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.

God is with you in the crap of life

If you are a Christian there is always reason to give thanks.
True.

But frankly life sucks at times, for Christians too. Even the Crystal Cathedral went bankrupt, the prosperity gospel ran out of cash. All of our lives have seasons where it seems there is little to give genuine thanks for.

When someone like me starts writing about giving thanks in all things while you slog through difficult times an understandable reaction is to want to tell me where to shove it.

For this reason I have been uncomfortable with the notion of listing all the blessings I can count in my life, because it could easily turn into a boasting in what I have, a thinly disguised love of the world. God does promise us many blessings, some of which are to be enjoyed in this world. However, the greatest blessings are those which are intangible and must be grasped by faith.

A particularly slippery blessing is God’s promise to always be with us:

… And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
(Matthew 28:20 ESV)

Jesus himself promised to be with us while ‘this age’ remains. In Hebrews we also have what appears to be a quote of Jesus:

Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”
(Hebrews 13:5 ESV)

In the gospels there are several incidents in which Jesus rebuked his disciples for their fear. The entire book of Job points to the great value of trusting in God despite overwhelming evidence causing doubt over God’s goodness. Fear is a killer of faith. But this also works in reverse – faith can kill off fear.

When you look realistically at life and cannot help the concerns over whether God really will provide running through your mind, it is not wrong to acknowledge the evidence before your eyes. With that acknowledgement, fear will arise. Faith considers that fear, accepts it as real and then adds faith into the equation.

I may look at our bank statement and see immediately there is not enough money to pay the bills. We have a fixed income so there is no room to squeeze more dollars from anywhere. Juggling bills helps a little but I still fear the prospect of simply running out and being unable to sustain my family. God makes no promise I am aware of that we will not end up in financial sewage. However, He does promise that He will walk through the poo with me.

To some this will seem small comfort and too subjective to be of any value. I have been in much worse than financial shit and this promise of His Presence is what has kept me going. Often it was pure faith, believing that God is with me in my mess despite appearances. Occasionally I knew He was with me, strengthening my weak knees and lifting me up so I wouldn’t drown.

Intangible, yes.

Real? Definitely.

This is one of the great gifts from God which underlie my more immediate and superficial counting of blessings. The list continues to grow because I continue to need to remind myself of all I have to be thankful for and rejoice in. As a fallen creature this counting puts me in a better headspace to appreciate how awesome His greater gifts are.


Gifts I have noticed recently:

882) Seeing a child’s faith blossom and grow.
883) 20 hours of uninterrupted time with my beloved wife.
884) Joy in our hearts from reconnecting and leisurely time together.
885) Some renovation plans.
886) Eastercamp.
887) Friends for dinner at our house.
888) Having dinner friends house.
889) People I know who inspire me (real people with real struggles).
890) Opportunities.
891) Someone helping me find paths in the wilderness.
892) Sunny autumn days.
893) Old holly hedge now providing firewood.

Image: iStock

God is my shield

I recently read that there are 366 occurrences of the phrase “fear not” in the Bible, one for every day of the year. This seemed impressive to me and seeded an idea of meditating on each of these passages this year as a way to strengthen my faith. On doing some searching, however, I found far fewer exhortations to ‘fear not’, and a Google search confirmed that others have found the same.

Even so, there are still a lot of exhortations not to fear in the Bible. After some digging through about 140 Bible references about not fearing or being afraid I have reduced it to a list of 50 which I intend to meditate on this year.

Abram’s shield

My first verse is Genesis 15:1 in which God comes to Abram and says:

 “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”

The context is that immediately previous to this Abram rescued his nephew Lot from a band of invading kings and then had encounters with  Melchizedek and the king of Sodom. To one he gave a tenth of everything and from the other he refused to accept anything. In chapter 15 of Genesis God makes a further covenant with Abram, building upon the covenant of Genesis 12:1–3.

What fears might Abraham have had?

He has recently proven his courage by attacking and defeating the armies of four plundering kings (Genesis 14:1–16). Perhaps he is afraid of God’s promises failing because he has no son (Genesis 15:3)? We do know that he feared kings who desired his attractive wife (Genesis 12:1–13 and Genesis 20:2).

Whatever Abram’s true fears were, it is easy to imagine what they might have been because we are ourselves plagued by fears also. God answers all possible fears in this one statement: “I am your shield“.  God will place Himself between Abram and what he fears, no force in all creation can cause harm to Abram.

Can I claim it?

What a fantastic promise! But it was made to a particular Hebrew man about 4,000 years ago – how can it be relevant to me?

