Hearing God’s story impacts ours

What was the content of the last sermon you heard? The key points? The main message? What exactly did you take away from it?

Sometimes it’s easy to question the effectiveness of a church sermon when we’re struggling to remember what it was even about. Sure, some bible talks are more coherent, well-structured and ‘powerful’ than others… But even the best ones seem to fly out our heads as we exit the building.

Our former pastor Tim MacBride writes about this in a blog post called Why bother with preaching?. He argues that, even though the recall of sermons might not be strong for many of us, one of the main roles of regular, biblical preaching is to build a relationship with God. “An ‘attachment’ to him, if you want to speak in psychological terms,” writes Tim, who goes on to describe how sermons connect us with God and his story…

“Each week we come to church to hear (hopefully) God’s story,” he says. “We’re reminded of who he is. Of what he’s done for us in Christ. And how this means that our story can now find its place within his big story. It anchors our existence and gives our life meaning within a much bigger framework. Over time we might forget the content of each message. Our attitudes and behaviour might be transformed only incrementally. But each week, we build the connection as we hang out with God and his story. Even though we might not be fully conscious of what’s going on, we’re enjoying the feeling of sitting on our heavenly Father’s knee and having the same story read to us over and over again. And it’s that feeling of connection that builds the bonds of trust and affection and love. Does it mean that duty, character, goals, and worldview aren’t important? Not at all! But when we trust and love God, we’re more likely to want to do what pleases him, to be more like him, to pursue his purposes in our lives, and to see the world around us through our Father’s eyes.”

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I really like this explanation of what ‘sitting in church’ means. Sure, we can attend church, or hear a sermon, and not be ‘fully there’. But every week that we hear a part of God’s story our goals, attitudes, and lives change just a little. As Tim says, we’re ‘sitting on our heavenly Father’s knee’ and hearing the stories that make us want to please him more. We’re building a stronger connection with him and we’re growing in our faith.

The stories we were told as children might completely oppose what we hear in church. The stories we’ve played over and over in our heads are most likely at odds with the story God tells about us. His love story of redemption is different to any romance we might have experienced. The connection we make with Jesus is stronger than any other, and his stories are meant to impact us.

Don’t give up on church, even if you can’t remember last week’s sermon. Don’t give up on God’s people – even though they might disappoint you. Allow your struggles to build your faith in God – the one who’ll never let us down. Ask him to show you how to keep loving others and listening to the words he has for you.

When the colours fade, where do we turn?

My brother, sister-in-law and their three children are currently working as missionaries and teachers in Port Vila, Vanuatu. My parents were also missionaries there for 14 years, and Andy and his wife Noelene felt a strong call to the islands several years ago. It has been their dream for a long time.

Noelene home-schools their three children, shares her baking skills with the people there, and teaches the Bible at Sunday School. They have a kids’ club, youth group, and preaching classes for the men in the church there, and Andrew is also translating the Bible into their language.

In one of his letters home this week, Andy wrote:

“‘Living in Vila’ is no longer a dream but a reality. Dreams come in shades of whatever your favourite colour is, but reality is what it is. Sometimes reality is far better than the dream, and that’s how I feel most of the time. But, in the wonderful world that is God’s kingdom, the reality that hurts is almost always the one that takes us closer to Him and His will. And that is, of course, the safest place to be.”

My brother and some of his family.

My brother and some of his family.

I share this because my brother’s words stopped me in my tracks, and perhaps they make you think too.

What colours do your dreams come in? What are you hoping for? Perhaps your dream has been realised and the reality is different to what you’d hoped. Perhaps, as my brother said, it’s better. But even if life presents us with rainbow colours, there’s this nagging truth – as Andy articulated. The reality that hurts is often the one that takes us closer to Him. In the hurt, we cling. In the pain, we realise our need of a Saviour. In our brokenness and failure, we come face to face with the One who can put the pieces back together and remind us where our strength lies. And this is true whether we’re struggling with the ups and downs of mission or ministry, taking risks in our career, or plunging into relationship problems.

Where does your strength lie? Where does mine? What are we looking to for affirmation, validation and approval? Is it success, the feeling of being liked, or the worthiness of our achievements? Or do we look to the cross of Christ, where sin is offered humbly, forgiveness is given, and freedom in Him truly begins…?

Grieving lost relationships

“It isn’t helpful to only recount the negative aspects of a person when a relationship ends,” a wise person once told me.

“We also need to remember the good, in order to grieve.”

It’s certainly tempting to rehearse your frustrations – and their flaws – when you’re hurt. But part of the process of letting go is celebrating the things they taught you, and the part they played in your life.

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There’s no guarantee that any friendship, romantic relationship, or marriage will last forever. One aspect of life is saying goodbye, for so many different reasons.

And when the farewell comes, we need to allow room for tears, for grief, for release – as we cling tight to the one who remains forever with us, both sides of heaven.

