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.
Advertisements

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Warning Lights for Highly Vulnerable Leaders (part 1)

A few weeks ago, I attended a retreat with a group of pastors in our network.  The weather couldn’t have been more perfect, nor the location for that matter.  We were situated in Akaroa, a beautiful little town on the Banks Peninsula, southeast of Christchurch.  We were all tired after a busy year of ministry.  It was great to grab a couple of days together where we had no responsibilities except eat, sleep and have an open heart to what God might be saying to us.

The highlight for me was the session by Rowland Forman called “Ten Warning Lights for Highly Vulnerable Leaders.”  We all know about warning lights.  I have one on my stove top at home.  It glows red when the element under the glass is still hot.   You have a few warning lights on the dashboard of your car.  They are there for your safety as well as your passengers.  They are not to be ignored.

There are warning lights also in our spiritual lives.  We all have them; not just pastors.  Ignore them and not only will you suffer, but also those you lead.  These particular “warning lights” from Rowland were so good I wanted others to be aware of them.  With his permission, I am sharing them in this post.

Pondering over the warning lights. Rowland is seated on the far right.

WARNING LIGHT #1: PRIDE

I could have spent the entire morning just thinking on this one.  In every sphere of Christian life and ministry, pride is our greatest enemy and humility our greatest friend.  Pride was the first sin – among angels and men.  Pride is the essence of all sin, and it is the sin that God finds most offensive.  Why does God hate pride so much?  Charles Bridges summed it up well, “Pride lifts up the heart against God. It contends for the supremacy with him.”

Rowland writes:

“The story of King Uzziah, recorded in 2 Chronicles 26 always gets my attention, as I think of my propensity to listen to my own press [I underlined that one with my pen].  In verses 1-14 of this chapter, Uzziah was on a roll.  He reigned successfully for 52 years.  He was in touch with God, famous and creative [a pastor’s dream].  Verse 15 records a turning point – he was marvellously helped of God until he became aware of his own power.  No longer would he listen to the reproofs of those closest to him, and he ended his days as a lonely leper.”

3 questions were posed to us:

  • Which aspects of Uzziah’s pridefulness do you do you identify with?
  • What are some signals that indicate you may be more prideful than you realize?
  • How will you respond to those signals?

I found these questions deeply convicting.  There was more propensity toward pride within me than I realized.  I answered them by way of a prayer which I wrote down:

 “Lord, you know I am a prideful man.  I am a glory-seeker.  I love admiration and praise; I secretly covet both.  I like my accomplishments to be noticed; I want people to think well of me.  This affects my relationship with you, with my wife and my children, as well as my church, neighbours and everyone I come into contact with in the world.  Please forgive my sin and make pride odious to me.  Make it repulsive and revolting.  Help me see it in its subtlety so I may abhor it, repent of it and seek to glorify only you.”

WARNING LIGHT #2: PRAYERLESSNESS

Rowland writes:

“Imagine being able to tell whether something was accomplished through prayer or in the flesh.  The scary thing is that churches and ostensibly flourishing ministries can run without prayer.  Mark chapter 9 contains the story of the disciples’ inability to heal a demonized boy.  They couldn’t work out why they were so busy, yet so powerless.  Jesus; answer needs to become a motto in our churches: “This kind can only come out by prayer (some translations add ‘fasting’).”  Now there are some things I would try without prayer, but driving out demons is not one of them!”

Here were the questions for us:

  • What has our church accomplished lately that could only be attributed to prayer?
  • To what extent is this warning light flashing on your spiritual dashboard?
  • What steps do you need to take?

Before reading this I would have scored myself quite high on the prayer-chart.  I start each day with the Word and prayer.  I have a number of people and ministries that I pray for each day.  And yet, when it comes down to it, I’m often too busy serving God and writing sermons to spend time on my knees.

Here was my prayer:

“Lord Jesus, I want to grow in my dependence on you.  I am self-sufficient by nature.  I have too big of a view of my own abilities.  My “can do” attitude hinders me from coming to your throne on my knees and seeking your enabling.  Forgive me Lord and cause me to seek your sufficiency, all through the day.”

