Rahab’s Redemption

Once there was a woman named Rahab.  She lived in a city called Jericho.  One day, a couple of Israelites visit her home.  She takes them in and hides them.  When the King’s men came looking for them, she tells them they had already left.  She lies.  Then she lets them down through a window on the outside of the city wall.

That’s how most people remember her.  But that’s not how God wants us to remember her.  He wants us to remember her for something else.

Rahab was a prostitute.  She made a living by selling her body for sex.  We are told that not just once, but five time in the Bible.  In Joshua 2:1 she is introduced as “a prostitute named Rahab.”  In chapter 6:22 Joshua gives orders to the spies to go the prostitute’s house and then in verse 25 she is named, “Rahab the prostitute.”  In James 2:25 we are reminded about “Rahab the prostitutee” and then in Hebrews 11:31 – that great chapter on the heroes of faith it says, “By faith Rahab the prostitute welcomed the spies in peace and didn’t perish with those who disobeyed.”

It seems that God is wanting to make a point.  When we hear the name “Rahab” he wants us to always remember her past.  Why?  Does he have something against prostitutes?  No more than he has things against you are I.  We are sinners just the same.  We’ve all broken God’s law – multiple times.  Then what?  Well, that’s what we are about to find out.

Taking Jericho

Jericho – the “City of Palms”, was a very famous city.  Located five miles west of the Jordan River, it blocked the entrance into the Promised Land.  And it was well fortified.  The city itself covered about 8 acres and it was surrounded by inner and outer walls.  The inner wall was 12 feet thick, the outer wall six feet thick and they both stood about 30 feet high.  The city was impregnable.  It was impossible to breach.  But not for God.  He was going to flatten it.  All the Israelites would do is stand by and watch.

Joshua sends two spies into the city of Jericho on a reconnaissance mission.  Like any good general, he wants to scope the enemy out.  The spies find their way to a prostitute’s house – a place where travellers frequent themselves, a place where they could remain undetected.  Well it doesn’t take long however before their cover is blown.  The King’s men come searching.  Rahab hides the Israelites on her roof and tells the King’s men they’ve already left – through the city gates.  Then she goes up on her roof, pulls away the flax where she hid them, and makes this astounding confession of her faith in Israel’s God,

 “I know that the Lord has given you the land, and that the fear of you has fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt away before you.” (Joshua 2:9)

She tells them how she has heard how God dried up the water of the Red Sea and led his people through and what He did to the King of the Amorites and the nations.

“And as soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no spirit left in any man because of you, for the Lord your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath.” (Joshua 2:11)

This is a most remarkable statement.  Rahab is a foreigner, a Canaanite.  She lives amidst a pagan culture that worships idols.  Yet she declares that Israel’s God – Yahweh (she uses His covenant name), rules over the heavens and the earth and all other gods.  In other words, the gods of her people are not true gods, the Lord is the only true God.

Rahab has put her faith in the One and only true God.  But note that her faith is not perfect.  She was not truthful to the King’s men.  She lied.  The New Testament commends her for what she did, not for what she said.  Her actions were of faith, not her lie.  Then she says to them,

“Now then, please swear to me by the Lord that, as I have dealt kindly with you, you also will deal kindly with my father’s house, and give me a sure sign” (Joshua 2:12)

Do you see that term “deal kindly”?  It is the word chesed.  It means steadfast love.  It is covenant language.  It is used by God to describe His covenant love for His people and it is used by God’s people to describe their covenant love for God.  It is never used by foreigners.

Here Rahab uses it to make a pledge with the spies.  She says, “Covenant with me.  Promise me you will protect me and my family.”   And the men covenant with her.  After letting them down by a rope through her window which was located on the outside of the city wall, they say to her, “Take this cord and hang it outside this window.  Keep all your family in your house.  Don’t go out of doors, and don’t tell a soul about this.  We’ll be back for you.”  And then they were gone.

The two men return and report everything to Joshua, including their encounter with Rahab.  They tell him,

“Truly the Lord has given all the land into our hands. And also, all the inhabitants of the land melt away because of us.” (Joshua 2:24)

The Lord gives very specific instructions on how the city would be taken.  They were to march around it six times and on the seventh time around, the priests were to blow their trumpets, and all the people were to shout with a great shout and God would bring the walls down.  No besieging of the city, no ramparts, no battering rams, not even a single arrow.  This battle would be the Lord’s.

Six times the Israelites would march around the city.  And every time they went around, they would see a bright scarlet cord hanging high up out of a window in the wall.  Joshua would say, “That is the house of Rahab the prostitute, whom the Lord will deliver.”  And on the seventh day the people marched around Jericho one last time, and the trumpets blew and they gave a great shout, and the walls came crashing down.  The Israelite army went in, and we are told in chapter 6 verse 21

“Then they devoted all in the city to destruction, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys, with the edge of the sword.” (Joshua 6:21)

But Rahab and her father and her mother and her brothers and all who belonged to her were saved alive.

Our Jericho

That’s the story of Rahab’s deliverance.  But what does it mean?  And what does it teach us about the deliverance that God offers to us in Christ?

