We are His

Last week I posted a warning on the dangers of elevating Olympic athletes to a god-like status (you can read that article here). A few days later I read the tragic news of a young New Zealand cyclist who took her life, a day after the closing ceremony in Tokyo. This very capable individual had competed in Rio but for some reason wasn’t picked for the team. She had recently posted on social media about the pressures of elite-level sports. It doesn’t take much to put two and two together. It appears that it was all too much to bear.

Now the nation mourns for her. And so do I. When the pressure to perform (or the desire to achieve) becomes so great that life is not worth living, then something is terribly wrong.  Just as life does not consist of the things we possess, nor does it consist of the people we please, the achievements we make, or the medals we attain.

It was in the course of mulling over these things that I came across Psalm 100:

Let the whole earth shout triumphantly to the Lord!

Serve the Lord with gladness;

come before him with joyful songs.

Acknowledge that the Lord is God.

He made us, and we are his,

his people, the sheep of his pasture.   (Psalm 100:1–3)

One line came into sharp focus that I had not noticed before:

He made us, and we are his.

We are creatures; we are not gods.  

We were made by God; we did not make ourselves.    

We are finite; we are not infinite.

We are mortal; we are not immortal. 

We are temporal; we are not eternal.

We are not God; we belong to God. 

We are HIS.

The only way to understand a tragedy like this is to understand it theologically. That is, through the lens of divine revelation. Human studies – anthropology and psychology and psychotherapy provide no answers.

Sin caused us to seek god-like status independent of God.  Instead of ruling and reigning over creation under his guidance, provision and care, we sought to rule and reign without him.  The result in our world is evident – conflict, chaos, and confusion; disharmony and disorder in human relationships and disorientation in ourselves. 

Jesus came to restore us to our God-given identity and purpose.  By way of his death and resurrection, we regain what was lost at the fall.  The broken pieces of the Imago Dei are put back together.  Jesus invites us to abandon our little kingdoms to be part of his eternal kingdom.  There we will rule and reign and priests and kings the way God intended it (Revelation 5:10; 22:1-5).  And we will understand ourselves as we truly are.

I wonder how different things might have been for that athlete who came to the end of herself if she would have known this.  I know that there are many people who struggle with mental health.  We live in a broken world and Christians are not immune to this.  But knowing who we really are, why we are here, and where it’s all heading does make a difference.  It gives us life and hope. 

Kevin Black posted a great little article on this very Psalm.  His words ministered to me personally.  I think they serve as a fitting end to what I’m trying to say:

Today, we still try to play the role of God. And this is a tiresome, possibly deadly pursuit.

But here’s where Psalm 100:3 points us: God is God … He made us We are His …and we are under His care. I forget this. I neglect this. I rebel against this. In a thousand ways, I tend to Lord over my own little universe, and my reward is fear, apathy, anxiety, discontentment, and the deadly pride to think I’m better off self-dependent.

But God—in His tender care— graciously reminds me here that it’s best for me to be subject to Him, to operate under His care, to look to Him alone for all my needs, to acknowledge HIS Lordship and embrace my position as God-dependent. We know that fruitful life and ministry come only through Christ-dependency (John 15:5).

So today, let’s take some soul-level rest knowing that the Lord, He is God. Let’s look to our shepherd, Jesus Christ, for all our needs like a sheep would because we belong to Him.

Oranges, Diamonds, and a Funeral for a Friend

A couple of weeks ago I took a funeral for a wonderful woman of God who attended our church.  Her husband requested that I share the hope of the gospel for those who would be attending.  I knew that they both became Christians later in life, so I suggested that I weave in their personal story of how they came to faith.  God used it in a mighty way, and many were touched by it. 

Taking funerals is never easy at the best of times, and people can often be put off by a good message given with the wrong tone.  I am thankful to God that did not happen in this case.  Here is the script of that message:

Funeral Message for Anne Marshall

Saturday May 29, 2021

Solomon, the man to whom God gave supernatural wisdom, said something very significant for times like this. He said,

“It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, since that is the end of all mankind, and the living should take it to heart. Grief is better than laughter, for when a face is sad, a heart may be glad. The heart of the wise is in a house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in a house of pleasure.” (Ecclesiastes 7:2–4)

We could paraphrase those words this way: “Attending a funeral is better than feasting with friends,” or “A 30-minute visit to a cemetery is better than a night out on the town.”  The lessons we learn from pleasure tend to be shallow and easily forgotten. The lessons we learn from death, sorrow and loss go deep, into the very meaning of our lives.

I’m guessing there’s a number of you who would be happy to take a pass on those lessons today.  If you had your choice, you’d be anywhere else but here right now.  I understand that.  Believe me, I know how you feel.  I was there once.  But it’s precisely here and only here where we have the opportunity to take to heart the real issues of life.   And one of the very real issues of life we all must contend with is death – our own death and the death of ones we love.

There is a true story that comes from the sinking of the Titanic.  A frightened woman found her place in a lifeboat that was about to be lowered into the freezing North Atlantic.  She suddenly thought of something she needed so she asked permission to return to her room before they cast off.  She was granted three minutes, or they would leave without her.

She ran across the deck that was already slanted at a dangerous angle and raced through the gambling room with all the money that had rolled to one side, ankle-deep.  She came to her stateroom and quickly pushed aside her diamond rings and expensive bracelets and reached to the shelf above her bed and grabbed three small oranges.  Quickly she found her way back to the lifeboat and got in.

