to insist that God will indeed look after his people following their deaths, all the way to his final new creation. But these are not the centre of the good news. We have placed the stress at the wrong point, like people putting the emphasis on the wrong syllable. The words may be true, but the way we say them gets in the way of that truth coming out clearly. The good news is about the living God overcoming all the powers of the world to establish his rule of justice and peace, on earth as in heaven. Not in heaven, later on. And that victory is won not by superior power of the same kind but by a different sort of power altogether… The kingdom of God, Jesus declared, runs on love.

Also, just like sustainability, how often are ‘scare tactics’ used as a proxy for the good news: we’re all sinners deserving death, Jesus died in our place, if we believe in him we’ll go to heaven. What Wright has shown me is that there’s so much more to the good news than this over-simplification. We’re ignoring or missing the broader context of Jesus’ death (and, for that matter, his resurrection)[1].

In his paper Paul McDonald also notes the importance of storytelling – saying that “neurological evidence supports the power of rhetoric and storytelling”. This has to be true for how we communicate the good news also – we need to tell the good news as a compelling story. Paint the picture of why it is truly good news. When that resonates with people, they will be more willing to believe it and make real and lasting change. Of course, we’re not doing this under our own steam – we have the Holy Spirit to enable us to do this work.

I had the privilege of sharing the message with my church last weekend as part of the service where the kids put on their Christmas production. As an aside, it was my first time preparing and delivering a sermon – I really enjoyed it! I took this opportunity to begin to communicate the good news differently. Using the passage about Anna the Prophetess celebrating Jesus’ birth (Luke 2:36-38) as a frame, I had a go at telling the story of the good news in its fullest sense: starting with God creating the world, through to Adam and Eve’s sin in the Garden of Eden, God’s promises to Abraham, the prophecies of a coming rescuer and king, Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection, and what it means to have Jesus as king.

This was all condensed into a very brief sermon and would benefit from the various aspects being teased out more in future sermons, however hopefully it gave people a taster of what the good news truly is.

It feels strange to have been a Christian for so long but to only now discover the good news in this way. I’m looking forward to exploring this more – further reading, study, prayer, blogging and application in my life (and hopefully those around me). After all, it is the good news, and it should be central to my faith and my life.

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[1] The Distorted and Competing Gospels chapter of Wright’s Simply Good News explains this way better than I could – recommended reading!

Jesus’ birthday cake

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Over the past few years our family has been much more intentional about observing Advent and preparing for Christmas. We set up our Christmas tree the weekend before Advent starts, do a Jesse Tree which uses the Jesus Storybook Bible (more on that here), and, this year, Kim has wrapped up heaps of Christmas children’s books and the boys get to choose a new one each day.

All of this points towards Son #1 starting to anticipate Christmas more and more. Last week we were talking about how Christmas was like Jesus’ birthday, and Son #1 declared that we should make Jesus a birthday cake.

I asked him how he thought we should decorate the cake?

His answer – with rescue vehicles!

Now, I suspect this is heavily inspired by his birthday cake earlier this year (the picture up the top of this post), which was also adorned with a full set of rescue vehicles (police car, fire truck, ambulance), however isn’t it a surprisingly apt answer?! As, after all, Christmas is celebrating the birth of our rescuer, Jesus.

Perhaps the only thing Son #1 was missing as a cake decoration was a crown, or a throne – something that illustrates that not only was Christmas the birth of our rescuer, but also the birth of our King.

Momo, prayer, and perseverance

momo

I’ve been quiet on the blog front over the past month or so – primarily because I’ve been reading up and preparing for my first ever sermon – very exciting! I’ve been asked to deliver the sermon which will follow the annual kids Christmas production in mid-December. The passage I’m going to be looking at is Luke’s discussion of Anna the Prophetess. I won’t go into any more details yet, but will link to the sermon once it’s up on the church website.

Anyways, a few weeks ago I did another kids’ talk at church. My focus this time was on prayer and perseverance, particularly looking at Romans 12:12. To help illustrate this theme, I used Momo, the sleep training clock we’ve been using to [mostly] good effect with Son #1. The talk transcript is below.


This is Momo, the sleep training clock. When you’re younger, especially if you’re still learning to tell the time, it can be tricky to know when it’s time to wake up. Sometimes, if you wake you too early, Mum and Dad might not be too impressed, so that’s where Momo can come in handy. When he’s awake, it’s okay to be out of bed and playing – when he’s asleep it’s still sleep time for you too.