Today we live in a culture of violence, idolatry, materialism and sexual degradation.  We protect whales while we kill babies.  We ignore the starving while we install flat screen TV’s.  We worship sport and sex and materialism and violence.  We even watch movies that glorify the idols we worship.  This is the world we live in.  This is our Jericho.  God has declared war on it, and everyone who lives within its walls.  And a day is coming when it will be completely destroyed.  God will send His Joshua.  The skies will split apart and He will descend from heaven, riding on white horse and He comes to judge and make war (Revelation 19).  On his robe and on his thigh the name is written: King of kings and Lord of lords.  And we are told that the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, will hide themselves among the rocks of the mountains and they will call to the mountains,

 “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?” (Revelation 6:15–17)

Their hearts will melt with fear, just like the citizens of Jericho.  Better to be crushed by a mountain that to face God’s great King.

Rahab was a prisoner, just like us.  A prisoner of her culture, her idols and her lifestyle.  She longed to be free.  She began to hear of a great nation that was heading her way.  This nation had been delivered from bondage by a powerful God.  This God parted the Red Sea and buried armies.  Could this God also deliver her and her family?  Then she met the two Israelite spies.  She received them into her house.  She hid them.  She knew this may cost her life.  That no longer mattered.  Such was her longing to be free.  This was the moment Rahab’s chains came off.  When she took in the spies, her identity changed.  She was no longer a harlot of Jericho, she was Rahab of Israel.  By faith, she had joined her heart to them.  And in joined her heart to Israel, she was joining her heart to the Lord.

Do you see it?  Do you see the picture of the salvation we can find in Christ?  We are all Rehab’s.  We are spiritual idolaters.  We are prisoners of a city doomed for destruction.  And news has come of a great deliverer who can save us from destruction.  His name is Jesus.  His first mission on this earth was not to judge, but to save.  He lived a perfect life, He died in our place.  And on the third day He rose from the dead, proving that He had conquered sin and death and Satan.  If we are to be rescued, we must through in our lot with him.  We must join with Him.  And we must turn our backs on the world.  As Rahab was delivered from that kingdom of darkness in Jericho, and brought into the kingdom of Israel, so too we can be delivered from this kingdom of darkness and transferred into the kingdom of God’s beloved Son (Col. 1:13).

Epilogue

When the trumpets sounded for the final time and the Israelites gave forth a great shout, the walls of Jericho fell.  Joshua’s army went in, and mercy was shown to no one.  No one that is, except for Rahab and her household.  There, in the crumbled ruins of Jericho, one section of wall remained – Rahab’s house.  God brought down every section of wall, except this one.  God enabled it to stand.  It stood because it was joined to an eternal habitation that could not be shaken.  The house of Rahab had become a house of God.

Imagine what it must felt like that day for Rahab and her household.  Here she comes, stepping out of the front door of her house, with her family following her, with smoke and ruins and the smell of death all around.  She makes her way through the rubble, past the broken walls to the outside of the city.  And there, standing before her is the commander of the Lord’s army, with sword in hand.  He holds out his hand and says, “Welcome Rahab, to your new home.”

Rahab’s story doesn’t end in Joshua 2.  Rahab and her entire family became citizens of Israel.  She married a man from the tribe of Judah by the same of Salmon.  Salmon and Rahab had a child by the name of Boaz, who married another Gentile called Ruth.  Ruth became the mother of Obed, who become the father of Jesse, the father of David, the ancestor of Jesus, of the kingly line.  God saved Rahab, so that Jesus could come and save you.

I find that quite extraordinary, don’t you?  He chooses to work through the most ordinary and unlikely people – people like you and me.  He chooses what is weak in the world to shame the strong.  He chooses what is low and despised in the world to bring to nothing things that are, so no human might boast in the presence of God (1 Cor. 1:27-29).  God loves to turn things upside-down, and he turns impossible situations into great victories.

The truth is my friends; we are all Rahab’s.  But God so loves Rahab’s that he sent His Son to die in their place, that whosoever believes on Him should not perish but have everlasting life.  Then He raises them up with Christ and seats them in the heavenly realms.

God transforms prostitutes into princes and princesses.  He makes them part of His own family.  Then he loves them as His very own.

Note: This post was based on a sermon I preached  in a series called “Ordinary Heroes”.  You can listen to the full audio on our website here.

 

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God’s Faithful Servant

It is estimated he preached the gospel to over 80 million people over his lifetime.  He spoke at over 400 crusades in 185 cities.  He served as spiritual adviser to over 10 American presidents.

He was admired and loved by both Christians and non-Christians; by those who love Jesus and those who have rejected Him.  His impact on the global church today is unparalleled.  Between 1950 and 1990 Graham won a spot on the Gallup Organization’s “Most Admired” list more often than any other American.  That’s an amazing legacy.

He was also a model of integrity. During his six decades of ministry, while many other Christian pastors and leaders fell to some scandal or sin, not one serious accusation of misconduct was ever levelled against him.

But his greatest impact was an eternal one.  Through his preaching ministry, that electrified audiences all over the world, countless people came to know and love Jesus Christ.