The amazing thing about that story is that 30 minutes earlier she would not have chosen a crate of oranges over the smallest diamond.  But death had boarded the Titanic.  Instantly, priceless things became worthless and worthless things priceless.  Oranges became more valuable than diamonds.

As we mourn Anne’s death today and consider our own mortality, I want to offer you something more valuable than diamonds.  But it’s not oranges.  I’m going to let Anne (and Gavin) tell you what it is – through their own story, which I have right here in front of me.  It was the wish for both of them, at whichever funeral came first, to have this story shared publicly so that you might know how their faith in Christ, shaped their entire lives and gave hope in facing death. 

So here it is:

Gavin only 17 when he met Anne.  He knew as soon as he set eyes on her that she was the one for him. But it wasn’t until they both went to Sydney soon after being married, that they began to question the meaning of life. They joined with another couple to go to a restaurant where Gavin pretended to himself, that he and Anne were wealthy and famous people, and that at the pinnacle of their success, they would enjoy themselves to the maximum of enjoyment – beautiful food, wine and be entertained by the current visiting famous American singer – as a famous and wealthy person would!

As the night progressed, Gavin thought, “If this is the best that anyone could enjoy themselves – how great was it truly?” and he realized that it was not all that great after all.  He thought to himself, “could there be more to life than this; could there be a God?”

His search began and when they moved to Nelson and began bringing up their two children, whilst working hard, he was dogged with the thought, that it all seemed so pointless. He was working so that his children would then continue working, getting married, having children, in an endless and seemingly pointless cycle.  Could there be more to life?  Was there life after death?

Meantime, a Christian had given Gavin a New Testament Bible, which he tried to read but seemed to make no sense. Anne, meanwhile, as a hairdresser, was doing the hair of the wife of an American Minister, and Anne shared that Jehovah Witnesses were visiting – at which point the woman threw up her hands and asked for her and her husband to visit, which they duly did and then explained the good news of Jesus and invited them to church the following weekend.

They went and as was explained by the minister, they came to understand they were in fact far from God because of their sin (as are all people on this earth), and that no single person – even if they were classed as a good person, could enter God’s presence.  And were therefore destined to a God-less eternity.

But then they were told the good news – that God, in His grace and mercy, made a way for man to be made fit for heaven and He did that by sending His Son, Jesus Christ, who came as a sin-bearer for man, so that whoever accepted what He had done for us, by taking upon Himself our sins, on the cross – that person would then no longer have to pay the penalty for sin and would be set free forever.

Gavin and Anne made their decision to trust in Christ – a decision that would change their lives forever, and that not only give full meaning to life but a hope that goes beyond the grave – a hope for an eternal future.

So there it is.  This was the turning point in their lives.  From this point on life took on a whole new meaning.  But so also did death.  Death was no longer something to be feared because Jesus overcame death and went right through the other side.  For the Christian, death has been defeated.  They know they will be with Jesus forever. 

So Anne could now say along with the Apostle Paul,

Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, death, is your victory? Where, death, is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!  (1 Corinthians 15:54–57)

We all must face death one day my friends.  The mortality rate in this room is 100%.  No one escapes.  The time to prepare for that day is now – not later.  For later may be too late.

Would you like to be free from the fear of death?  Would you like a hope that goes beyond the grave?  Would you like to say with all confidence, “I know where I’m going; I belong to Jesus.  My sin is forgiven.  I’ve been set free.  I’m going home”?

Anne could say that.  Gavin can say that.  How about you?

I’m not talking about mere religion here.  Religion can’t help you.  I’m talking about a relationship with the God who created you and loves you – more than you could ever know.  He sent his Son to die for you so that you could be with him forever.

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:16–17)

In a few moments, we will leave this house of mourning.  Diamonds will again take on their temporarily inflated value. Oranges will again become common.  Our focus on the issue of life’s brevity will fade back into the background. Will the lessons you have learned fade away as well?  Only you can make that determination and only for yourself.  

I earnestly encourage you to do so.

Note:  My opening words and the story of the Titanic come from “Lessons Learned in the House of Mourning,” A Funeral Message by Dave Redick.

NZ Police Chaplaincy

Police work can be very demanding.  It can be the cause of many tensions and frustrations for those involved in the work – at multiple levels.  To help deal with this, the New Zealand Police provides chaplains in various regions around our country.  The chaplain’s role is only one of many services to police officers in NZ.  There are trained counsellors and wellness advisors who are specialized in their various fields.  The advantage with the chaplains is that anything shared with a chaplain stays with the chaplain.  Nothing said is reported or goes on record (unless it’s an issue of safety).  They act as a safety valve for the organization.   

Last October I was installed as police chaplain for the Nelson-Tasman district – a very daunting task!  Part of my reason for doing this is I was desperate to get out of the four walls of our church and into the community.  Pastoral ministry is a great joy, but it can completely swallow you if you are not careful.  Caring for God’s people is not my only priority; I also have an obligation to care for those outside of the church.  I’ve found getting amongst frontline police officers a great way to do that.

My eyes have been opened to the work of NZ Police in a way they never have before.  I’m convinced the general public don’t know half of what they have to deal with.  It’s not just the occasional verbal abuse or threats, it’s the domestic violence, dealing with repeat offenders, trying to help at-risk youth, watching offenders get off on legal technicalities, and a myriad of other things.  Yet day after day they endure it all and press on.

They call the role of the chaplain the ministry of presence.  Being present, being available, showing up regularly, week after week is what matters.  Sometimes I have a significant conversation with someone; sometimes I don’t.  It doesn’t matter.  What matters is everyone knows there is a friendly face who pops his head in the door from time to time and if you need to talk to someone about something, he’s there.