Genesis 15:6 makes it relevant to me:

And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.
(Genesis 15:6 ESV)

In Romans 4:3–25 Paul shows that this believing in God’s promises makes us participants in those promises also:

But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.
(Romans 4:23–25 ESV)

Galatians 3:7 confirms this:

Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham.
(Galatians 3:7 ESV)

Therefore, I can safely assume that as I trust in God who raised Jesus from the dead, He also says to me, “Fear not Mike, I am your shield.”

Try it yourself

It feels odd initially, but write out this promise from God, inserting your name instead of ‘Abram’. It becomes powerfully personal.


Image of Emblem of Jerusalem: Wikipedia
Image of fear: salvador74(iStock) 

We have today

Ten years ago if I could see myself here today I’d have been gobsmacked by my complacency.

At that time I was newly married, my wife was 6 months pregnant with our first child, we were renting a cute (but chilly) cottage with a fantastic view over the city. My wife was a student at Teacher’s College and I worked as a biochemistry technician, anxious about whether funding for the position would be renewed (it wasn’t).

A lot of people are recalling what they were doing on that terrible day. A day which started as any other for all except 19 al-Qaeda terrorists. Little did we know the horror we were to see unfold on our TV and computer screens that morning. Most of us can remember exactly what we were doing when we first heard or saw the news.

I also remember that evening walking on a beach with my pregnant wife, discussing what had happened, feeling the uncertainty of what might lie ahead. Even in little Dunedin we spent the next few weeks cringing whenever an aeroplane flew low over the city. People were nervous, anxious for the future. it felt as though the world had changed.

In the months after the attack there was a surge in publication of books on ‘the end times’, I heard several sermons on the topic myself and saw plenty of interest in theories regarding whether those events signaled the beginning of the end. Obviously we are still here and still worrying about paying the bills so life has settled back into what we would generally consider normal.

Yet, while I am not convinced ‘the end is nigh’, it has been a troublesome decade. We have seen increased incidence of terrorist attacks, environmental disasters of human making, earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, volcanoes, floods, droughts, and influenza epidemics. Then there are the purely human events such as economic collapse. None of this tells us what God is doing in the world of itself but does all serve to remind us that life is precious and fragile.

As the horror of September 11, 2001 was a stark reminder of how suddenly life can be interrupted and changed forever, so too the events of the decade since then should also serve as a similar reminder. In the natural, life is not as secure as we might think. However, in Christ we are safely in His care – though that does not mean we may not suddenly be taken from this life. So let’s be thankful for today, for the moments we have here now.

My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.
(John 10:27-29 ESV)


Gifts I have noticed this week:

613) Today, this moment.
614) Each time I get to kiss my wife and children.
615) A slightly tidier front yard.
616) Remembering where to find some unusual information when it was urgently needed.
617) A gift of tickets to take my daughters to the ballet.
618) A colleague swapping shifts with me so I can see my daughters in their school performance.
619) Birdsong heralding the dawn.
620) That I can call a sunny day ‘glorious’ and know God made it reflecting Himself.
621) A clear head despite tiredness.
622) Morning tea with the kids in their tree hut.
623) Lunch in the sun on our back porch.
624) Children giggling.
625) Being reminded that God counts me as His despite my sin and weakness.
Image of a new day: Eric Parker

Homesick

Almost everyone asks themselves at some point, “Is this it? Isn’t there more to life than this?” Such a question is an admission of homesickness, longing for our true home.

Lonely child

Have you ever been homesick? Stuck some place but desperately yearning to be back home with the people who love you and places you love. Even if you like where you are now, there remains an intense knowledge you are not where you belong.

For a child, homesickness can destroy joy and is only abated when a parent comes to take the child home. As adults we learn to shove the feelings back down and get on with things but the longing for home remains, however we try to ignore it. This is a good thing – home is where we should want to be.

Still, it is odd as an adult to feel intense homesickness yet not be wanting to go home to Mum and Dad, or even home to my wife and kids – I am longing for my Father and His house (Matthew 23:9 and John 14:3). Not the gold streets or never being sick or the delights of heaven, rather to be with my Father and to dwell in His house. To be home.

He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.
(Ecclesiastes 3:11 ESV)

Almost everyone asks themselves at some point, “Is this it? Isn’t there more to life than this?” Such a question is an admission of homesickness, longing for our true home.

Don’t be afraid of longing for home. It is right and good to know we are only sojourners here (Hebrews 11:13).