I need someone to test this out – who wants to have a sleep in this cosy bed up on stage?

[tuck kid into the mock bed set up on stage, set Momo to sleepmode]

Momo is asleep now, so you need to stay in bed until he’s awake, okay? Sleep tight!

While X is sleeping, let’s talk about waiting. As I said earlier, when you’re younger and can’t tell the time, it can be hard to wait in bed until it’s time to get up.

That’s true in other parts of our life too. Waiting for something to happen, especially if you really want it to, can be tricky.

The Bible talks a lot about waiting for things that you really want to happen.

I think God knew it would be tricky to wait so the Bible talks a lot about perseverance – does anyone know what that word means?

Potential definition: Continuing to do something even though it’s really tricky, or it’s taking a long time to happen.

In Romans 12:12, Paul, the guy who wrote the book, talks about perseverance:

Be joyful because you have hope. Don’t quit in hard times; pray all the harder.

No matter what’s happening while we wait, God wants us to be patient, to not quit in the hard times, and, and this is important, to keep talking with him through prayer.

Just like Momo helps us wait until it’s time to get up from bed, God gives us prayer to help us while we’re waiting. God’s always there while we’re waiting and he loves it when we pray and talk to him – he wants us to be talking with him all the time!

On that note, let’s pray before you head off to the kids programme.


I’m enjoying coming up with ideas for kids’ talks. This one had a few spanners thrown into the works on the day (PowerPoint slides not working; Momo’s alarm going off a bit earlier than I expected; the toddlers becoming fascinated by Momo once his alarm did go off), but they hopefully didn’t hurt the communication of the message, and really, when you’re doing a kids’ talk you kind of need to expect the unexpected!

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Truly listening

Man uses an ear trumpet

Earlier this year Son #1 developed a stutter – it started with him stumbling over one or two words but rapidly progressed to a point where he was struggling immensely to get each word out of his mouth. While the stutter has slowly disappeared since then, at the time it was tough to see him struggle to get coherent sentences out. Especially given how relatively eloquent he was prior to the stutter.

In the midst of his stuttering, we recognised that in order to understand what he was saying we had to truly listen to him. This made me realise how often I only listen to him with half an ear – distracted.

It also challenged me to think how often this is also the case with God?

How often do I only listen with half an ear (or less!) to what God is saying to me? Distracted by the world around me so much that I don’t truly listen to the most important voice.

So what should truly listening to God look like?

It has to be centred on prayer. Liz Curtis Higgs writes (empahsis mine):

prayer is more about listening than it is about spilling out requests. David wrote, “I will listen to what God the Lord says” (Psalm 85:8). When God tells us to “pray without ceasing” (ASV), he’s also saying, “Listen to me all the time!”

I like the paraphrase she uses – listen to me all the time! I know I frequently fall into the trap of praying to God rather than praying with God – spending most of the time talking and not enough time listening. That’s not a great way to communicate with people and it’s certainly not a great way to communicate with God!

Allied to that is spending more time with God. In a sermon I listened to a few years ago Mick Duncan said on this topic:

I get up at 4 o’clock in the morning to spend quality time with my lover – and yet some of us only spend five minutes! How can you greet such great love with the dregs of your day?

This challenged me then and still does today. Setting aside quality time to spend with God can be tricky, however I think this typically comes down to misplaced priorities. If God is the number one priority in my life, as he should be, then he needs to get the best of me, not brief snippets of the day when I can spare a moment. This isn’t to say that he doesn’t also love those brief snippets, however I think quality time is needed to truly listen.

Finally, another key aspect of truly listening to God is being open to what he has to say. In this regard I’m reminded of the story of Samuel who, as a young boy, was sleeping at the temple when God called out to him “Samuel!” At first Samuel thought this was Eli, the priest, calling him, however eventually Eli realised it was God, and sent Samuel back to bed with instructions on what to do if God called again. When he did, Samuel said “Speak, your servant is listening” (1 Samuel 3:10).