A few weeks back, I joined with 46 other chaplains in our country for the national conference in Wellington.  It was a great opportunity to sit down and chat with a few “old hands” who have been in the game for 10, 15 and some up to 25 years.  There were some good tips, like leaving your card around the station, joining an officer in a ride-a-long (passenger in a police car), turning up at one of the police training days, joining police on Anzac Day and many other things.  I also got to meet the NZ Police Commissioner, Andrew Coster (see picture below) who was the speaker at our formal dinner.  As a committed Christian, he’s right behind chaplaincy work.  He understands what we are about.  

Andrew Coster (centre) and chaplain Lui Ponifasio (right). I'm on the left.

In a couple of weeks I’ll be joining with one of our community police offers at a local high school.  He’ll be talking about staying safe in the cyber world.  That’s another side of the police I didn’t know much about: prevention work.  The aim is to educate people when they are young, and in doing so, they can prevent a lot of damage in their lives later on.  I’m looking forward that.

Someone asked me recently, “How on earth do you have time to this on top of everything else you do?”  My answer to that is easy.  After getting to know this amazing bunch of people, listening to them talk about their work and having the opportunity to pray for them, how could I afford not to? 

It’s a no-brainer. 

Flight 8306

There is a popular notion today, particularly in the West, that people are no longer interested in God or spiritual matters.  But I do not find that to be true.  An example in case would be my conversation with a Kiwi bloke named John.

I had just boarded my flight home to Nelson and found that my allocated seat was taken by a young woman who had settled comfortably and was listening to music with her eyes closed.  The seat opposite her, however, was free.  I figured that was in fact her seat and rather than cause a hassle I would take that one.

That’s how I got seated next to John.  John was on his way home from a job interview in Wellington.  Apparently, it went well, and it looked like he would be moving there soon.  I asked him if he was married or had a partner (which he did), and if that was going to affect her.  She was a psychiatric nurse at Nelson hospital and a transfer wouldn’t be too difficult.  He asked me what I was doing, and I told him I was returning from a Police Chaplain’s Conference.  He was surprised the NZ Police have chaplains.  Most people are.  So I talked to him a little about that. That was my opportunity to ask him about matters of faith. 

“So tell me,” I asked, “Have you a faith of any kind?  When growing up, did you ever attend church or Sunday School or anything like that”? 

“No – nothing,” he said.  “I’m not religious.”

“But surely you must wonder that there is more to life than just the material and physical; that we were put on this earth for a purpose.”

John thought about that for a moment and then said, “No, not really.”

Bother – that didn’t get me anywhere.  OK, let’s try another route. 

“I’m interested in your partner’s work.  Working in mental health must be challenging.  We all know that is a growing area of need in our country.”

John agreed.  “Yeah, you can say that again.  She sure has noticed that.”

“Which makes me think,” I said, “with all these disorders and mental diseases and then pile on that the long-term effects of drug abuse – which even the best psychiatrists and psychologists have difficulty untangling and sorting out; there must be more to human beings than just atoms and molecules.  We are highly complex beings with bodies and souls.  We have hopes and fears and regrets and sorrows.  Unlike other creatures on earth, we have the ability to laugh and cry and love and hate.  We are more than just machines.  We have a great medical system, but don’t you think it sometimes ignores an important aspect of us – the spiritual aspect – our soul? 

John chewed on this for a few moments and then said, “Yeah, you might be right there.”  We talked for a couple of minutes about this and then he went quiet again. 

OK, I thought.  I gave it my best shot.  I’m not pushing any further. 

Then out of the blue, he says this: “I’ve got a question for you.”

Here we go. Lord Jesus, I need wisdom now…

I said, “Go ahead.”

“You believe there is a God who created everything.  And there is a heaven and a hell.”

“That’s right,” I answered.

“And anyone who doesn’t believe in this God goes to hell.”

OK, so it’s the eternal punishment issue.

“That’s putting it very bluntly.  May enlarge on that?  You need to understand there’s a bigger picture to this.  Can I share the story of the bible with you? It will only take 2-3 minutes”

“Go ahead,” he said. 

So I told him the story of the Bible, from Genesis 1 to the end, explaining how man’s rebellion against God separated us – not only physically, but spiritually.  Unless we are reconciled back to our Creator, that separation will continue for eternity and that is why there is a heaven and a hell.  There has to be, in order for God to remain just.  God is perfect and holy, and we are not.  I shared with him how C.S Lewis, the famous Christian philosopher, said that not only is it impossible for us to be in God’s presence in our present sinful state, we would not stand it.  We would hate it.

This did not seem to satisfy John at all.  He kept on, during the remainder of our flight, insisting that the whole idea of hell was abhorrent and inhuman and who is God to come up with it in the first place.  No matter what angle I tried to take – the issue of justice and “what is fair” or “the God who is in charge” angle, there was no placating him. 

About halfway through the conversation it suddenly dawned on me: this was really bugging him, and it had been bugging him for a long time.  It’s just that no one had talked to him about it. 

Finally he said, “I just want to know – why can’t there be a third option?” 

“What do you mean?” I replied.  “What third option would you like?”

“That I just live and die and that’s it.  I don’t want a heaven or a hell.  I didn’t ask for heaven or hell.  I just want to live my life here and that’s it.”

I looked at him and with all sincerity said, “Why don’t you ask him?”

“Huh?”

