Autumnal Easter

autumn-leaves

Living in New Zealand, we have our seasons at the opposite time of year to northern hemisphere folks. This is most obvious at Christmas when we are eating salads, having barbecues and going to the beach while the US and Europe are eating stodgy winter food and peering through frosted windows at snow.

Easter is another festival that for us is ‘back to front’ with respect to the seasons. Here it is autumn, not spring, so the tenuous link between eggs and Easter is lost, let alone how rabbits come into the picture.

Some suggestthat the date of Easter should be moved so that southern hemisphere churches can better appreciate the seasonal nuances of a spring festival, or we should reflect on the ‘refreshing coolness’ of autumn as symbolic of the resurrection. The first suggestion is unworkable and the second is grasping at another tenuous seasonal gimmick.

Autumn gives its own meaning to Easter, with a depth that goes beyond mind games. To every Christian, Easter means the death and resurrection of Jesus. Autumn brings a natural emphasis to the first part of this meaning.

The days cool down, mornings and evenings darken, and nature braces itself for the temporary death of winter. So too we walk through Lent aware of the impending death of Christ. His was also a temporary death but no less decisive for being overcome by the resurrecting power of God.

Seeing trees change colour reminds us that we’ve been here before. The winter to come may be hard but the seasons do change, the approaching season of coldness and death will also pass. This is the value of the liturgical calendar, reminders of what faith means in all the changing seasons of life and that through all such changes Jesus remains constant as our rock.

Fading light adds a solemn weightiness to our experience of Easter. The cross is symbolic of our faith and I appreciate the added emphasis autumn gives to this crucial element of Easter. Summer is over, the hardest part of the year lies ahead. At Easter we remember our desperate need of salvation and the awful cost of it. We move on into the darker months knowing the hope we have in Christ who rose again and conquered both death and the sin that causes it.

The darkening days of autumn also call to mind what Jesus spoke in relation to the death he would die:

So Jesus said to them, “The light is among you for a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, lest darkness overtake you. The one who walks in the darkness does not know where he is going. While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light.” (John 12:35-36 ESV)

Let us walk in the light of Christ and the hope of the resurrection.

A father’s love

a-fathers-love

I had an interesting conversation with my 6 year-old son this evening. He has been ‘disengaged’ at school and told me that school is boring and he just wants to play with his Lego. We talked about how learning new stuff is fun and that being able to count is useful. I explained that all he has to do is try to learn one new thing each day and before long with be able to count to 100 and read stories for himself. My point was that school seemed boring because that’s what he expected of it.

All through this conversation I could see both my adult self and me as a child of similar age staring out the window feeling bored, actively disengaged from what I should be doing. It is a familiar feeling and odd to hear myself giving the very advice I should act upon many days at work.

My wee boy is a reflection of myself. He is like me in many more ways than he knows. It worries me that he may carry my own weaknesses on into another generation.

I can be stubborn and proud. I’m irrational when angry or experiencing strong emotions. What I told my wee guy this evening is that he is a lovely, inspiring person when he is happy, someone people really like. It’s harder to accept this as true of me too. He has always been a cuddly kid, I’m learning to return the affection.

While boundaries and discipline are necessary, I’m discovering that a better way of being heard by mini-me is to give him a cuddle, show him he is loved first, then allow conversation to follow. Letting him tell me what is upsetting him has a far deeper effect than a battle of wills in which I tell him what I think is wrong – our two versions of what the problem is are never the same. Boundaries exist, discipline will occur, but the first need is for this boy to know his father’s unconditional love.

This is what I also long for when struggling with my own strong emotions. To be held by a Father and assured that I’m loved. To know that within the hurt I’m not actually alone, my Father is walking alongside me even in the mess of my life.

for the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God. (John 16:27 ESV)

“Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
(Isaiah 43:1 ESV)

Outwardly, being held by God and told I am loved looks different to me cuddling my son. The inner dynamic is much the same. I grow older, get grey and look like an adult but have the same need of love as a child.

A few more years under my belt means the path of consequences and discipline is longer and maybe rougher. Yet what I’m only slowly learning as a parent, God has been doing for me all my life – responding in love first, before the discipline.