For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.
(2 Corinthians 5:2-4 ESV)

These lines from a song sum up well how it can feel to be homesick for God:

Forever seems so distant
Much further than today
You turn around and in an instant
You find that you are just as far from yesterday
The day it feels like winter
The night it feels like stone
You turn around and you remember
When you’re surrounded
You can still feel so alone
(San Angelo by Third Day)


Gifts I have noticed this week:

539) A good book finished.
540) Dreams surpassed.
541) A christian preschool for my son
542) Barracuda washed up on the beach.
543) Huge changes compared with one year ago.
544) Friends visiting our church.
545) Folks noticing if we are late.
546) Enduring the day at work with a headache.
547) Bus to bring me home at the end of the day.
548) My children fed well enough that they can be fussy and waste some of their lunch.
Image of homesick boy: iStockphoto

Comfort my people

The comfort offered to Israel is that God Himself will come to them, and God Himself comes to each of us in the Person of Jesus Christ.

comfort-my-people

Comfort, comfort my people says your God.(Isaiah 40:1 ESV)

God directs tender words to be spoken to His people, words of hope and pardon. There is a message of preparation, “Get ready for God’s visitation.” There is a message of enduring hope, “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.” And there is the message of God’s arrival, “Behold your God!”

Could anything be more glorious? “Behold, God is at the gates!” He has forgiven, He comes to gently lead and to justly rule. The all-surpassing joy of such a proclamation! As someone who is not descended from Israel, I read  Isaiah 40:1–9 rejoicing for them and yearning to be part of the celebration of God’s coming to His people. God is coming to abide with His people and how I long to be part of that people with whom God dwells!

Paul reckons there is a chance for me:

“Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’
and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved.’”
(Romans 9:25 ESV)

God is going to name people who were not His people as His people, even His beloved!

For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in [Jesus Christ] will not be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
(Romans 10:11-13 ESV)

So I can rejoice with Israel that God is coming to His people – has already come and will come again. The comfort offered to Israel is that God Himself will come to them, and God Himself comes to each of us in the Person of Jesus Christ. He came, to purchase our redemption with His life. He comes, calling each of us to follow Him. He is coming, to receive His beloved at the end of all things.

My comfort comes in beholding my God; His majesty, His mercy, and His meekness.

“Say to the daughter of Zion,
‘Behold, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’”
(Matthew 21:5 ESV)

The logic of a downcast soul

the-logic-of-a-downcast-soul

My soul is downcast within me,
therefore I will remember You

(Psalm 42:5 ESV)

It is common to think of emotions and logic as being somewhat opposed – there are logical types of people and feeling types. Mathematics is logical, emotion does not affect the outcome of an equation. Happiness is an emotion, logical analysis tends to ruin it. But this psalmist sees no such dichotomy, he uses logic to help his own emotional response.

The emotion

My soul is downcast within me,

Downcast is another way of saying despondent, despairing, disheartened, depressed. In other words, I feel like crap inside, I am broken, abandoned. I’m impressed by how the psalmist reacts to his internal state of being downcast – he makes a rational, logical decision to do something quite different to what comes most naturally. I’ve seen my own reactions to being downcast often enough to know that remembering God is not a natural instinct. My default behaviour is to become selfish, sulky and sinful. I try to make myself feel better. This psalmist seeks God. I react more like the writer of Psalm 73:2-5 &  Psalm 73:21-22.

The logic

therefore I remember You.

When I cannot control my soul, when it is downcast and I cannot do anything about it, this is when I most need to remember God. In remembering God I need to exert some stubborn trust, to hope in God, for I will again praise Him (Psalm 42:11). It is the realization that I have no hope of true satisfaction, joy or comfort on earth or in heaven apart from God, which drives me to resolve to remember God when feeling downcast.

My soul is downcast within me,
therefore I will remember You.
(Psalm 42:5 ESV)

The gift of gifts

Hand nailed to the cross with blood and dirtSometimes I am reminded of the one Gift that makes hope possible. The gift that takes a life destroyed by sin and redeems it. Such a life can be made new, lifted out of the mire and set upon a firm foundation in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17,  Psalm 40:2,  2 Timothy 2:19). In this is hope; not in instant answers, magical changes or miraculously altered circumstances, but in Your life in me within the reality that I now find myself. This is hard – to hope in Christ within an imperfect, sin-distorted life. It seems so much easier to seek an ‘instant fix’, to look for avenues of escape. Being renewed in very small increments hurts, especially when it demands of me to work out my salvation. With trembling and groaning I step into each day, facing many failings, growing pains and hardness of heart.

I am writing to you, little children,
because your sins are forgiven for his name’s sake.
I am writing to you, fathers,
because you know him who is from the beginning.
I am writing to you, young men,
because you have overcome the evil one.
I write to you, children,
because you know the Father.
I write to you, fathers,
because you know him who is from the beginning.
I write to you, young men,
because you are strong,
and the word of God abides in you,
and you have overcome the evil one.