“God makes the rules, I don’t.  Ask him.  Talk to him about it.  He’s more than up to it.”

John looked out the window.  We were preparing to land. “I can’t believe we are having this conversation,” he said.

I can, I thought. 

“He’s not like you think he is John,” I said.  “He is loving and kind and fully of compassion.  He wants us happy, believe me.  Every good thing you experience, every moment of joy and happiness – your family and friends – the food you eat, it all comes from him.”

I felt the conversation hadn’t ended.  It was going to continue for the next few days – perhaps weeks.  But not with me.  It would be in his head.  There was no doubt God was working on him.  No doubt at all. 

“I tell you what,” I offered, “There’s a great website you can go to that will explain all this far better than I did.  It’s called Long Story Short.  It has a series of videos about 20 minutes long that explains the Christian faith from A to Z.  It might help answer a lot of your questions.  Are you interested?”

“Sure,” he said.

I wrote it down on my boarding pass and gave it to him.

“Have a great day, John.  I hope you get your job.”

“Thanks – and thanks for the talk.”

“It was a pleasure,” I said.

As I got off the plane, I thought about the amazing opportunity that had just been given me and how one woman’s oversight of a seat number had not been coincidental, but providential.  I looked at all the people as I passed through the airport and wondered how many others may have similar questions, but never had the opportunity to explore them. 

If you are a Christian and you are reading this, start praying for God to open up conversations.  Listen to where people are at and what it is about God (or a concept of God) that bugs them.  You never know where it might lead. 

21

Last weekend we celebrated Emma’s 21st birthday. Emma is our youngest and is full of energy and like all of our children, has a wonderful zest for life. The theme for the party was “duos and trios,” which gave a licence for – well, pretty much anything. I was amazed at the way people got into the party mode. As you can see by the photos, there were no efforts were spared! 

Emma has been in medical school for the past three years at Otago University. Nelson serves as her base, and her home. It’s where she comes each summer to wind down, work in a local apple orchard and enjoy a break from her studies. So having everyone make an effort was something special because her friends here in Nelson mean a lot to her. 

Speeches are a significant part of 21st parties here in NZ and there were some good ones spoken.  There’s a number of people who know our family would have like to have been there, so I’m posting my speech here (with her permission of course). I think it sums up 21 special years well.

Well, Emma here we are celebrating 21 years of your life. 

I suspected you have wondered, as many do, about the meaning of life and why you are here on planet earth in this time of history. It’s a deep philosophical question I know, but I can answer it quite easily. Your mother said one day, “shall we have another one?” “Why not,” I said. The more, the merrier. Besides, Katherine needs someone to play with. You never know our luck – we might have another girl.”

It was more than luck. It was providential. God had you in his mind long before you were a sparkle in your mother’s eyes. And he had a plan – an incredible and wonderful plan for you that no one on this earth ever knew about.  

I remember vividly the day you made it clear it was time to come into the world. Your mother was up a ladder tearing off wallpaper of a house we had just bought. “Oh, she said – I think I’m having contractions. I’ll finish this part of the wall and then I’ll see how I feel.” When there was a bit much water running down under the ladder, we thought it might be time to get to the hospital. 

Your brothers were quite taken with your arrival. They wanted to prod you and poke you and Mark thought it might be nice to take you for a walk. Katherine, who by now had established herself as the cutest in the family and her father wrapped around her little finger just stared at you with a startled look. She has been startled by you ever since. 

You really were a lovely baby and looked like you would grow up to be a sweet little girl. About a year later a switch got flicked, and something very odd happened. You learned how to scowl. And it was a mean scowl. Little old ladies would come up and say, “What a dear little girl, look at that red hair. May I hold her?” And your face would tighten, and your eyebrows would furrow, and you gave this look like you were about to scream. Their faces dropped and they retreated very quickly. “Perhaps some other time,” I said, “when she’s feeling better” – which was never, unless either mum or I or grandma Jenney were holding you. 

Dear grandma Jenny, I think she was God’s angel sent from heaven to sprinkle the “sweet little girl” dust on you. The more you went to her house the nicer you become. She taught you how to make things, cook things, draw and paint things and of course – how not to scowl (I am having fun with you – you do know that, you were actually a lovely child to raise… once you reached 5).  

There were many happy days with the four of you in the house, playing games, creating skits, terrorizing the poor cat, and getting into general, safe mischief. You had a very sneaky way of causing trouble and then blaming your sister. “Katherine,” we would say, “You are older than Emma. You should know better.” Occasionally you were caught red-handed however, received the due punishment with no mercy offered nor given by your older sister.

As the months and seasons swept by you blossomed into quite a lovely, vivacious and fun-filled girl. Somewhere along the way, you found Jesus (or he found you) and I really do think that is what made the world of difference. Your happiness was more than human in its source. It was the joy that comes from heaven. It’s the joy I see in you now – delightful, infectious and inviting others to enjoy the same. Don’t ever lose that; it’s the stuff our lives were made for.

Life hasn’t been a walk in the park for you, however. There have been tears as well as many fears; disappointments and failures; dashed hopes and broken dreams. We walked with you through it all and prayed for you that your faith would not fail. And it didn’t. Through it all, God has made you stronger, more resilient and secure and level-headed – yet retaining those precious qualities so rare amongst humans today – empathy, kindness and compassion. 

You had your heart set on nursing, but your Maker intended you for greater things. You set off to Otago University for the daunting and much-dreaded first year of Health Science. A crucible of fire that few survive. The constant pressure of A’s at a sustained level nearly did you in. But you made it. It was no fluke, no lucky draw of some card. You got there by blood, sweat and tears – and a lot of answered prayers.