God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.(Romans 5:8 ESV)

For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and chastises every son whom he receives.”
(Hebrews 12:6 ESV)


Image: iStock

Shift work is biblical

The prophets were not receiving texts from God on their iPhones but they still endured boring lunches, feeling tired, squabbling kids and in-laws just as we do

My ‘day job’ entails shift work on a 24 hour, 7-day a week roster. This can be a drag and there have been plenty of times when I’ve resented having to work until midnight or endure the graveyard shift. Working weekends when everyone else seems to have time off, or trying to sleep on a brilliant sunny day is no fun. I can easily slip into feeling sorry for myself, thinking that not working 9 to 5 is abnormal and unnatural.

The reality is that a huge number of people work weekends and ‘non-standard’ hours. Statistics vary, but up to 30% of the workforce in NZ, Australia, Britain, Canada and the USA work at least some hours outside of the ‘usual’ 8 am to 6 pm, Monday to Friday work week, with about 15% of workers doing the ‘graveyard shift’ as part of their schedule. In the USA about 28 million people work some non-standard hours, and almost 15 million Americans work the night shift. I’m not alone!

This is not a purely modern phenomenon. During the industrial revolution children laboured in cruel conditions during the night, night work was also common in the early 20th century in mills and factories.

In Biblical times sentries or watchmen were posted to guard cities and warn of impending danger. To ensure these sentries remained alert the night was divided into ‘watches’ and watchmen changed at set times so that fresh sentries replaced those who were becoming tired. Shepherds also remained up through the night watching over their flocks (Luke 2:8). It also seems that occasionally servants were expected to remain on duty during the night ready to serve their masters if they arrived home late (see Mark 13:34–35).

The ancient Jews divided the night into three watches: Sunset (about 6 pm) to 10 pm; a ‘middle watch’ from 10 pm to 2 am; and a ‘morning’ watch from 2 am to sunrise (about 6am). Later, under Roman rule there were four watches: sunset to 9 pm; 9 pm to midnight; midnight to 3am; and 3 am to sunrise (see Smith’s Bible Dictionary).

Even Jesus kept some weird hours at times, going for a stroll across a lake at about 4am, heading off into the hills before daylight, working seven days a week (Matthew 14:25, Mark 1:35, Luke 13:14).

My point is that while we may like to consider ourselves modern (or postmodern, or metamodern, or whatever) with our igadgets and always connected techno lifestyles, the human condition has not changed. Jesus rode a donkey, not a motorbike and the prophets were not receiving texts from God on their iPhones but they still endured boring lunches, feeling tired, squabbling kids and in-laws just as we do. Remember that even Jesus’ parents experienced miscommunication between them as to who was looking after the kids (Luke 2:41-48). If you think a negative Tweet or Facebook update about you is bad, that’s nothing compared to the embarrassment of having the incident recorded in the most widely read book of the next two thousand years!


Scripture references

Lamentations 2:19 Arise, cry out in the night, at the beginning of the night watches! (ESV)

Judges 7:19 So Gideon and the hundred men who were with him came to the outskirts of the camp at the beginning of the middle watch, when they had just set the watch. (ESV)

Exodus 14:24 And in the morning watch the LORD in the pillar of fire and of cloud looked down on the Egyptian forces and threw the Egyptian forces into a panic, (ESV)

1 Samuel 11:11 And the next day Saul put the people in three companies. And they came into the midst of the camp in the morning watch and struck down the Ammonites until the heat of the day. (ESV)

Song of Solomon 3:3 The watchmen found me as they went about in the city. “Have you seen him whom my soul loves?” (3:3 ESV)

Luke 2:8 And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. (ESV)

Mark 13:34-35 It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to stay awake. Therefore stay awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning— (ESV)

Matthew 14:25 And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. (ESV)

Mark 1:35 And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed. (ESV)

Luke 13:14 But the ruler of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, said to the people, “There are six days in which work ought to be done. Come on those days and be healed, and not on the Sabbath day.”