This simple sentence sums up what it means to truly listen to God – Samuel is waiting on God and when God speaks, Samuel is open and willing to listen to what he has to say. It should be that easy, however I think we can often be a bit scared of what God is going to say (especially if he is calling us out of our comfort zone, as so frequently is the case), which causes us to either stop listening, give him only half an ear, or, in some situations, mishear what he is actually saying. I was listening to an excerpt from the 2015 Baptist Hui where someone described the latter situation, saying “Sometimes we become so familiar with hearing the voice of God that we finish his sentences for him

So what does truly listening to God look like in your life? Where do you get it right? Where do you struggle?

I know there are aspects of the way I listen to God that need improvement, however, just like when Son #1’s stuttering was at its worst, I will continue to persevere to ensure I am truly listening to what God has to say to me.

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The sound of silence

I was watching the new Alter Bridge[1] single on YouTube the other day when I came across a live cover of The Sound of Silence, the classic Simon & Garfunkel song. The song features Alter Bridge’s lead singer Myles Kennedy in a guest duet spot with David Draiman and his band Disturbed during a recent tour. It is an incredibly beautiful cover. Two singers at the top of their game, especially as they build into the song.

I’m quite fond of Simon & Garfunkel as their songs are the music that I associate the most with my childhood – they were a favourite band of my parents. The Sound of Silence is obviously one of their best and well known songs.

The Myles Kennedy and David Draiman version of the song struck a chord with me – I couldn’t help thinking of the many injustices that are often overlooked in this world[2]. The sound of silence that follows a moment when we, as Christians, really should have stood up and been a voice for the voiceless.

Proverbs 31 tells us to:

8 Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves;
ensure justice for those being crushed.
Yes, speak up for the poor and helpless,
and see that they get justice.

Tom Wright, in his book Simply Good News, writes about how the gospel compels us to act on injustices:

…the early Christians prayed and acted on the basis that the good news was true. There is no reason on earth, and certainly none in heaven, why we today should not do the same. And if anyone tries to say that the good news is not about all these things – about freeing slaves, helping the poor, about reconciling warring factions, ethnic groupings, and whole nations, about looking after the blessed world we live on and in – but instead is only about coming to faith in the present and going to heaven in the future, then we must reply that something has gone very, very wrong in their thinking.

And just in case we really need convincing, Jesus calls us to do this too: God blesses those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be satisfied (Matthew 5:6).

So what does this look like? I think it starts with prayer: Thy will be done, thy kingdom come…

But it also needs to be followed with action.

I met a guy over the weekend who is a missionary in Thailand. The organisation he serves with (Empowerasia) provides a home for teenage girls from nearby villages – a Christ-filled environment that rescues them from what can be, from the sounds of things, terrible situations. Jamie is a living example of what the Bible is calling us to do, someone who hungers and thirsts for justice.

The questions I’m going to finish with are: How does this play out in our lives in New Zealand (or wherever we are living)? What does seeking justice look like for us, as individuals and as church communities? How might we be willing to disturb the sound of silence?


[1] As an irrelevant side note – Alter Bridge are one of my favourite bands and I’m looking forward to the new album in October!

[2]  A quick Google search suggests this isn’t the meaning of the song, but it’s what I get out of it!

Scarface Claw and Romans

Last year I was reading NT Wright’s translation of Romans and noticed how frequently Paul uses the phrase ‘Certainly not!’ – an emphatic answer to a number of theological questions he poses (see Romans 3:4, 6, 31; 6:2, 15; 7:7, 13; 9:14; 11:1, 11). Coincidently Son #1 was also loving Hairy Maclary books at the time and we’d just had Scarface Claw out of the library.

In Scarface Claw Lynley Dodd also uses the words ‘Certainly not!’ and it’s more colourful variant ‘Not a jittery jot!’ to emphatically show that Scarface Claw is not afraid of anything (spoiler alert: except, as it turns out in the end, himself).

I squirrelled the observation away in my catalogue of blog ideas and didn’t give it much more thought until we started a series on Romans a few months ago at our church. I thought the kernel of a blog idea could be turned into an interesting kids’ talk, so volunteered to do a talk on a Sunday when the sermon would be covering one of the chapters which included the phrase (Romans 6).

I worked through the chapter (and a bit of the preceding one) to pull out what I saw as the key points, then attempted to create the Scarface Claw version of Romans 6, complete with a similar rhyme scheme. Here’s where I ended up (with a brief commentary under each slide to show which part of the chapter it relates to), hopefully it’s theologically accurate! It seemed to be well received by the kids and rest of the church.