“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you.  When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.” (Isaiah 43:2)

If we want to ‘blossom’, we have to take risks

Do you know people who complain about their circumstances but don’t do anything to change them?

We can all fall into the tendency to ‘play the victim’ – to stay ‘safe’ by taking sympathy from others, yet not owning the choices we have as grown adults. And it’s always hard knowing what’s in our power to change, and what isn’t.

But when we remain stubbornly unwilling to seek help or support in making things better, it can be frustrating for those who love us.

“Men are anxious to improve their circumstances, but are unwilling to improve themselves. They therefore remain bound,” wrote James Allen, of those who remain stagnant.

But of the man or woman who knows there is no way out but forward, Anais Nin said:

“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”

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John 5: 1-8 tells the story of a suffering man whose attitude and life situation was challenged by Jesus:

“Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for one of the Jewish festivals. Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades. Here a great number of disabled people used to lie—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed. One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?”

“Sir,” the invalid replied, “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.”

Then Jesus said to him, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked.”

This man had suffered for 38 years, and was presumably at the pool in the hope of a healing. The name of the pool ‘Bethesda’ translates to ‘House of Mercy’, and some writings say that at certain times an angel would come down and stir up the water. Then the first person to get into the pool after the water was stirred would be healed of whatever disease or infirmity they had.

Jesus, discovering the man had been sick for so long, asks if he wants to get well. Does he want to receive the healing the Son of God can offer? Is he really hungry for a new life? It seems the man is frustrated by other people going ahead of him when he tries to enter the stirred water. He is weak, and fed up. You could argue he’s making excuses.

But things are about to change. Jesus has come to bring healing. “Get up!” he says to the man. “Pick up your mat and walk.” And he does! For the first time in 38 years…

We might not see many instantaneous healings, but there are solutions to our problems if we look for them. Starting with Jesus. “Do you want to get well?” he asks us. “Get up!” he says.

Jesus promises to walk alongside us, whether we’re healed immediately from disease or not. He promises to offer guidance and wisdom in the midst of our emotional and physical struggles. As we search and pray, he brings people to our life that can point us in the right direction. But we have to be willing to work at things – to refresh our approach sometimes.

Change can be uncomfortable – terrifying even. But playing the victim gets tiring after a while. And sometimes we have no choice but to move forward. To risk blossoming.

Life is not that shiny

A friend was talking with me the other day about struggles at her new church. She recently moved from the inner-city to the affluent Northern suburbs of Sydney, and noticed a big cultural difference. “People aren’t real,” she said. “They just want to pretend everything is ‘happy-happy, joy-joy’ all the time. Just because you’ve found God doesn’t mean life isn’t hard, and that there aren’t issues to grapple with – surely? It’s like people want to take the ‘love and grace’ part of being a Christian, leave it at that, and not go any deeper. They don’t want to talk about struggles of faith, because usually, they don’t have them. I feel like I’m the only one who does.”

I really appreciated her honesty, and I felt for her. We are new friends, and I hope I’m someone she can be ‘real’ with from now on. But it’s a common refrain in many churches. It’s as if Christianity needs a big PR campaign where we have to convince the world – and each other – that life is as shiny as Ned Flanders’ front fence. We don’t want to admit to pain, or suffering, or grief – because that would put our faith – our Christianity – in a bad light.

Or maybe it’s just too hard to dig deep.

But the Bible is full of suffering and impassioned grief.

I’m studying Job at the moment, for a subject at bible college. This man suffers an unbelievable series of tragedies, and his friends are of little help during this time. They blame him for what happened, and essentially try and pull him out of his grieving process. In the midst of loads of unhelpful statements and advice, Job questions God. He feels as though He, too, has turned his back on him. In 31:35 he cries: “Let the Almighty answer me!” He feels like God is deaf to his wails.

Job, a faith-filled man, asks ‘Why?’, just as Jesus did as he bled on the cross. “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” he cried (Matt. 27:46). He knew an acute separation from God.

Grief is raw and wretched and visceral. Grief questions God. Grief screams at the sky. Grief doesn’t care who’s watching.

I’ll never forget the moans and sobs emanating from my boss’s office one day at work. Normally she’s contained, reserved - a ‘together’ kind of person. But this was the day her mother died. And she’d just received the phone call.

cry

This week my lecturer, in speaking about Job and suffering, spoke about our tendency these days to turn funerals into celebrations. He shared his thoughts, somewhat controversially, that turning the occasion of a close relative’s death into a party can sometimes dismiss or detract from the natural process of grief. Bereaved people need permission to wail if they want (and party if they need to too, in my opinion).

We need to make way for a range of emotional responses, whether our friends are grieving, or questioning God, or broken and dying inside. Sure, it’s confronting – but this is the world we live in.