WARNING LIGHT #3: OVERSENSITIVITY

In our ministry amongst God’s people, we can often take things too personally – especially criticism.  We need to be reminded we are in a battle (Ephesians 6:12).  When a soldier is shot at, he isn’t surprised.  His feelings are not damaged.  He doesn’t raise his head above the parapet and say, “Did I say something wrong?” He is prepared for it; he’s in a war.  When we are oversensitive to the criticism of others, that’s a warning light that we take things way too personally.  It’s not about us.  It’s about God and his cause.

The question posed to us was:

  • To what extent are you over-sensitive to the criticism of others?

Here’s my prayer in response:

“Lord, whenever my feelings are hurt by criticism or negative comments, I forget who I am, and what you have called me to do.  I ought to be criticized and opposed if I am faithfully following you.  Give me a thicker skin and the ability to welcome criticism – for often it is correct and deserved. Use it to humble and refine me.  Amen”

I trust these were helpful to you as they were to me.  Perhaps you might think about writing out your own prayers (you are free to use mine!)  In my next post we have some more warning lights to cover:  Joylessness, fatigue and insensitivity.  I think you’ll find them very helpful also.

(You can read Part 2 of this series here)

Lyn

This past week we had a special visitor stay with us.  Her name is Lyn Riley.  We first met Lyn a little over two years ago in Huntington hospital  where our son Mark was recuperating from his motorcycle accident.  The Air 5 helicopter crew who rescued Mark asked Lyn to come and check on how he was doing.  We formed a special bond with her from that day onward.

Lyn is one of those larger-than-life people who lives life to the full.  EVERYTHING matters and so does EVERYONE.  If you are low on the enthusiasm chart, just spend some time with Lyn.  She’ll give you a good top up!

Lyn’s official role is clinical care coordinator for the LA County Sheriff’s Department – Air 5 medivac program.  She is responsible for the continuing education and quality improvement programs for medics in the SWAT (Special Weapons And Tactics), SEB (Special Enforcement Bureau) and ESD (Emergency Services Detail) teams.  The crew who picked Mark off the road belong to the ESD.  The crew is made up of two pilots, two paramedics and a crew chief.  Lyn personally trained the two paramedics (seen below) who tended to Mark’s injuries, stemming the bleeding and saving his life.

The Air 5 Crew (from Lft to Rght): Brice (Paramedic), Rod (Crew Chief), Tom and Clint (pilots) and Tracy (Paramedic)

Lyn would often come and visit Mark (and us) in the hospital ward.  She was never in a hurry and always had time for us.  Whatever we needed in the hospital, she would try and take care of it.  She was the one who organized the Air 5 crew to come and visit Mark and do a fly past of his window.  As they circled the building, the windows and instruments in the room all started shaking – which didn’t go down all that well with some of the staff.  I think it might have been the first and last time they tried that!  Before Mark flew back to NZ, she had them land on the roof and Mark was taken up there to meet them.  That’s the kind of person Lyn is.

Lyn and Mark with Air 5 crew lifting off at the Hospital heliport

We thought that it was pretty cool that after all this time Lyn would fly out from the States to come and see us.  She timed it for Mark’s birthday so that we could celebrate it together.  While she was here, Mark took her to see some of the sights in our region including the Nelson Lakes, Golden Bay and even some salmon fishing.

Mark, Britney (Mark’s girlfriend) and Lyn checking out some of the pics they took on their trip to Golden Bay

The day after Mark’s birthday, a special package turned up.  It was sent by Brice Stella, once of the paramedics who tended to Mark on the side of the road.  He has taken a special interest in Mark throughout his recovery.  Brice had one of the Air 5 flight jackets made for Mark, with his name embroidered on it.  It came with an official letter from the LA County Sheriff’s Office.  This is what it read:

Dear Mr. Somervell.

The men and women of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, Special Enforcement Bureau (SEB) have been following your recovery these past two years. Your tenacity and attitude has been an inspiration to all of us.

As you may know, the radio call sign of the SEB Emergency services Detail is 240R (240 Robert).  As the Captain of the Special Enforcement Bureau, I would like to assign you the honorary call sign of 240R-KW (240 Robert- Kiwi Warrior).  You are the only person we have ever given an SEB call sign.  We are proud to have you as one of us.

