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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Jesus’ birthday cake

birthday-cake-edited

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.

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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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!)

Loving our neighbour

the good stranger

My son has a great book by children’s authors Nick Butterworth and Mick Inkpen called Favourite Parables from the Bible. One of the stories from the book is The Good Stranger, based on the famous parable from Luke 10:25-37.

The story of the Good Samaritan has got to be one of the most well-known of Jesus’ parables. It focuses on what it means to love our neighbour and who our ‘neighbour’ is. This parable speaks directly into some of the most topical issues of today’s world, including how we as Christians respond to the refugee crisis.

The wave of refugees flooding out of Syria, Iraq and northern Africa has been incredible this year and at the forefront of world’s attention. Initial public response to the refugees, particularly following the tragic story of Aylan Kurdi and his brother, tended towards sympathetic, with people seemingly supportive of providing homes for these people who had risked much to escape a terrible situation. However, ever since the more recent terrorism events linked, either directly or indirectly, to ISIS (notably Paris and San Bernardino), the public response seems to be changing, with people like Donald Trump, a large number of states in the US, and a number of countries (particularly in eastern Europe) starting to tar all refugees with the same brush, with calls for closed borders and bans on Muslims.

It is becoming an ‘us’ and ‘them’ situation – something that should be abhorrent to Christians. We are called by Jesus to love, and this call isn’t restricted to those that are similar to us, those that we’re comfortable being around. We’re called to love everyone.

The scandal of the Good Samaritan parable is that it is the Samaritan man who aids the wounded Jewish traveller, not the priest or the rabbi – aka the fellow Jews. Brian Krum, teaching pastor from Greenlane Christian Centre, was invited to preach at our church last Sunday. His sermon was on the woman at the well (John 4) – another famous passage that involves a Samaritan. Brian made it clear that the Samaritans were despised by the Jewish people – they were the worst of the worst, complete outsiders, people who any self-respecting Jew would have nothing to do with. What a shock it must have been for the religious scholar for Jesus to turn around and say that we are to love everyone, including the Samaritans.

To see people and countries start to turn their backs on refugees because they are different and out of fear is awful and isn’t something we should tolerate. It’s not an ‘us’ and ‘them’ situation, because that is not how Jesus calls us to see people. Jesus says love our neighbour as ourselves, not make our neighbour like ourselves. I read a great blog post the other day about how the Bedouin love people through hospitality. Chad ends the post by saying:

Love just loves.

This is powerful and is what Jesus is calling us to do. Our response as Christians to the refugee crisis shouldn’t be ‘keep them away, leave them to fend for themselves’. We should be actively seeking to embrace these people who are struggling, hurting, longing for a peaceful life. We should be extending mercy and hospitality to them.

The Parable of the Good Samaritan finishes with the following dialogue between Jesus and the religious scholar:

36 “Now which of these three would you say was a neighbour to the man who was attacked by bandits?” Jesus asked.

37 The man replied, “The one who showed him mercy.”

Then Jesus said, “Yes, now go and do the same.”

Oh that we would take this to heart and go and do the same, both towards the refugees and everyone else in the community around us.

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Learning to pray

Lords_Prayer

Our son turned two today – he was very excited, especially about the birthday cake and candles, which he has been anticipating since we went to a birthday party a few months ago.

He’s been making amazing strides in his language over the past month, and we’ve begun to teach him how to pray, which has been lovely.

Ever since the day he was born we’ve been praying with him. The first blessing he got was from his Nan in the delivery suite, when he was only a few minutes old. Later that night, I vividly remember holding him as Kim slept in the hospital bed, bringing his face close to mine and praying that he would grow into a strong man of God.

Prayer is a part of daily life for our family, something he has been, and always will be, exposed to. We pray with him at least a few times during the day; grace at dining table (he’s always reaching out to hold our hands once he’s in his high chair (probably because it means dinners almost ready!) and once he’s in bed.

More recently he’s been asking for prayer, especially at bedtime and sometimes more than once. He’s been sick quite a bit (for him) over the last month, so when we ask him what he wants us to pray for he says ‘peace’ in his cute little voice. I find that our prayer with him definitely gives him comfort – he almost always will be peaceful and fall asleep after we pray.

Kim has been teaching him he doesn’t have to have wait for us to pray, that he can talk to God all by himself; he just needs to say ‘peace Jesus’. I think he’s starting to get the hang of it.

This has got me thinking about how we learn to pray. I’ve always felt some sort of deficiency in this space, like I’m not very good at it. But over recent years I’ve become more intentional, learning new ways to pray and spiritual disciplines, attending a course that our church in Dunedin offered a few years ago, and studying the Bible more.

It heartens me to know that even the disciples seemed to struggle with prayer, asking Jesus to teach them how to pray in Luke 11. What followed was the Lord’s Prayer, which I’ve often overlooked in the past. During our church’s week long prayer vigil this year, I spent some time reading NT Wright’s commentary on the Lord’s Prayer. It gave me a much deeper understanding of what this particular prayer is really about, and helped me think more about how I pray in practice. NT Wright likens the Lord’s Prayer to a framework, scaffolding rather than the whole building. It made me realise in particular that I have a tendency to spend a lot of time praying about my needs or the needs of my nearest and dearests, but not nearly enough time praying for God’s kingdom, asking forgiveness, and just genuinely honouring and praising God. A new perspective I’d overlooked, but am trying to focus more on now.

I’m never going to be a perfect pray-er – I, like my son, will always be learning (who isn’t?!), but who better to learn from than Jesus!

9So this is how you should pray:
Our father in heaven,
may your name be honoured
10may your kingdom come
may your will be done
as in heaven, so on earth.
11Give us today the bread we need now;
12and forgive us the things we owe,
as we too have forgiven what was owed to us.
13Don’t bring us into the great trial,
but rescue us from evil.

Matthew 6:9-13 (as translated by NT Wright)

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