May we always look towards Jesus. He took his light into some of the darkest places, and gave his life on a wooden cross for us. You can’t get much more ‘real’ than that.

Thank you, God, that you hear our cries, our wails, our screams. Thank you that you know pain intimately, because you chose to come to earth in the form of a man and die for our sins. Thank you that you also conquered death by rising from the grave. One day you’ll take us away from all our earthly suffering.

Thank you for helping us to be real, because it isn’t easy to be honest sometimes. Help us to be the kind of people others want to share their struggles with.

In Jesus’ name, Amen.

What’s your ‘starfish story’?

Do you know the story about the starfish?

Just in case you haven’t, here it is (author unknown):

While walking along a beach, an elderly gentleman saw someone in the distance leaning down, picking something up and throwing it into the ocean.

As he got closer, he noticed the figure was that of a young man, gathering the starfish one by one and tossing each one gently back into the water.

He came closer still and called out:

“Good morning! May I ask what it is you’re doing?”

The young man paused, looked up, and replied:

“Throwing starfish into the ocean.”

The old man smiled, and said: “I must ask then – why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?”

“Well, the sun is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them in, they’ll die.”

Upon hearing this, the elderly observer commented:

“But young man – don’t you realise that there are miles and miles of beach and there are starfish on every mile? You can’t possibly make a difference!”

The young man listened politely. Then he bent down, picked up another starfish, threw it back into the ocean, past the breaking waves. He said:

“It made a difference for that one.”

This story poignantly reflects a common rationale when it comes to helping others.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who becomes overwhelmed with the injustice in the world. Like many, I think I can’t possibly make a difference. But every person counts, and we have to start somewhere.

“There is no greater tragedy than doing nothing for fear of doing too little,” as the saying goes.

The Bible has a lot to say about helping others – especially the poor:

“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” (Proverbs 31:8-9)

“If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.” (1 John 3:17-18)

“Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.” (1 Timothy 6:17-19)

I especially love that last verse. So that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.

We don’t give just because it’s a good thing to do. We don’t give just because God tells us to. We give because we see that life is not so much about this life, but life after we die. The best legacy we can leave on earth is one that involved telling people about the love of Jesus, and showing them his love in our actions. That’s the kind of legacy that will last. And the best possible future we can hope for is our future in heaven, when we will finally understand God’s purposes for this world. There, we will celebrate what God did through us. Not because of our own innate ‘goodness’, but because of the Holy Spirit working in us to carry out his will. He is our only real and lasting hope, and the only hope for our friends and family. This hope is one that will last into eternity.

What’s your ‘starfish story’? Remember – every person matters.

(In case you want to prayerfully consider supporting something new, my family aids the work of The Indian Christian Mission Centre (ICMC) in Salem, South India. It exists to serve impoverished communities with food, education, and teaching about Jesus. Visit their website to find out more.)

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My son (in red) visited ICMC, India last year, and loved the experience.

I don’t hate the weather. I just can’t stand talking about it.

How are you at talking about the weather?

I’ll be the first to admit – I’m not very good at it. Whenever someone brings up this topic, of all topics, I’m quietly annoyed and stumbling for words. Especially if it’s the fifth weather rant I’ve heard that day.

I completely understand it’s the go-to topic when starting conversations. And we do need openers.

weather

But continual anecdotes do my head in. I’d rather say nothing and stand in awkward silence than go there. Please, do not go there with me. OK, it’s raining. OK, it’s hot. OK, OK. OKayyyy…

But at the risk of sounding completely anti-social and psychotic, I do like other conversation topics. And I don’t avoid people altogether. Even the weather-haters.

I think what frustrates me is the perpetual ‘small talk’. And I know I might be in the minority here. But I blame it on my fraught, melancholy, INFJ personality. I’m just not good with the standing-around-chatting-about-this-and-that-thing. Unless we’re talking food… Then, I will talk all day. So yeah, I can be shallow too.

I think I just have a propensity towards over-sharing – ponderous thinking, if you like. And I realise that can get boring too unless you’re just like me. Maybe that’s why I need a blog to get it all out.

I really do prefer the ‘how are you really‘ question to the ‘how are you’. I want to talk about life, and relationships, and struggles. I want to be real, authentic, truthful – even if I don’t always live up to this ideal.

I want to be able to cry if I need to, rage at the world – or listen to another person do the same. Am I sounding high-maintenance yet?…

And sometimes I just want to sit in silence with you. And be OK with that too.

We’re all designed for relationships, as complicated as they are. We might, for a while, convince ourselves we don’t need them. But friends are like ventolin to an asthma sufferer. We need to connect with our ‘puffers’, or we die inside.

So, if you’re already my friend, please be honest with me. And I’ll try my best to be real with you too. I won’t wow you with my weather talk, but I’ll be one of the best listeners there is :)

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