John Piper, in his tribute of Billy Graham said, “[His] greatest impact is the eternal difference he made in leading countless persons, from all over the world, out of destruction into everlasting joy and love.  This was his primary mission.”

Well done Billy Graham, God’s faithful servant.  You are now home.

Speaking out against Assisted Suicide

If you live in New Zealand, you will be well aware of another push to legalize euthanasia and assisted suicide, led by David Seymour, leader of the ACT Party.  The NZ Parliament has just voted the “End of Life Choice Bill” through its 1st Reading and it is now being considered by the Justice Select Committee.  A similar bill went before the Select Committee two years ago and the majority of New Zealanders opposed it, so that it never made any ground (see my post “Please New Zealand, don’t support assisted suicide” in January 2016, along with my submission against the bill).

Well here it is again, with a new twist.  This new bill involves a law change.  If passed, it would allow assisted suicide or euthanasia by deadly drugs for virtually any New Zealander 18 years or older, who has a disability, a longstanding or ageing-related condition, a mental illness, or even severe depression.

Family First recently published a very helpful and informative leaflet on the issue, which helped clarify a lot of things that were on my mind.

“Safe euthanasia is a myth. Euthanasia will remove the ‘choice’ of many vulnerable people, and fails the public safety test. Most disturbingly, promotion of assisted suicide is a message that will be heard not just by those with a terminal illness but also by anyone tempted to think he or she can no longer cope with their suffering – whatever the nature of that suffering. This is the real risk to young and to vulnerable people, the disabled and elderly people if NZ follows the path of promoting – and allowing – assisted suicide” — Bob McCoskrie, National Director of Family First NZ.

To me it seems rather odd, and somewhat hypercritical for many of our country’s leaders and politicians to be making such a big issue about suicide (which is truly out of hand) and then, in the same breath, support assisted suicide for the weak and vulnerable.  Cannot people see this?

It is helpful in all of this, to have a clear understanding of what assisted suicide is and what it is not.  Have a look at this short video by Euthanasia-Free NZ – you’ll find it very helpful:

There are some clear warnings from other countries where a similar bill has been passed:

  • OREGAN:  In 2016, 48.9% of those who died under the Death with Dignity Act cited “burden on family, friends/caregivers” as a reason for accessing assisted suicide.
  • THE NETHERLANDS:  At least 23% of euthanasia deaths are not reported each year, despite reporting being required by law. In 2012, mobile euthanasia clinics began providing euthanasia to patients whose doctors had refused; by 2014, there were 39 of these clinics, again without recourse to Parliament for a change in the law.
  • BELGIUM:  In the region of Flanders, roughly 30% of all euthanasia deaths are non-voluntary; that’s roughly 1.8% of all deaths in the region.
  • CANADA:  Between June 2016 and June 2017, 1,982 people died under Canada’s Medical Aid in Dying (MAID) Law– 1,977 were euthanized, and 5 people committed assisted suicide.

Some may argue those stats are one-sided; there must be positives to this law change.  But even if these are one-sided, and given say – 10% margin of error, they are still very concerning.  Besides, I still personally struggle to see what “positive effects” such a law change may bring about.

As a Pastor, who has ministered to the elderly and dying for the past 24 years, I strongly oppose this law change.  As a family member, who has sat at my dying parent’s bedside, I oppose this bill.  As a citizen, who foresees massive problems where this could go in our nation, I oppose this bill.   And as a God-fearer, who will one day face his Creator and give an answer for how I stood (or did not stand) for truth and the sanctity of human life, I oppose this bill.

Here is the submission that I made to the Select Committee:

To the Justice Select Committee,

I am writing to oppose the End of Life Choice Bill.

Firstly, I oppose this bill for legal reasons. The bill, if passed, would require a major change to the Crimes Act – namely, that some people should be allowed to intentionally end the lives of other people. The ultimate choice and control will be with the system and its agents, not with the person who dies.

Secondly, I oppose this bill for social reasons. As a pastor, I devote a considerable amount of time caring for the elderly. Many of them struggle to get through each day as their health deteriorates; others suffer with debilitating disease. It pains me to see them in this condition. Yet I also see the love, care and support shown by family members, health professionals as well as people in my church and community. Such loving service is what makes communities truly human. It is right and good. What message are we sending to our children when, for the sake of convenience, the lives of the weak and suffering are simply terminated? I believe such a law would have a profound negative influence on our society.

Thirdly, I oppose this bill for ethical reasons. This bill, if passed, would violate one of the most important principles of our Judeo-Christian heritage (which was foundational to the forming of New Zealand society); namely, the sanctity of human life. EVERY life in this nation of our has inherent worth, able or disabled, healthy or sick.