Your mother and I are so proud of you, as we are proud of all our children. It’s not performance, but character that counts in life. And your character – courageous, caring and Christlike, shines bright like the stars. 

Shine on for us, bright little one. You have all of life ahead of you and a loving Saviour and Shepherd to guide you through all life’s difficulties and trials. 

Guard your heart – it is very easily damaged

Remember wisdom is more valuable than knowledge and genuine love than mere friendship

Be yourself. Pretending is pointless as well as very tiring. 

Keep your eyes on things eternal, not temporal. 

Be a good physician of the body, but don’t forget people’s souls.

And when you get to make a lot of money one day, it will be your turn to shout us a European holiday 😊

At the table

My wife and I have found a new way of doing ministry: eating (now I’ve got your attention!) To be truthful, it’s eating and inviting, or inviting for the purpose of eating. The technical term for it is hospitality, but for some people that sounds too overwhelming. So we are going to come up with another label. Perhaps something like “eat and meet” or “together at the table” or simply, “at the table.” Because in essence, that’s what it is. It’s not about the food or a nice clean house or elaborate presentation. It’s about caring enough about people to invite them to a table – just to talk. Where that table is located doesn’t really matter. It might be at home, it might be at a café, or it might be outside by a lake. And it might be coffee, it might be a beer, it might be soup and bread or it might be MacDonald’s. How it’s done isn’t as important as that it’s done.

We’ve always known hospitality matters. It was drummed into us when we were new to the Christian faith. And over the years we’ve made it an important part of our lives and ministry (being in pastoral leadership you can’t really get away from it). But coming out the other side of COVID, after being locked away from people for weeks, and the pressure of new people turning up at our church, it’s made a new comeback. My wife was determined that we scale it down and make it easy. And we mix it up. Sunday is soup and bread. And maybe a salad. Saturday night is something a little nicer.

We’ve found that people love it. They don’t care about what’s on the table. What they care about is we’ve invited them to a table. Sometimes we join with other families (i.e. extend the table), then invite people to join the party. That’s gaining great popularity. Whatever people want to bring, we eat. If they don’t bring anything, we still eat – because there is always plenty to go around. You can even invite people outside the Christian faith to this sort of thing. They are entirely comfortable because, after all, food is an international social event.

I’ll give you an example. We had a new family arrive at our church from South Africa recently (actually we’ve had several). Let’s call them Lyla and Oscar. Lyla and the kids are there every Sunday.  Oscar, Lyla’s husband, watches on from the side-lines. I think he’s waiting to see if this Christianity thing is the real deal. Anyway, Oscar loves to host people for meals and he loves to Braai. Braai is SA for BBQ (if you can follow that). The meat that comes off Oscar’s Braai melts in your mouth. I mean this dude can really cook. And it’s not just meat, it’s veges and lasagne and whatever else he puts his hand to. So Lyla and Oscar’s place is now the favourite place to meet and eat. And it’s here that my wife and I get to interact on a closer level with people both inside and outside our church. It’s a win-win. Oscar’s happy, we’re happy and the guests that eat Oscar’s food are really happy.

It’s the simplest, most natural and enjoyable way to do ministry. We just love it.

We recently listened to a great talk on this subject by Sam Chan. He lives in Sydney, Australia. He and his wife have been doing this for a number of years. He talks about the need for us to merge our universes. We have our Christian friends and then we have our non-Christian friends and we tend to keep these separate. When our non-Christian friends want to do something, we go with them and when our Christian friends want to do something, we go with them. Sam said we need to merge those universes and bring those groups together. Well, the table is a perfect place to do that. Throw a party or have someone else throw a party and then invite others to it. Offer a beer or a wine and some cheese and away you go. The conversation will get going and you’ll soon find people opening up. Just listen. Show that you care. And you’ll earn the right to speak into their lives.

There’s a guy called Jesus who did this all the time. They always found him at parties. I guess he knew what he was doing.

Note: If you’d like to have a listen to Sam’s talk here’s the link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yj_jfQ6aCio.

 

 

 

January Rejuvenation

I love January. It’s a time when you get to slow down, rest and rejuvenate. It’s a time to enjoy the outdoors, soak up the sun (in this part of the world) and read those books you’ve been putting aside in the winter. It’s a time to enjoy the company of other people – family, friends and neighbours, without having any agenda or needing to rush away anywhere. It’s also a time to reflect on the year that’s gone and think about the year ahead.

There are 3 areas where I felt I was rejuvenated over this past month: body, mind and soul.

BODY

For rejuvenating the body, you need a healthy combination of rest and recreation. This year we chose camping at Pohara Beach in Golden Bay. We spent the days lying on the beach and swimming or going for walks in the bush and the late afternoons and evenings reading. Camping means less cleaning and housework and more time relaxing and winding down. It takes a bit more effort to set up, but well worth once you’re there.

Another great thing about summer holidays is you get to explore places you’ve never been. We went on a walk to a goldmine and came across some caves. They looked cool (and felt it!) but we didn’t have any lights so couldn’t explore them. Just as we were about to leave a family turned up with lights and invited us to tag along. It’s those unexpected things you get to enjoy that make the holidays fun. It’s all part of the rejuvenating experience.