I wish you continued success and good health.  We all look forward to seeing you at SEB the next time you visit the U.S.

Sincerely,

JIM McDONNELL, SHERIFF.

This means when Mark is in LA next time, he will become part of the Air 5 crew, with his own call sign (240R Robert- Kiwi Warrior).

Francelle and I continue to be amazed by the events that have unfolded since Mark’s accident.  We’ve also been amazed by the kind of people who have taken an avid interest him and his recovery.  That convinces us that God his hand on all this in special way and very likely there will be more surprises down the road we don’t yet know about.

We are very thankful for Lyn for all the love and kindness shown to our family and to Brice who has been a great encouragement to Mark (and us) throughout this journey. You are both special to us all.

Here’s a video of Mark opening the package.  The memory card maxed out just when he went to read the letter!  It shows Lyn in her full bloom 🙂

 

Carl

Two weeks ago, I received a phone call while sitting in an airport waiting for a flight.  I recognized his voice immediately; it was my friend Carl.

“Hello there Peter, it’s Carl.”
“Hi there Carl, it’s good to hear from you”
“I have you on my list of many people to call.  There’s something I need to tell you and the news isn’t all that good.  I have only a short time to live.”
The news came like a bombshell.  “Carl,” I replied gently, “what happened?”

Carl unravelled the whole story.  Some melanoma growths appeared on his body a few years ago which were removed.  He went in for check-ups regularly after that, but unbeknownst to everyone, the melanoma was spreading.  They found it in his lymph nodes in his neck.  Carl was then operated on and a large number of those nodes were taken out.  That was eight weeks ago.

They sent Carl home to recuperate.  But Carl didn’t recuperate.  In fact, he got worse.

His wife Rina saw that something wasn’t right.  But when she tried telling the medical personal about this all she got was, “It’s just post-op depression.  He’ll come right.”  His condition deteriorated even more.  Finally, with some advice from some friends, she got their attention.  Carl was brought back in and a full scan was done.  A very aggressive form of cancer was growing in his liver and spleen.  It was terminal.

Life expectancy: approximately 3 weeks.

Carl had been a hard worker all his life.  He ate well and lived a healthy lifestyle.  He was looking forward to a new season in his life of slowing down and spending more time with his family.  One of his dreams was taking a river cruise with his wife in Europe.  They had even booked the trip.  Carl had also just received his gold card.  The first time he got to use it wasn’t for travel, but his operation.

But it gets even more difficult.  At the time of this news, his two sons were overseas along with their wives and young children – one working and living in Holland and the other on holiday in Canada.  They both had to be notified: “You need to get home.”

While Carl was telling me all this, my mind was reeling.  I knew this family well.  They were very close and all loved Jesus.  Still, this would rock them.  More importantly, how was Carl himself holding up?  Would his faith in God and hope in the gospel be strong enough to endure this?  Carl answered that in the next part of the conversation:

“Peter, I absolutely for sure, for sure know where I am going.  I am going to be with the Lord.  I am going home.  That’s not a concern.  My concern is for those I know who aren’t.  So while I still have a clear head and I can think straight, I’m calling them all one by one.”

Carl had phoned his mother and brother and sister in Holland.  For many years he had tried to tell them about Jesus and why he came, but they didn’t want to listen.  Now, things were different.  Carl was dying.  They were ready to listen.

Then Rina got on the phone.  She told me about all the visits they were having.  Carl is an engineer in a large company, so he has many co-workers who know him.  They have all made a special trip to come and see him.  As they come in, one by one, he has them sit down and then for 30-40 minutes, he shares with them how they can get to heaven.  No one argues.  No one gets up and walks out.  They all stay and listen.  “Peter,” she said, “I’ve never seen Carl like this.  He has always struggled with witnessing and finding the right words to talk about God.  But you should see him now!  I’m absolutely amazed.”

Something very special was happening here. This wasn’t a tragic tale about a friend who was dying.  God was at work.  Carl’s prayers were being answered.  He wanted to be a better witness for Jesus.  Now at last, he was – and in a more powerful way than he could ever have imagined.  Carl was using his cancer for the glory of God.  Through his slow and painful suffering, others were hearing the message of life.