Lastly, I oppose this bill for personal reasons. Several years ago, I sat at the beside of my dying mother, who was suffering terribly in the last stages of cancer. Her death was not sudden, but long and drawn out. The care given by the medical team at the hospice was exceptional. They monitored her pain levels constantly so that she was not in any discomfort. The drain on myself and my five siblings however, was noticeable. It meant time away from our jobs and family, loss of income and considerable emotional anguish. During this time, none of us were in a fit state to make rational decisions – particularly a decision on whether a person should live or die. We were simply coping. My concern, if such a bill was passed, is that individuals in a similar situation may act emotionally or reactively to end a loved one’s life, or the one suffering may feel pressured or coerced to request a premature death.

Some of the most precious time spent with my mother was during those final days. Hurts were healed, relationships were restored, and loving words were uttered. I believe every human being is put here on this earth by their Creator for a purpose. That purpose is not fully complete until their allotted days are over. We do not have the right, nor the wisdom or foresight, to aid in the ending on another individual’s life, whether they request it or not.

Respectfully yours,

Peter Somervell

Some helpful and informative websites:

You can make your own online submission here.

 

Top Twenty Christian Books

A few weeks ago, an individual in our church asked me to write a post on the best Christian books to read.  “Hang,” I thought to myself, “that’s a tough call.”  There is SO much good stuff out there – where do I start?”  Yet, I remember as a young Christian asking the same thing to many Christian leaders and Pastors.  I wanted to know the books that had the most impact on their lives.

So here’s my top twenty.  Of course, not everyone is going to agree with this list, as it is entirely subjective.  Yet I do believe there is content here that you will find in many other “best Christian books” lists.  Some of these are classics (such as “Pilgrim’s Progress” and “The Knowledge of the Holy”), having been around for years, and others appeared only the past decade.   Some influenced me early in my Christian life and others more recently.  There is a real good mix here – theology, biography, church history and apologetics.  It’s not an exhaustive list, and doesn’t cover the entire spectrum of the Christian life or hit every Christian doctrine.  They are just, simply put, great books.

These are not in order of priority, with the exception of the first five, which I would recommend that every Christian read at some point or another.  So here we go:

1. Pilgrim’s Progress, by John Bunyan.

It’s a classic.  I believe every Christian, young or mature, should read this book – seriously.  I suggest a modern language version; you’ll find it easier and more pleasurable reading.  But the original rendition is still fine.

2. The Knowledge of the Holy, by A.W. Tozer.

This little book packs a serious punch.  Tozer explores the different attributes of God and then at the end of each chapter invites you to bow down before the greatness of God.  The opening words in the first chapter are priceless: “What comes to our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”  Read that again.  Think about it for a moment.  Then get hold of the book.

3. A Praying Life: Connecting with God in a Distracting World, by Paul Miller.

Every Christian should read books on prayer from time to time in order to keep their prayer life alive (I do this annually).  This the best of the bunch.  It is encouraging, grace-filled, faith-filled, and not condemning!  The opening chapters on becoming like a little child and learning to talk to God as Father are precious beyond words.  It will change the way you view God as well as prayer.

4. Knowing God, by J.I. Packer.

If you want to know what God is like, this is your book.  It’s sold millions of copies and still continues to benefit thousands of Christians around the world.  You’ll learn more about God as well as yourself.  You’ll come to understand the weight of sin and the beauty of the gospel.  “Sons of God” (chapter 19) is all about our adoption and has to be one the sweetest, richest chapters on the reality of our salvation I have ever read.

5. Tortured for Christ, by Richard Wurmbrand.

This may surprise some that I have this book as one of my top five.  But I think it is a must read for every Christian.  Pastor Richard Wurmbrand endured fourteen years of Communist imprisonment and torture in his homeland of Romania.  He documents the sufferings he endured, but also the sweet communion with God he enjoyed through, by the indwelling Holy Spirit.  His strong faith and love for his torturers will inspire and encourage you.

6. Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, by Donald Whitney.

A rich Christian life doesn’t come without discipline, and in this book Donald Whitney examines many different disciplines for the Christian life, such as Bible reading, prayer, journaling, fasting, and solitude.  This is the best book on this subject in my view; it’s biblical, practical and thought-provoking.

7. The Ultimate Priority: Worship, by John MacArthur.

This is not a book about worship in the church.  It says little about music styles and taste.  This is about the heart, and will help you think rightly about what true worship is all about.  It also spells out what true worship isn’t.

8. The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, by Jeremiah Burroughs.

This is my all-time favourite of the Puritan Paperback series.  Burroughs defines contentment as “that sweet, inward, quite, gracious frame of spirit, which freely submits to and delights in God’s wise and fatherly discipline in every condition.” (p.19).  He then unpacks that in the remainder of the book.  If you find yourself struggling with contentment in your job, marriage, or any other situation, this book is for you.

9. Christ’s Call to Discipleship, by James Montgomery Boice.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve picked this book off my shelf in my sermon preparation.  This still the best book on discipleship that I’ve ever read!  It will challenge your perspective on Christianity in a number of areas and make you ask some hard questions about the superficiality of the contemporary church.  Boice doesn’t sugar coat anything, so prepare to be challenged.  I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

10. Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist, by John Piper.

There are few books that have my understanding of what it means to love God than this one.  Loving God is more than just duty, it is delight. “One has already made a god out of whatever he finds the most pleasure in,” writes Piper.  His mission is this book is to have you finding your greatest pleasure and delight in this life in God.