Late January involved a road trip down to Dunedin to help set our daughter Emma up in her new flat. Twelve hours in the car – that was painful! There was one consolation, however: we got to go mountain biking in Wanaka. After two days of driving, I couldn’t wait. I took a ride early in the morning before Francelle woke up to explore a few tracks for where we would ride later in the day. We chose lakeside and then the Newcastle track which takes you alongside the upper Clutha river, giving absolutely stunning views. It was our longest ride together – 56 km. We sure slept great that night! And it made the 10-hour trip home the next day a lot more bearable.

Track alongside the Upper Clutha River

The views alongside the Clutha River were spectacular

Newcastle Track, Wanaka

We loved Wanaka and could have stayed there another 2-3 days. We’ll be coming back.

MIND

Like with the body, rejuvenating the mind means exercising it. Blobbing out watching mindless TV won’t do it. Minds get hungry. They need to be fed as well as rested. My mind is rejuvenated by reading. I read widely – history, biography, theology, prose as well as fiction. Here are some samples of what I read over January:

Napoleon: A Life, by Andrew Roberts

A general at 24 and outstanding leader, Napoleon is a fascinating individual to learn about. Most people think of him as a power-hungry tyrant following after the likes of Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great (he actually studied and esteemed both of them). What they don’t know is he wrote his own legal code (which is still used today), transformed the French education system, and rebuilt Paris. Books on Napoleon are dime a dozen, but after some research, I think Roberts is the best available. It’s not for the faint-hearted, however: 900 pages, which is why it’s a summer read.

C.S. Lewis Signature Set

I’ve been meaning to read C.S. Lewis for some time and finally broke out and bought the Signature Classics set. First up was Mere Christianity, a much easier read than I thought. Very thought-provoking and great for someone investigating the Christian faith. Now I’m on The Great Divorce, a fictional account of a group of people taking a flying bus to visit heaven. It’s a real page-turner. Lewis gives us amazing insight – not only regarding the unsuitability of unbelievers in heaven but also to the fact that they simply can’t stand it. The conversations between old acquaintances and the different perspectives they have of life on earth are worth the book alone.

Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett

If you like historical fiction and have an interest in England in the 1200’s and architecture, this book is for you. It gets a bit raunchy in some places so you might want to speed read those parts. Aside from that, it’s a fascinating insight into early gothic architecture and how cathedrals were built. It’s also just a good story and I expect will stay a best seller for a while. A good read.

When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor…and Yourself, by Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett

I received this as a gift from a regional rep from World Vision. I’ve always been sceptical of (Christian) humanitarian organizations that seem to focus solely on meeting material needs to the neglect of the spiritual. This book corrected my thinking. It’s all about an effective, long-term approach to helping the poor. And its gospel grounded. For anyone who has similar reservations I recommend you get hold of it and give a copy to the mission’s team of your church.

SOUL

Pohara Beach, early morning

Here’s an important part of the human being that’s often overlooked. I wonder if many people know they even have a soul (or spirit/soul, as I see it). Whether they do or not, it also needs rejuvenating. This is best done on your own, but you can do it with a soulmate (I mean that in its truest sense). I found extended time on the beach with my bible early in the morning wonderfully soul rejuvenating. I talked to God about a lot of things weighing heavy on my mind for the coming year and thanked him for the many thousand upon thousand blessings of the last year. As the Psalmist said, they really are too many to count (Psalm 40:5)

I found something else that was very soul rejuvenating: a podcast called “Fight Hustle, End Hurry.” It’s about resisting the hurried and hustled culture that we live in, which is detrimental to our lives. I started listening to it on my early morning runs. Then I told my wife about it and we listened through the whole series together. Topics include Slowing, Silence, Simplicity, Sabbath and Saying No. I highly recommend this for anyone. You can access the podcast here.

That’s my summer break. Next time you’re planning some time off, have a think about these three areas of your life. It might be worth your while.

Grieving a lost comrade

This past week policemen and women from up and down the country met in our church facility to mourn the loss of one of their comrades whom I will simply name as “Phil.” Phil was a dog-handler and not just any dog-handler; he was one of the best. He left behind a grieving wife and a young son, as well as two children from a previous relationship. He was only 43 years old. The family huddled on the stage and supported one another, while they shared through tears many of Phil’s hunting and fishing stories. It was all they could do to hold it together.

They weren’t the only ones. The rest of the room (or ‘rooms’ – we had to set up a video link because of the numbers attending), was a mass of blue uniform. I watched as big strapping policemen – Sergeants and Inspectors and dog-handlers stood or sat, wiping tears from their eyes. Some just stared at the floor. No one was doing very well. And I got the feeling a lot of them didn’t want to be there. But they came for Phil’s sake. It’s the right thing to do to see a mate off.

I didn’t know Phil or any of his family or any of the policemen present. I was there to support Sean, our Youth Pastor who is also Police Chaplain for our area. Sean worked in the force for a number of years. They are family to him. I also wanted to see if any answers or help might be given to those trying to cope with what happened. Phil died suddenly and unexpectantly. There are massive repercussions when this happens for those who are left. They feel bewildered, confused and angry. So, here was this room full of 400-plus bewildered, confused and angry people who were looking for answers and not a word is said about what actually happened.

There the elephant sat, in the middle of the room.

I struggled with this, and so did Sean. As Police Chaplain, he could have spoken directly into this, had he been asked. But he wasn’t, and that was a great shame. Because these comrades of Phil didn’t need fishing and hunting stories; they needed some answers. They needed to hear Phil was an awesome bloke who, in a moment of not-so-awesome madness did something we might consider senseless. They needed to hear also however, that his actions weren’t that out of sync in a broken and messed up world where a lot of people are doing stupid and senseless things. But most of all, they needed to hear that there is One greater than their grief and pain who loves them very deeply. He came into this world to fix its brokenness and offer every man and woman, in their less-than-awesome state, the gift of eternal life. They may not have believed it. But they needed to hear it. Because it’s the only message in times like this that offers any hope. All other explanations come up short.