When the phone call ended, I sat there for a few moments in the airport staring through the windows outside.  This is what life is really about, I thought.  It’s about people.  It’s about relationships.  It’s about knowing for absolute sure whether or not we are going to heaven and helping others find their way there also.  Carl has a few weeks; others may have a few years.  Sooner or later, everyone’s time will be up.  Like someone said to me once: “We’re all sitting in the departure lounge.  It’s just a matter of what flight you’re on” (which was somewhat ironic considering where I was sitting at that time).  How is it that we all get so busy, we don’t have time to think about what matters most?

I was still in deep thought when an announcement came through the speakers.  “Last call for flight 8239 to Wellington. Passengers must board immediately.”  I grabbed my bag and water bottle.  I didn’t want to miss my flight.

Epilogue

When I arrived home, I booked a flight for the next week to Auckland so I could go and see Carl.  It seemed the fitting thing to do.  It was possible he wouldn’t make it until then, or his condition would deteriorate to the point I wouldn’t be able to talk with him.  Too bad, I thought.  I’m going to trust God and take the chance.

I’m so glad I did.  He was alert and very pleased to see me.  We had a beautiful time together, talking about many things – his family, his work colleagues, and the many conversation he’s been able to have with people.  Rina was there alongside of me, constantly adjusting his bed and pillows so he could be comfortable.  The pain levels were increasing, and so was the medication in order to cope with it.  We read some scripture together and prayed and then let him rest.  I stayed a while to talk with Rina and the other members of the family.  Many tears had been shed and many more would in the next few days.

Regardless of the strength of your faith, death is still death.  It’s distressing.  It’s painful.  The greater the love, the deeper the sense of loss.  But Jesus provides a comfort deep enough to match it.  He understands death.  He knows.  He was there.

After dinner, Carl asked if we could sing.  We stood around his bed and sung together – “I Know Whom I Have Believed.”  Here are some of the words:

I know not why God’s wondrous grace
To me He hath made known,
Nor why, unworthy, Christ in love
Redeemed me for His own.

But “I know Whom I have believed,
And am persuaded that He is able
To keep that which I’ve committed
Unto Him against that day.”

I know not how this saving faith
To me He did impart,
Nor how believing in His Word
Wrought peace within my heart.

I know not how the Spirit moves,
Convincing men of sin,
Revealing Jesus through the Word,
Creating faith in Him.

I know not when my Lord may come,
At night or noonday fair,
Nor if I walk the vale with Him,
Or meet Him in the air.

While we sung, Carl closed his eyes and listened.  He knew whom He believed.  He is the same One who imparted saving faith and brought peace to his heart.  He is the One who redeemed Carl for his own.  He was the One walking with Carl right then and there, through the vale of the shadow of death.

It suddenly dawned on me – in a very real sense Carl wasn’t going to Jesus.  Jesus was there with him (and with us all), in that very room.  Carl would soon see him.  His faith would become sight.  And then he will finally be, home.

A branch on the vine

John 15 is one of those chapters I come back to again and again.  Each time I read it something fresh and new appears that I hadn’t noticed before.  Most of us are familiar with the passage.  Jesus takes an example of everyday life: a vine with its branches, leaves and fruit and uses it to teach his disciples the importance of remaining or abiding in him.

I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. Every branch in me that does not produce fruit he removes, and he prunes every branch that produces fruit so that it will produce more fruit. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, and I in you. Just as a branch is unable to produce fruit by itself unless it remains on the vine, neither can you unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. The one who remains in me and I in him produces much fruit, because you can do nothing without me.” (John 15:1–5, CSB)

We need to stay closely connected to Jesus.  That’s the point.  We need the life of Jesus, pulsating in and through us, just as the life of the vine pulsates through the branches, to enable us to bear fruit and be the people God intended us to be.  If we don’t, we will fail again and again.

The Christian life is not me doing my best for Jesus.  It is Jesus doing his best in and through me.  Apart from him I can do nothing.