11. Trusting God: Even When Life Hurts, by Jerry Bridges.

All of us will go through trials of some sort, and this book will equip you to trust God in even the most difficult circumstances.  The chapter of the Sovereignty of God is just brilliant: personal, biblical, and faith-filling.  My favourite quote: “Trusting God is not a matter of my feelings but of my will.  I never feel like trusting God when adversity strikes, but I can choose to do so even when I don’t feel like it.  That act of that will, though, must be based on belief, and belief must be based on truth.” (p. 52). Bingo!

12. The Reason for God, by Tim Keller.

In an age of doubt and skepticism, Tim Keller offers wise, winsome answers to those who are asking questions.   This is a great book for believers because it gives a solid platform on which to stand when thrown difficult questions, and a great book for skeptics, atheists and agnostics, because it provides a challenging argument for the existence of God and the reasonableness of the Christian faith.  You should always have one of these one your shelf to give to an unbeliever.  Then go have coffee with him (or her).

13. Shadow of the Almighty, by Elizabeth Elliot.

Every Christian is familiar with the story of Jim Elliott and his four missionary friends who were speared to death trying to reach an unreached tribe in the jungle of Ecuador.  But few know about his life.  In this book you’ll follow Jim from childhood through school and into adult life.  It’s filled with excerpts from his personal diary, letters to Elizabeth when he was courting her as well as a plethora of other spiritual jewels which will enrich your soul.  If you are going to read one Christian biography in your life, read this one.

14. The Holiness of God, by R.C. Sproul.

R. C. Sproul, in this classic work, puts the holiness of God in its proper and central place in the Christian life.  He paints an awe-inspiring vision of God that encourages Christian to become holy just as God is holy.  This is not a safe book.  Once you encounter the holiness of God, your life will never be the same.

15. Disciples are Made, Not born, by Walter A. Henrichsen and Howard G. Hendricks

This is the go-to book on discipleship.  My wife and I have taken scores of people through this in our discipling.  It’s a great book for training leaders (especially Youth Group Leaders) because the emphasis is on life-on-life transformation, not activities and entertainment.

16. Don’t Waste Your Life, by John Piper.

I took a group of men through this book a number of years ago.  Some of them are still talking about it.  On the back cover it reads, “Most people slip by in life without a passion for God, spending their lives on trivial diversions, living for comfort and pleasure, and perhaps trying to avoid sin. This book will warn you not to get caught up in a life that counts for nothing.  It will challenge you to live and ide boasting in the cross of Christ and making the glory of God your singular passion.  If you believe that to live is Christ and to die is gain, read this book, learn to live for Christ, and don’t waste your life!”

17. The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis.

I could recommend a lot of different books by C.S. Lewis, but this one is probably my favourite.  Written as a conversation between a senior demon and a younger demon, it provides fascinating insights into the ways of Satan.  You’ll never think of the devil the same way again!

18. Church History in Plain Language, by Bruce Shelley.

Every Christian should be somewhat acquainted with their history.  And there’s plenty of it (over 2000 years worth).  As the famous quote goes: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (George Santayana).  In order to remember it, you first need to know it!  You’ll learn everything you need to know about the early church councils and the battles that were fought, famous Christian leaders as well as heretics (there’s a good dose of them).  You’ll also learn about great periods such as the forming of the Bible, the first Pope and the Reformation.  Easy reading, as well as accurate, which is why I like recommending this book.

19. Humility: True Greatness, by C.J. Mahaney.

There are few things more important to God than humility.  If you want to grow in humility, read this book (it’s worth it for chapter 2 – “The Perils of Pride” alone).

20. Found: God’s Will, by John MacArthur.

Navigating the decision-making process as a Christian can be so confusing in life, whether it’s deciding on a new job or making a choice on which church to go to.  MacArthur strips away the confusion and makes it all very simple.  You could read this in one setting.  It’s short, simple and to the point. Great for a new Christian as well as leaders.

 

 

Living with Margin

margin-heroOne of my favourite things to do while on summer holiday (aside from lying on the beach and eating ice-cream) is reading.  I typically take an assortment of books with me and believe it or not, manage to get through most of them.  I went to pick up the pile I had gathered from my office when a book on my shelf caught my eye.  Remembering Spurgeon’s words about the merits of re-reading good books, I grabbed it, added it to my pile and walked out.

And I’m glad I did.

The full title is “Margin – Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives.”  It’s author, Richard Swenson is a medical doctor as well as a committed Christian.  You don’t have to be a Christian to get something out of this book.  In fact, you could be anti-Christian and get a lot out of this book.  Much of it is about common sense – sense that our Grandparents and Great-grandparents survived on and we, for the most part, have forgotten.

Swenson wrote this book because day after day he sees patients whose lives are literally falling to pieces.  He writes, “Some people come in for broken legs; others, broken hearts. Some have irritable colons; others, irritable spouses.  Some have bleeding ulcers; others, bleeding emotions.  And compounding these wounds, many patients show signs of a new disease: marginless living.”