Instead, they sat there respectfully, listened to all the stories, stood at attention while the casket exited and then went out for tea and cake. But I guess, this is what we should expect in a day when ministers and chaplains are left aside and the funeral directors take care of “the business.” You might succeed in keeping out anything to do with God, but you fail in offering anything of substance; things every soul deeply longs for, things such as truth and meaning and hope.

Sean will have his day, I’m praying for that, as every faithful messenger of God will if they just hang in there, patiently loving and listening to people who need the very thing that they put off hearing.

Just let it be soon Lord Jesus, while there is still time.

 

All In

One year ago, I wrote about five unforgettable days I had at a Student Life Conference in Queenstown. They had invited me to be their speaker. Well, they must be tigers for punishment because they invited me back. And the experience was just as rich and rewarding as the first time. In fact, I think it even topped it.

The theme of this year’s camp was “All In.” If we are going to be followers of Jesus; if we are going to live for God’s cause, we have to be all in – not half in, not even three quarters in, but ALL IN. And everything they did at camp modeled that. When they sing, they sing loud. When they have fun, it’s all out fun. When they evangelize, it’s all hands on the deck and they hit the streets. When they open up the Bible, it’s the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth – no holds barred. There are no half-baked, half-hearted, half-in-half-out Christians among this lot. It would be very difficult for that type of individual, in this kind of environment, to survive.

Students in prayer for one another after a main teaching session

This year they had a record attendance of 140 plus students and leaders, as well as a larger-than-usual number of what they call “explorers.” These are the students on the campuses who have shown an interest in the Christian faith and want to know more. While the other students were attending their various levels of training, the explorers worked their way through a Christianity Explored course with some of the student leaders. They could ask any question they liked. Nothing was off limits.

I sat in on a discussion time one day. I was really impressed with the leader (thanks Joshua) in the way he led the discussion. When a question was asked, he didn’t jump to answer it. He let it sit, and then asked some of the others what they thought about it. Then he asked another question back, and then let that one sit. This slowed the discussion down and caused everyone in the group to think and ponder about the matter. I was suitably impressed and humbled. This was not the typical way I led a discussion in a group. God was teaching me something.

On my last day, each one of these “explorers” was paired up with a Christian. I got paired up with a student called Abi. Abi is from India and is studying biochemistry at Canterbury University. Abi comes from a Hindu background and was very eager to learn about Christianity. The difficulty is Hindus believe in many gods, and when you tell them Jesus is God, they are happy to add him to their collection of other gods. But for Jesus, that simply will not do. He commands exclusive allegiance to him alone. There can be no other gods.

With Abi after our talk together

I suspected Abi might have some difficulty with this, and I was right. So I kept gently bringing the conversation back to this (putting into practice what I’d learned from Joshua) and asked, “Why do you think Jesus demands exclusive loyalty to himself? There must be a reason for this; what do you think it could it be?” If Abi is ever to come to know and understand who Jesus is, it must be revealed to him. And in order for that to happen, he must first believe who he claimed to be. Faith comes before sight and not the other way around (which is why so many in Jesus’ day were blind to his true identity).

Student Life also taught me a lot about teamwork. I picked this up in their leadership meetings. There was a certain efficiency about the way they ran things. Everyone had a part, and they made sure the job gets done. Whatever they did, they did it with all their heart and to the best of their ability. One person talks during a meeting and everyone else listens. There is mutual respect and mutual love for each other and for the work they do. When Jesus prayed for unity; that Christians would be one as he and the Father were one, I think this is what he had in mind. It’s just the way he wanted it.

Reviewing the day with the staff teams from Otago and Canterbury

The impact this team and their work has on the students is quite stunning. Not only are students finding their way into the Kingdom of God, but they are also being trained and prepared for mission. Everything is aimed at that. Take Kathy for example, who has just finished a law degree and is giving up a year to be involved in a staff internship. Why? Because she has a heart for lost students and is more interested in seeing people won to Jesus than making good money. And take Josh, who is weighing up taking an internship with his local church after he graduates this year. Why? Because he’s passionate about the gospel and helping students get grounded in the Word of God.

All the full-time staff have given up opportunities to advance in their careers and establish themselves financially in the world so that they can advance God’s cause in the world and raise up more student labourers. It’s hard work with low pay and long hours. But it is also tremendously rewarding. The impact they are making in people’s lives will go on into eternity.

Driving out of camp to the airport, I began thinking: if only this kind of energy and passion and commitment could be generated in people in the local church and harnessed for mission in towns and cities across our country, the result would be absolutely staggering. This country would be a different place. Perhaps I should stop “wishing” and start praying. As William Carey once said, “Expect great things from God, attempt great things for God.” Perhaps my expectations of what God could do, along with those of my fellow pastors, is too low. We need to up our game.

Speaking of games, here’s a clip of a crazy one they came up with in one of the main sessions. Aim: stuff as many marshmallows in your mouth as you can and then pronounce a phrase to another team member. First one who gets it wins.

Enjoy.

Planes, thwarted plans and the purposes of God

When we plan for an overseas trip – dotting all the i’s and crossing the t’s, we expect things to go reasonably smoothly. We expect documents to be in order, flights to leave on time and baggage to go to the right countries. But what happens when things don’t go according to plan? What do we do then?