So far so good.  I get that.  Then comes the next part.  The Father, says Jesus, is the gardener (or vinedresser).  His role is to prune the vine.  Notice however, which branches he prunes.  It’s not the barren ones.  It’s the ones that are producing fruit.

That was something I hadn’t really noticed before.  And it got me thinking… hard.  If I’m on the vine – if I truly belong to Jesus, then I’m going to be pruned – regularly.  And if I’m not pruned regularly, something is wrong.

So, let’s think about how this works.  I’m no expert in the area of viticulture, in fact, the joke in our house is I’m a real nog when it comes to anything to do with gardening.  I have two gardening instruments in my tool-shed, a chainsaw and a big pair of loppers and I’m dangerous whenever I get hold of either of them.  My wife tells people we make a great gardening team – I destroy things and she rebuilds.

OK, so I’m no gardener but I did some reading on this.  There are actually several stages when it comes to pruning a grapevine:

  • There is what’s called pinching – that’s when you remove the little tips at the end of the branch so it won’t grow too rapidly
  • Then there’s topping, when a foot or two of new growth is removed to prevent the loss of an entire shoot
  • Then there is thinning where you remove entire grape clusters so the rest of the branch can bear more fruit as well as better quality fruit
  • And then there is cutting away of suckers to give more nourishment to the whole plant

And all of this pruning doesn’t happen all at once, but in stages.  Now I’ve watched someone prune a grapevine we had once, and I tell you, I got a real shock.  It was brutal.  He didn’t just snip off a little leaf here and there.  He chopped off entire branches.  But he knew what he was doing.  He knew what was necessary in order for my plant to grow healthy, juicy fruit.

The same is true for the Christian life.  God knows what is best for us.  He knows what to cut away.  Sometimes God prunes because there is sin in our lives.  Sometimes there is a relationship that needs restoring that we have been ignoring.  Sometimes it might be because there is fruit in our lives, but God wants us to bear more.  So, he picks up the knife and he begins cutting.

Now I think I can speak personally here.  I don’t mind sharing something of God’s work in this area in my life.  The most recent “pruning” I have experienced would be my son’s motorcycle accident.  But that’s still going on.  I have no idea of what God wanted to accomplish with all that.  I know I have a lot more understanding of what it’s like for people to go through trauma or loss.  I don’t know what the Father is up to, but he does.

Sometimes it’s only by looking back, years afterwards that we see what he was doing – like my first year of marriage.  When Francelle and I got engaged, we were the postcard couple.  The day we announced it at church a bunch of our friends made this huge placard and held it up and hooted and whistled and made a huge scene.  How I passed any papers at Seminary that semester I have no idea; I walked around half the time in a daze.  We were both utterly smitten.  We got back from the honeymoon and the whole thing crashed.  It was like, this is not the same person I married?  Someone has done a dirty and made a swap.  I was expecting lovely evenings gazing at each other across the table and instead I got plates thrown at me.  NOBODY told me about that in the premarital counselling!

What we had there was two very determined, headstrong, independent people trying to forge out a new life together.  There was pride and stubbornness and pig-headedness (more on my side than hers) that needed to be named, exposed and repented of.  Fruits of love and patience and kindness needed to grow in its place.  

 Snip, snip, snip.  The Father was very carefully, wisely and lovingly tending to his vine.

Perhaps you are experiencing a season of pruning in your life right now.  It might be relational conflict like it was with me in my first year of marriage.  Or you’re experiencing financial difficulty – you’re finding it hard to make ends meet week to week.  Or you are having to watch someone you love suffer.  That is almost as hard as going through it yourself.  It doesn’t mean you’ve done anything wrong.  It doesn’t mean you’re being punished or that you’re not performing in your Christian life to the extent God wants you to.  You’re being pruned – that’s all.  You’re part of the vine and God’s vine gets regularly pruned.

During a very difficult season in my life I was handed a little hard-covered book called Streams in the Desert, by L.B. Cowman.  Inspired by her experience as a missionary to Japan and China, it is filled with spiritual riches of God’s provision and purpose for our lives, particularly during seasons of suffering.