So, what is “marginless living”?

“Marginless,” writes Swenson, “is being thirty minutes late to the doctor’s office because you were twenty minutes late getting out the hairdresser’s because you were ten minutes late dropping the children off at school because the car ran out of gas two blocks from the gas station – and you forgot your purse.” (p.13)

Sound familiar?

My grandparents didn’t go around complaining about how “stressed” they were (nor for that matter, did my parents).  As Swenson points out, no one talked about stress until the 1950’s.  Now almost EVERYONE is stressed.  But why?

The problem, Dr. Swenson argues, is PROGRESS.  Progress is moving ahead at a speed that we are no longer able to keep up with.  If we don’t create sufficient margin in our lives, this progress creates more and more problems.  The problems then create more stress in our lives and in trying to deal with this added stress, we add more and more activities which results in overloading.

Overloading occurs when the expectation placed upon us (or the ones we place upon ourselves) exceeds that which we are able to bear.  This can occur physically, mentally, emotionally, financially or spiritually.  Camels can bear great loads.  But if another straw is placed on an already overloaded camel, it’s back is broken.  Its back is not broken by the straw, but by the overload (hence the common phrase “the straw that broke the camel’s back”).

We all have our limits – physical limits, emotional limits, mental limits, financial limits.  When these limits are pushed beyond what we can bear, the result is overload.

WP_20180125_003The perscription says Swenson, is margin.  Margin is the amount allowed beyond what is needed.  Margin gives freedom and allows for rest.  Margin is the breath we have at the top of the stairs, the money we have at the end of the month, and the sanity we have at the end of a working week.  When we are overloaded, we have no margin (or we have negative margin).  If, however we are careful to avoid overloading, margin reappears.

Re-reading this was refreshing as well as enlightening.  Because this is exactly what I need in the coming year.

All well and good, you say, but is this notion of his biblical?  Is it prescribed for us in Scripture?  Yes.  It just comes under a different name: availability.  Swenson points out that the modern assumption for the Christian life is “all that is good and all that God wants us to accomplish is possible only in a booked-up, highly efficient, often exhausted way of life.”  But is this true?  Swenson argues no.  Instead God calls us to walk the second mile, carry other’s burdens, and witness to the truth of God at any opportunity.  And in order to do that we need margin in our lives, so we can be available.

“God expects us to be available for the needs of others.  And without margin, each of us would have great difficulty guaranteeing availability.  Instead, when God calls, He gets the busy signal.” (p.99)

Ouch.

What it all comes down to is a call to reorient ourselves to what really matters in life.  And what really matters are relationships.  When we look at the great progress western civilization has made in the past five decades, it is all in the area of the physical – better technology, communication, transportation etc.  But there has been little or no progress in emotional, spiritual and social wellness.  And it’s in these areas that we are all feel the most pain.

“God has shown us the road to health, the path to blessing – it is the way of relationships,” Swenson writes.  “Somehow we just keep taking our expensive automobiles to our posh offices to make another hundred thousand dollars, while all the time our relationships vaporize before our eye and our loneliness deepens.” (p.239)

How very true.

But we do not need to despair.  There is hope.  Relationships can be restored – we just need to create margin for them.  We just need a little more space, a little more breath at the top of the stairs and sanity left at the end of the week.

“If stress crushed your spirit by poisoning you with despair, then either conquer stress or walk away – but don’t stop relating.  If that malignant, universal enemy of relationship health, marginless living, leaves you panting for air and desperate for space, then go and take margin back.  Hack it out of your cultural landscape.  And guard it for the sake of your God, yourself, your family and your friends.  Health cannot be too far behind.”

Wise words.  I recommend you get the book.

Putting a spoke in the wheel

When the Church has a Responsibility to Challenge the State

My summer reading began with Bonhoeffer – Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.  It is a masterpiece by Eric Metaxas and won many book awards.  Now I see why.   Most know something about the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his resistance to Hitler and the Nazi regime and final execution, only weeks before the Allied invasion.  But few know of his incredible courage and passion for truth and justice in the face of monstrous evil.  If he was alive today, I believe this man would not allow the church of the West to remain in the sleepy state that is currently in, but would be calling it to repentance and moral action.

Which brings me to a particular part of the book that I would like to draw your attention to.  It concerns the responsibility of the church to the challenge the state, when it is not acting as the state should be.  In Romans chapter 13 verse 1 Paul says,

“Let everyone submit to the governing authorities, since there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are instituted by God.” (Romans 13:1)

The governing authority at this time, was the Third Reich, which had just come into power.  They were implementing policy after policy restricting civil liberties and granting to themselves greater and greater power.  One policy that was particularly disturbing was called “The Aryan Paragraph” which stated that Government employees must be of “Aryan” stock, anyone of Jewish descent would lose his job.  If the German church (essentially a state church), went along then all pastors with Jewish blood would be excluded from ministry.  Many were confused as to how to respond.  Bonhoeffer instinctively knew something had to be done and that needed to be thought through very carefully.  The result was his essay, “The Church and the Jewish Question.”