When I turned up at Auckland International Airport to head out on my missions trip to Eastern Europe, the last thing I expected was to be turned away and not allowed to board.

But that was exactly what happened.

The problem was with my visa. Visa entry into Ukraine for New Zealanders isn’t complicated; you just need to fill out a form online at least 10 working days prior to departure. That was our plan, but the Ukraine-based team in Kiev insisted that they would take care of that. We left it in their hands.

A week prior to departure we still hadn’t heard from them. Finally, we get an email the day before we are to depart with a number of attachments we were told to print out. I simply printed and folded them and put them in my travel wallet. When the woman at Air Qatar asked me for my passport and visa, I handed them all over to her. She looked at the first document and then the second and the third and then looked up at me and said, “Where’s your visa? There’s no visa here.”
“There must be some mistake,” I said. “These are all the documents I was sent from Ukraine.”

She walks off and talks to some other airline staff – obviously higher up in the chain. I watched them look painstakingly through the documents one by one. Then a senior staff member comes to me and says, “I’m sorry, but we can’t board you without a visa. In fact, we will be heavily fined if we go ahead and board you. There’s nothing we can do.”

My heart dropped. Have you had one of those out-of-body experiences when you hear something really, really bad? Your mind goes blank. You get that metal taste in your mouth. That’s what I was experiencing. I was completely devastated. I took my bags and walked out of the line (followed by some annoying glances by people in the queue) and found a quiet place in the airport.

It was time to pray – like, REALLY hard.

After a few frantic messages through my phone with the team on the ground in Kiev, I learned that I could get into Belarus without a visa, for up to 5 days. That would bide me more time until the e-visa into Ukraine came through. But time was running out – and fast.

I went back to air Qatar and said, “I can get into Belarus visa-free. Can you fly me there?”
“We do fly there, but we can’t change your itinerary. You need your Travel Agent to do that.”

It’s Sunday. My travel agent’s office will be closed. In desperation, I plead to the airline staff member, “Look, I’m a pastor. I’m heading on a mission’s trip. Money has been given for me to go. I simply have to get on that plane.”

This is where God totally intervened. The staff member looked at me and says, “Let me look at your itinerary. There has to be an after hours number.” She finds it, calls the number of her mobile phone and then hands it to me. A woman based in Wellington answers. I tell her the situation and she brings up my itinerary on her screen. I said to her, “You’ve got get me to Minsk – fast.”
“No problem,” she says. “How long do you have?”
“About 8 minutes.”
“That is fast. Hang up. I’ll call you right back.”

About this time, the other staff members for Air Qatar gather around the desk. Everyone else was checked in. I was the only one left. My phone goes off. The House of Travel agent says, “I’ve got you two flights: one from Doha to Istanbul and another from Istanbul to Minsk. They should appear on their screen any minute.”

Sure enough, within a few seconds, the screen at the airline check-in counter starts blinking. Suddenly two new flights appear. The woman smiles at me, hits “PRINT” and then hands me my new boarding passes. “You’re out of here.” Everyone starts cheering (literally). I was almost crying – with joy. Then she says, “But you’ll never make it to the gate on time. We’ll get one of our staff members to escort you.” Another person appears with a lot of tags around her neck. We ran, jumping every queue in the airport. I’ve never been through customs and security so quickly in my life! But I made it on that plane.

Sitting in Doha airport gave me a lot of time to think about what had just happened. I hadn’t responded well. The moment I was told that I couldn’t board, I didn’t think, “God is in control of this. He’s in control of everything.” Instead, I panicked. Here I am, a Pastor, who gets up every Sunday and tells everyone how big God is and how you should trust him, and I couldn’t even trust him myself. I felt shame. I didn’t honour my Lord.

Disappointment turned to worry (that’s what happens when you sit and stew too long). I just bought two more flights at a cost of $900. That’s more expense to an already expensive trip. That’s more money that could be spent on missionary pastors and gospel workers in orphanages. It was at that moment I got a call from Eric Mock, our SGA field agent in the USA. I started telling him my woes. The phone was quiet for a moment and then Eric said this:

“Peter, firstly, this is part and parcel of this work. Most of my trips don’t go according to plan. And secondly, who’s in control? This is not your trip; this is the Lord’s trip. And for some reason, he wants you in Belarus. And you are about to find out.”

His words were exactly what I needed to hear. It was as if God Himself was speaking to me personally (and he was!). This wasn’t a mistake. This was all part of his plan. In fact, thinking about it, this kind of thing happened to the Apostle Paul regularly. You read about his travels in the book of Acts and he was repeatedly thwarted from doing what he planned to do (Acts 16:6-7; Rom 15:22; 1 Thess 2:18). But God was one step ahead, every time. God was moving Paul where HE wanted him to be.

As it turned out, God wanted me in Belarus to meet a very important individual who was running a drug rehab centre. His name is Sasha (you can read about his story here). And on the flight there God had me sit next to a pro-basketball player called Justin. And Justin needed to hear about Jesus.

Eric was right. What looked like a botched-up plan was actually part of the plans and purposes of God. I just couldn’t see it.

Footnote: I was really impressed with House of Travel. They got me a great deal and more importantly when I needed help they were there. The person at the after-hours desk in Wellington knew her stuff and worked efficiently and quickly. If you’re looking for a good travel company in New Zealand, I would highly recommend them. They could save you a lot of trouble.