Background to the chapter, introduces the Mosaic law (Romans 5:20)
Slide 1: Background to the chapter, introduces the Mosaic law (Romans 5:20)
Slide 2: Jesus – the new covenant Then God sent his son, Jesus who put sin in its place (Romans 6:6) Jesus saved us from sin (6:7) and we live in his grace. (6:2) So rather than sin having such a strong pull we now live a life where God’s grace is in rule (5:21)
Slide 2: Jesus – the new covenant
Then God sent his son, Jesus who put sin in its place (Romans 6:6)
Jesus saved us from sin (6:7) and we live in his grace. (6:2)
So rather than sin having such a strong pull we now live a life where God’s grace is in rule (5:21)
Slide 3: Romans 6:1
Slide 3: Romans 6:1

 

Slide 4: Romans 6:2
Slide 4: Romans 6:2
Slide 5: Romans 6:15
Slide 5: Romans 6:15
Slide 6: Romans 6:15
Slide 6: Romans 6:15
Slide 7: Romans 6:12
Slide 7: Romans 6:12
Slide 8: Romans 6:13
Slide 8: Romans 6:13

Image source (the pictures in the slides are taken from Scarface Claw – thanks Lynley Dodd!)

Sonny Bill Williams and prayer

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I was reading an article in the NZ Herald last week about Sonny Bill Williams’ Muslim faith. Talking about how he fits the Islamic prayer-and-diet lifestyle into the training schedule of an All Black, he says:

“When I’m most happy is when I’m doing my prayers… How can you not spare 25 minutes of your day to give thanks? I look at where I came from and feel blessed.”

While we’re not praying to the same god, I was inspired and challenged by what Sonny Bill had to say about prayer. It reminds me so much of 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18:

16 Always be joyful. 17 Never stop praying. 18 Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus.

What emphatic wording – always, never stop, in all circumstances. Paul is challenging us here to make prayer and thankfulness part of the fabric of our everyday life. Not something we do occasionally, or when we need something, but something we do always.

This is the area of my faith which I want to develop the most. To be honest, I’m a slack pray-er and so often find myself falling back into well-worn habits of infrequent prayer. My focus over the coming months is going to be on breaking those habits – intentionally taking time out of my day to pray and give thanks.

To help with this, I started reading Tim Keller’s book on prayer recently (aptly titled Prayer). In the first chapter Tim writes:

In the second half of my adult life, I discovered prayer. I had to. In the fall of 1999, I taught a Bible study course on the Psalms. It became clear to me that I was barely scratching the surface of what the Bible commanded and promised regarding prayer… my own growing conviction that I just didn’t get prayer, led me into a search. I wanted a far better personal prayer life. I began to read widely and experiment in prayer.

I was heartened to read that I’m not alone and that a widely respected pastor struggled with prayer in the midst of his ministry (24 years after graduating from seminary, 10 years after starting Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan).

So, over the coming months, in the midst of the busy-ness of life, my challenge will be to dedicate more time to prayer. After all, to paraphrase Sonny Bill, how can I not spare time to give thanks and commune with my God?

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All who are weary…

We’ve had a bit of sickness in our house over the past few weeks – I seem to have been hit the hardest and I’m only now starting to feel close to ‘normal’ again. In the midst of the weariness that sickness brings, the song Come As You Are (by Crowder, not Nirvana…) kept popping into my head, particularly the following verse:

There’s hope for the hopeless
And all those who’ve strayed
Come sit at the table
Come taste the grace
There’s rest for the weary
Rest that endures
Earth has no sorrow
That heaven can’t cure

I assume the lyrics are based on Matthew 11:28-30, which reads:

28 Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.”

How awesome it is to have a God who knows that there will be times in our journey when we are weary, for a multitude of reasons. A God who will always provide us with rest.

I like how Brennan Manning discusses these verses in The Ragamuffin Gospel:

When Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who labour and are heavy burdened” he assumed we would grow weary, discouraged, and disheartened along the way. These words are a touching testimony to the genuine humanness of Jesus. He had no romantic notion of the cost of discipleship. He knew that following Him was as unsentimental as duty, as demanding as love. He knew that physical pain, the loss of loved ones, failure, loneliness, rejection, abandonment, and betrayal would sap our spirits…

Thank you Lord that in the midst of weariness we can find rest in your unending grace.

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