Bonhoeffer argued that the church does play a vital role for the state.  What is that role?  The church he said, must “continually ask the state whether its action can be justified as legitimate action of the state, i.e., as action which leads to law and order and not to lawlessness and disorder.”  In other words, it is the church’s role to help the state be the state – both in terms of creating an atmosphere of law and order and not creating an atmosphere of excessive law and order.  If the state is responsible for encouraging excessive law and order (as the Nazi’s were doing), then the church has a responsibility to correct that, because that is a condition which will limit freedom of speech, civil liberties and particularly – gospel proclamation.

Bonhoeffer then outlined (and this is where it gets interesting) three possible ways in which the church can act toward the state.

1. The first, was for the church to question the state regarding its actions – to help the state be what God ordained it to be.

2. The second way (and here is where he gets bold), was “to aid the victims of state action.”  Bonhoeffer stated, “The church has an unconditional obligation to the victims of any ordering of society, even if the do not belong to the Christian community.”  He was referring of course, to the Jews.  He then quoted Galatians 6:10: “Do good to all men.”

3. The third way the church can act toward the state he said, “is not just to bandage the victims under the wheel, but to put a spoke in the wheel itself.”  It is sometimes not enough to simply help those crushed by the evil actions of the state; at some point the church must take direct action against the state to prevent it perpetrating evil.

In the spring in 1933, Bonhoeffer made himself very clear: he was declaring that it was the duty to stand up for the Jews.  This was long before the Jews began to suffer the horrors they would suffer in a few years.  As far as Bonhoeffer was concerned, the writing was on the wall.  Metaxas then writes,

“Bonhoeffer’s three conclusions – that the church must question the state, help the state’s victims, and work against the state, if necessary – were too much for almost everyone.  But for him they were inescapable.  In time, he would do all three.” (p.155)

I personally found all this to be very provoking.  I had always taken the view that Christians should submit to the government in an almost passive manner and any protest must only be done by petitions and letters.  Well after reading Bonhoeffer’s response, I’m thinking differently.

To be sure, we don’t have a Nazi State here in quiet, little New Zealand.  But we are seeing some changes in policy coming down the pipe that are alarming and in my estimation, coming very close to points number 2 and 3.  I’m speaking of euthanasia and the deadly effect that could have on our aging and mentally ill as well as physically challenged.  If life could be snuffed out quickly with the help of a relative or physician, many people could become helpless victims.  Human life – life made in the image and likeness of God, will no longer be seen as precious in our society, but something to be eradicated when it interferes with the progress and improvement of society.

Will the time come when Christians in our small nation will have to take a stand?  Will they be bold and courageous enough, as Bonhoeffer was, to take on the state?  Will I?  Would I put my life on the line for the cause of truth and the protection of the helpless?

I very much hope that I will.

FOOTNOTE: Many in Bonhoeffer’s day believed Hitler was a Christian. He was anything but. Hitler was a master pragmatist; he made statements in public that made him sound like he was pro-church or pro-Christian, solely for political gain. In private, he made a tirade of comments against Christianity and Christians. According Hitler, Christianity preached “meekness and flabbiness,” and was not useful to the National Socialist ideology, which preached “ruthlessness and strength” (Metaxas, p.166).  In a meeting between Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich, Heydrich said, “Just you wait. You’ll see the day, ten years from now, when Adolf Hitler will occupy precisely the same position in Germany that Jesus Christ has now.”  His words were chillingly accurate.

A fresh start for the New Year

I always look forward to the New Year, not for the party or celebrations (I’m usually in bed by 10) but for the opportunity to make a fresh start.  No matter how well I begin the year, I seem to accumulate along life’s way habits and practices that turn out to be unhelpful – for myself and others.  I don’t go looking for them; I just pick them up (like a dog picks up fleas.)  The beginning of a New Year is a good opportunity to shed them.

Earlier this month I came across a post called “Nine Questions to Ask Yourself to Prepare for 2018” by Scott Slayton.  In the introduction he writes:

“What I started doing a couple of years ago was to abandon the idea of New Year’s resolutions and instead start thinking about what I wanted to focus on for the next year in early December. Then I started implementing changes that would make progress on my goals before the new year begins. What this allowed me to do was to get out of the habit of thinking the new year would magically change me into a new person.”

Well needless to say, this got my immediate attention.  This was part of my problem: I was starting too late.  And I wasn’t doing any review of what didn’t go so well the year before.  The author then went on to list nine questions to help me think through what I needed to change, what I needed to refocus on and what I needed to plan.  I found it tremendously helpful – so much so in fact, that I led my church staff team through it over the lead up to Christmas.  It prompted some great discussion and sharing of ideas.

Here are the 9 questions, with my responses:

1. What are My Roles?

Our roles lead to our goals.  If you are a Christian, your first role is a follower of Jesus.  If you are married, your next role is husband or wife and then father or mother etc.  My roles, in order of priority are

  1. Follower of Jesus
  2. Husband
  3. Father
  4. Brother (my wider family)
  5. Brother in Christ (the family of God)
  6. Pastor
  7. Friend of Sinners

That’s quite a list isn’t it?  What a complex life I live!  But you see, by carefully considering this, I already know my priorities for 2018.  It is to fulfil my responsibility to God, my wife and family, my wider family, the relationships within my church (and then by extension, the wider church), and then to those in my circles who don’t know Christ.  At any time in the year I can pause and re-evaluate each of these.