I’ll leave you with an excerpt from February 19:

A CHILD of God was dazed by the variety of afflictions which seemed to make her their target. Walking past a vineyard in the rich autumnal glow she noticed the untrimmed appearance and the luxuriant wealth of leaves on the vines, that the ground was given over to a tangle of weeds and grass, and that the whole place looked utterly uncared for; and as she pondered, the Heavenly Gardener whispered so precious a message that she would fain pass it on:

“My dear child, are you wondering at the sequence of trials in your life? Behold that vineyard and learn of it. The gardener ceases to prune, to trim, to harrow, or to pluck the ripe fruit only when he expects nothing more from the vine during that season. It is left to itself, because the season of fruit is past and further effort for the present would yield no profit. Comparative uselessness is the condition of freedom from suffering. Do you then wish me to cease pruning your life? Shall I leave you alone?”

The comforted heart cried, “No!”

It is the branch that bears the fruit,
That feels the knife,
To prune it for a larger growth,
A fuller life.

Though every budding twig be lopped,
And every grace
Of swaying tendril, springing leaf,
Be lost a space.

O thou whose life of joy seems reft,
Of beauty shorn;
Whose aspirations lie in dust,
All bruised and torn,

Rejoice, tho’ each desire, each dream,
Each hope of thine
Shall fall and fade; it is the hand
Of Love Divine

That holds the knife, that cuts and breaks
With tenderest touch,
That thou, whose life has borne some fruit
May’st now bear much.

—Annie Johnson Flint.[1]

[1] Cowman, L. B. (1925). Streams in the Desert (pp. 56–57). Los Angeles, CA: The Oriental Missionary Society.

Note: this post is based on a message I preached at our Church called “The True Vine.”  You can listen to it on our website here.

Two years on

Today is August 1st, the second anniversary of our son’s motorcycle accident, where he lost control at a corner and collided with a steel road barrier, severing off his left leg and badly mutilating the other.  It was the day when our world was turned completely upside down.  The weeks following were an absolute nightmare.  Looking back, we wonder how we ever got through it.  If it wasn’t for God’s sustaining grace and the faithful prayers of his people, the outcome may have been quite different.

Even so, the whole episode has affected us more than we both realized (perhaps I was the slower to admit it), and it is only now, two years on, that we feel that life has retained a measure of stability.  It has made me think quite differently about those who go through some kind of trauma.  It can leave even the strongest of us feeling weak, battered and a little frail about the edges for months – perhaps even years afterwards.

Francelle put some of her thoughts down on paper (it is the first time she has been able to do so since the accident).  I asked her if I could include in this blog.  She graciously agreed.  So here it is.

As I’ve been reflecting over the past two years, I’d thought I’d share three things that God has taught me in the midst of our new normal.

God’s grace is sufficient. It seems like a cliché, until you really experience it.  I can still remember the awful terror rushing towards me like a speeding freight train when we first got the news.  I covered my ears, not wanting to know if Mark was dead or alive.  But in that place, God met me and sustained me.  He really does walk with us in the valley of the shadow of death.  I remember filling my heart with the truth of God’s word and calling out and asking Him to with me—and He was.

God’s love is shown through His children. In those early days, Peter and I were surrounded by love and tangible support from our brothers and sisters in Christ.  One couple laid everything aside and drove over 14 hours to be with us during those early days in the hospital, sharing with us in our sorrow as we dealt with the repetition of telling Mark he had lost a leg, experiencing the grief time and again.  But not only friends and family helped-the people of God surrounded us with help and love in so many tangible ways.  I knew God loved us because God’s people were caring for us.

God calls us to walk the life of faith. Hebrew 11:1 tells us Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. The walk of faith calls us to dwell in the realm of the unseen. When tragedy strikes, it purifies the heart.  Do I really believe that God works all things out for the good of those who love Him? 

Not every story has a happy ending.  While Mark survived in a miraculous way, he will live with the damage done to his body all his life.  And as yet, he has not chosen to follow the God who saved his life.  But I do know that God is faithful and all of His promises are Yes and Amen (2 Cor 1:20).  However, I recognise that I may not live to see all that God would do because of this tragedy, just as the saints of old did not receive what was promised.  But while I wait, I can continue to fix my eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith (Heb 12:2).