(1 John 2:12-14 ESV)

Gifts I have noticed this week (# 65):
  • Redemption purchased by the blood of Jesus Christ.
  • (There have been others, but I want to emphasize this, the Gift of gifts)
  • My entire list

Fear and faith

fear-and-faith

While I do a very imperfect job of it, I am a Dad and I love each of my children very, very much. My biggest fear is that something bad might happen to them – if anything bad is to happen to my family I would prefer it to be me who suffers rather than my wife or children. When I pray for my kids at night I ask Jesus to hold them close and keep them safe, knowing full well that in fact bad things do happen to Christians and their kids just as bad things happen to other people (see Luke 13:1-5).

In praying for God to keep my kids safe, my primary thought is that He will give them the faith to trust Him and keep that faith intact no matter what happens. I try not to think about the things that could happen to them, partly because it is a pointless, anxiety-producing exercise and also because God tells us not to worry ourselves about ‘what-ifs’ (Matthew 6:34). A more grey area is anxiety regarding how I might respond to a tragedy or suffering in my family – in part such anxiety is about something that may never happen, but it also relates to how deeply rooted my faith in Jesus and God’s goodness is – will my faith survive being tested?

Having been a Christian for over twenty years, my faith has been tested in various ways over that time but not by anything really major. I very much feel like the father asking Jesus to heal his child:

And Jesus said to him, “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:23-24 ESV)

I believe, Jesus help my unbelief. In fact, I have felt this deeply in praying for my daughter to be healed of severe ezcema – I know Jesus has the power to heal her, yet also know that mostly healing comes through medicines and doctors and often people just have to endure sickness in this fallen world. Am I praying with faith when thinking like this?

When I worry about the safety of my children, a child who comes to mind readily is little Aisling Symes who died tragically a year ago, leaving a devastated family grieving her loss while clinging to faith in Christ. I’m sure they have struggled much over the past year, but their faith and the support of their church last October was inspiring to me and still helps me to be mindful of where my trust needs to be.

A couple of extracts of what was said by Pastor Russell Watts of Ranui Baptist Church in Auckland at the funeral of Aisling Symes on October 16, 2009:

“Last week we searched day and night, we posted flyers, we prayed for Aisling, for the family, for the police, for the nation to find her.
On Monday night we were still praying here in the church and many other churches joined us in prayer for her safe return. While God speaks to prophets about tragedies or impending disasters, to most of us He gives words of encouragement or comfort or words that will build character. And so, motivated by hope and love, we really felt that she was safe and that God was going to return her to Alan and Angela. When you love you hope, when you want to put practical legs on hope you pray, and often a miracle will result.

By this time Aisling had been in heaven for a long time, by our standards. And yet, I believe that God took those prayers which we prayed too late, and He stored them up and poured out His help in different ways. The Bible says that He treasures the tears of every believer. We did not get the answer to prayer that we really wanted; it was already too late, a tragic accident had taken place. But I know God still responded with compassion to our tearful pleas.”

“When you love, you hope, when you want to put practical legs on hope you pray,” this may seem odd to an action-oriented, make-it-happen-yourself type of society, but actually goes straight to the core of where the power to make things happen lies – with God, not us. Only God knows what the real purpose was in taking Aisling home so soon was, but her disappearance moved this nation to pray and helped many of us to see more clearly what is truly valuable:

“In a hundred years’ time that great house we built will be crumbling and decaying, that career we worked so hard at will not matter to anyone anymore, that sporting trophy or medal or money in the bank that we accumulated just won’t hold any significance to anyone anymore.

Paul, in writing to the church at Corinth, said all that stuff would pass. Those things aren’t eternal but these three qualities will remain: faith, hope and love, and the greatest of these is love.
I would suggest to you that in those intense seven days of prayer, of searching and supporting, that you did something better, and bigger, than win a gold medal or gain world recognition. You displayed three qualities that really matter, three qualities that really count, three values that are of eternal significance – faith, hope and love.”

(Quoted with permission from an article featured in the November 2009 issue of the NZ Baptist newspaper.)

I have read  1 Corinthians 13:12 many times and have read commentaries about this verse, but this is by far the best and most vivid summary of the meaning and application all integrated in one that I’ve ever encountered. Love, hope and faith all in action as tearful, even fearful people pray desperately for God to have mercy on a little girl.

What I am talking about here is not some abstract, theoretical ideal of how faith should work – many of us prayed for Aisling to be found, her family and church grieve to this day, and so the reminder that the love, prayer and support given to them, the hope in Christ that she is right now in God’s loving arms, and the faith behind all of these – this is real. When I fear for my children, I am grateful for the reminder that faith, hope and love are what counts for eternity.

Jesus said to the ruler of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.
(Mark 5:36 ESV)

God bless you Aisling.