We get to need God

we-get-to-need-god

I recently read a blog post by Micha Boyett in which she wrote:

…Maybe the sad people have been given a gift to see the world as it really is. And when we see the world, when we see ourselves as we actually are, we understand how desperately we need God to come and bring healing. We don’t have to pretend anymore. We get to need God.
(The Pursuit of Enough: When sadness lives on the doorstep of happiness)

“We get to need God”…

These five simple words stopped me in my tracks. The idea of having ‘permission’ to need God, that it is not only OK but a good thing to be desperately needing God. This feels like being released from a burden of weakness.

The burden is being weak in a world that glories in strength and disdains weakness. At work and around others I pretend competence and stability while internally I am fraying at the seams. As a parent I attempt to conceal the underlying feeling of being still a child myself. Even amongst Christians it can be intimidating to honestly talk about how weak I really am.

These hangups carry over into my relating to God. Imagining Him to be like people I know, performance anxiety creeps into my approach to prayer, reading the Bible and communing with my Saviour. As if relating to a divine Santa Claus I am reluctant to reveal the weak, broken, disobedient side of myself despite intellectual assent to His unlimited knowledge of my darkest places.

But Jesus came to call sinners, not those who considered themselves righteous (Matthew 9:13). And God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God (1 Corinthians 1:28–29 ESV). Whether sadness, weakness, sinfulness or brokenness, God calls us in all our mess because it is to His glory that everything has been overcome in Christ.

Being a sinner and broken is the qualifier for receiving God’s mercy.

Every time I am confronted by my weaknesses, when those accusing voices of despair call me “useless,” “hopeless,” “lazy,” “selfish,” “a loser,” I have a choice; to give up and wallow in hopelessness, or remind myself that I get to need God. I don’t have to be strong, needing is easy. All I have to do is to remember.


Scripture references

Matthew 9:13 Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners. (ESV)

Image: Aurora Australis over the Church of the Good Shepherd, Tekapo, NZ courtesy of Shutterstock

Forgiveness

Return_of_the_Prodigal_Son-James_Tissot

On Wednesday I wrote about repentance, today I’m looking at forgiveness.

Repenting from sin and turning to God holds the promise of forgiveness of sin as Peter preached in Acts 3:19. Being restored to a place of unhindered fellowship with God is more than worth any humbling, grief or sorrow that repentance entails.

There is also an interpersonal aspect to repentance and forgiveness.

Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?”

Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.
(Matthew 18:21–22 ESV)

I think this incident was recorded especially for people like me. I not only sin and disrupt my relationship with God, but am also distressingly consistent at damaging my relationships with other people.

But I cannot expect forgiveness from people I have let down in the same way I can from God. People have smaller capacities to cope with such selfishness and failings than God does. There is also a need to earn trust again after letting people down. God knows us too well to trust us not to let Him down.

When I have put my selfish wants over consideration for someone I claim to love, they are rightfully skeptical if I say it won’t happen again. In this situation the roles of Peter’s question are reversed: ‘How often can I presume upon another’s forgiveness?’ Don’t try to tell me the response would be, “seventy times seven”!

From Matthew 5:23-24 it seems the answer would be more like, “Less than one time.” God is not happy to receive my worship until I have gone out of my way to be reconciled with the person I have offended. Also, I must take the initiative, as soon as possible (see Matthew 5:25). As much as it depends upon me, I must seek peace and reconciliation in all my relationships (Romans 12:18).

Finally, because my selfishness has most affected my wife, I am keeping in mind Peter’s word to husbands:

Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered. (1 Peter 3:7 ESV)

I’m not sure about the ‘weaker vessel’ bit, I’m pretty weak myself. The point is that a disrupted marriage relationship leads to problems with prayer (a topic for another day).


About the image: The Return of the Prodigal Son (Le retour de l’enfant prodigue) by James Tissot. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. I chose this image because the story of the prodigal son is the classic story of unconditional forgiveness and I particularly like this artist’s depiction of the father embracing his son.

Acts 3:19 Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, (ESV)

Matthew 5:23-24 So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. (ESV)

Matthew 5:25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser… (ESV)

Romans 12:18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. (ESV)

Repentance

Some choices result in a harder path than others, but the first step along those paths is often no more difficult than the first step down an easy path that leads to destruction.

The last couple of posts I’ve written have looked at some habits I am cultivating to help me live a better life. Self-improvement is fine and I have plenty of room for improvement, but my motivation is not primarily to attain to an improved self.