2. What Two Changes Will Make the Biggest Difference?

Scott writes:

“I enjoy asking myself this question because it helps me clarify the main things I need to work on for the foreseeable future. When you think about what things would help you the most, picture your life as a series of dominos. What are those few things in your life, that if you were able to change them, it would affect multiple areas of your life?”

He then gives the common examples of debt and losing weight.  Getting out of debt frees up money for saving and giving.  Losing weight helps us to feel better, having more energy and saving money on doctor visits.

By my mind was going elsewhere.  Over two years ago we moved from a bustling city of over 1.5 million to a town of 30,000.  I expected life to slow down and be less busy.  But my life is busier, my role as Lead Pastor more complex and harder.  So, what is going on?  Something needs to change, but what?  I haven’t come up with an obvious solution yet.  But I’m still working on it.

3. What Two Things Do I Need to Stop Doing?

What is taking up too much time in your life or causing you too much stress?  It might be too much time on screens or your phone or time wasted on Netflix or internet shopping.  Or it could be doing tasks in your job you don’t need to be doing.  My mentor often asks this question of me: “What are you currently doing that someone else could do?”  That’s a tough one for me because there’s a lot I do that is important and needs to get done.  There’s just no two ways about it.  But do I have to be the one doing it?  Again, I don’t have a quick answer for that… yet.

4. How am I Going to Grow in God’s Word?

Now this is a great question – for us all.  The author talks about growing in two ways – deep and wide.  We need to grasp the entirety of Scripture (wide) as well as experiencing the transforming power of individual verses (deep).

Last year I followed the Gospel Project Bible Reading Plan which took me all through the OT and into the NT.  The problem was, I wasn’t in the New Testament until half way through the year, which I think is too late.  And although I was getting the wide-sweep of God’s plan in large portions, I wasn’t delving deep into one or two verses, where often the nuggets of gold are found.

This coming year I want to remedy that.  I am going to delve deep into a few verses during my morning devotion and prayer time and then cover the bigger sections of Scripture in another part of the day (or after devotions, which means getting up earlier).  That’s one of my New Year resolutions.

5. What Relationships Do I Need to Prioritize?

This ties directly in with number 1: What are my Roles?  I looked over my roles and turned the question around: what relationships have I been neglecting?  The answer for me was my wider family and non-Christians.  So those two are going to get more attention in 2018.

6. What Books Am I Going to Read?

Early in my ministry someone gave me a book called Preaching with Freshness.  There was a chapter in called “The Six-Fold Path of Reading.”  Instead of reading one book at a time, you choose five books in five different categories – such as novels, history, biographies, poetry, leadership, TIME magazines etc., plus another of your choice.  I didn’t forget this and have tried implementing it ever since.  It isn’t always easy, especially if you are a one-task-at-a-time man like me, but it’s worth pursuing if you are an educator, pastor or bible-teacher.  You usually are never short of stories, interesting facts or illustrations.

If you find it hard to stay motivated or on track, try Goodreads.  It is a helpful tool.  It’s free to join and you can track the books you’ve read and also have a “want to read” list on hand.  You can even set yourself a target for the year and it will track your progress.

7. What Will I Wish I Had Done When 2019 Begins?

What a great question!  I never would have thought of it.  I know for me what stands out is getting out of my office and spending time with non-Christians, staying in touch weekly with my three adult children at University, and meeting my reading target.

8. When Am I Going to Take a Break?

My staff team laughed at me when I read this one.  And yes, I mean laughed at me.  They know me too well.  I saw the humour, but I also sensed an alert in my conscience which I believe was by the Holy Spirit.  God values rest.  God values margin and time for recuperation and refreshment of mind, body, soul and spirit.  Pastoral Ministry is relentless and requires more than writing sermons, visiting people and ticking off tasks.  At the start of 2017 I decided to take off one paid day a month for reading, prayer and reflection.  But I didn’t act on it.  So, in 2018 I’ll plan one day every three months.  If I can’t keep to that there really is something wrong with me!

9. How Should I Adjust My Daily Rhythms?

Sometimes big goals can’t be accomplished in one day (or even one month).  What is needed is small adjustments that are made on a regular basis every week or every day. So, for example, one of my big goals is to spend more time non-Christians.  That means being intentional and marking out time each week to do that.  Another one of my big goals is to reat 40 books for the year.  Well that means planning small segments each day – to read!

I hope this has been helpful for you as it was for me.  My only regret is I should have posted this earlier, so you had more time to process it like I did.  But you still have January, and starting one month late is better than not starting at all.  In Ephesians 5:16 Paul calls us to make the most of the time (literally, “redeem the time”) because these days are evil.  In a day where distractions and temptations abound, let us press on for God, making the most of the opportunities for godliness and growth he has given us.