My motivation to change is based on repentance.

What is repentance?

Oddly, repentance is not commonly discussed on Christian blogs, or even in churches. This is weird because it is the foundation of Jesus’ message to us:

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 4:17 ESV)

Jesus consistently called everyone to repent, a concept that entails ‘a change of mind’ and both turning away from sin and toward God. Nobody is exempt, all of us sin and so all of us need to turn from that sin and re-orient our lives Godward. It is a deep change of heart which then results in changed behaviour as we live according to new priorities.

This is the demand of Jesus to every soul: Repent. Be changed deep within. Replace all God-dishonoring, Christ-belittling perceptions and dispositions and purposes with God-treasuring, Christ-exalting ones. (Thoughts on Jesus’ Demand to Repent by John Piper)

Is once enough?

Reading through the Gospels it can seem as if repentance is a single major life event in which a person makes a total break with their old sinful ways and from then on lives fully devoted to God. Life experience and a closer look at the New testament shows this to be an inaccurate idea. The Apostle John writes:

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:8–9 ESV)

This clearly indicates that followers of Christ still sin and need to repent and confess their sin. For some church traditions repentance and confession can be a weekly occurrence, my own church does not have a formal confession tradition so this can easily be overlooked. Perhaps closer accountability might have pulled me up sooner, I’m not sure.

A Lenten journey

I suspect that I needed to hit rock bottom to force me to face a multitude of sins in my life. The Bible refers to the Israelites as being stiff-necked (Exodus 32:9), in other words ‘perversely obstinate’ and even resisting the Holy Spirit (see Acts 7:51) – a description which also fits me. While I may never know for sure, it could be that my annus horribilis was necessary to force me to either turn towards God or turn fully away from Him and so seal my fate.

So this Lent I am moving through an unplanned process of repentance and pruning. (I was going to use the word ‘refining’ but there is nothing refined about this process). The hardest parts of last year were due to depression, something I cannot control. The hardest parts now are seeing all the choice points at which I gave in to foolish, selfish and sinful decisions which I justified to myself because I felt too weak to choose better. That is a lie.

Some choices result in a harder path than others, but the first step along those paths is often no more difficult than the first step down an easy path that leads to destruction. Depression does impair decision making, yet I was still able to make the choice of asking my wife to help me get treatment rather than taking the overdose I had in my hands. I’m sure grace played a large part in that also, why did I not allow God’s grace and the strength of the Holy Spirit help me in other decisions?

Joy in repentance

Repentance is hard to walk through, it involves brokenness and humiliation in recalling past sins, but it is not a bad thing. To turn from sinful ways and run to Jesus is actually the best thing. To acknowledge sin is painful, yet it is the pain of having a cancer cut away – it leads to healing. Best of all, it leads to acceptance with God and this is a joyful experience even while wounds may sting.

I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:10 ESV)


What others have to say on this topic:

Scripture references:

Exodus 32:9 And the LORD said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people. (ESV)
Acts 7:51 “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. (ESV)

Image: ‘Forgiven Much’ by Keith Johnson (see Luke 7:47: “Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.”)

Screen free time

retro-TV

A second goal I am making in my attempt to be a better version of myself is to avoid electronic devices for an hour before bed. There is evidence that the light from certain types of screens such as LCD computer screens and mobile phones can suppress melatonin release in humans, causing difficulty falling asleep for some people. I’m not sure that this is a significant problem for me, but I do know that using the computer in the hour before I’m due to go to bed causes me to delay my bedtime. I get distracted by social media, interesting stuff on the internet, games and even useful things such as writing a blog post.

I should be using that last hour of the day to wind down, read my Bible, pray and get organised for the morning.

For me it is a little complicated by working odd shifts – my work day can finish at midnight, or bedtime can be 9:30am in the morning. But the principle still works, nothing I would be doing on the computer or my phone is so important that it should be allowed to displace time with God or my wife. Yet this is what I have allowed to happen for some time now and the cost has been too high.

To make this work I need to know when my bedtime should be, and possibly set an alarm or reminder to prompt me to turn off whatever gadget is grabbing my attention an hour before bedtime.


Image: Shutterstock