Hannah is sitting on the floor in front of the Christmas tree, wearing a Santa hat, singing, “la, la, la, la, life’s a happy dream”. She is only 6. There are 20 little kids her age who had life stolen from them before they even got to Christmas this year.
I got to spend my Friday with my two girls at their school fun day yesterday. In Connecticut parents are being told their children have been murdered by an evil young man with a gun. Heartbroken for them, gutted that this world contains such evil, thankful for my own kids and at a loss to know why these things happen.
My (first) blog (Words of Eternal Life) was born as a flow-on effect from a tragedy that deeply touched my heart in October 2009 when two-year-old Aisling Symes disappeared suddenly, and despite extensive searches could not be found. As the search continued and fears for Aisling’s safety grew, a Facebook page was set up to offer support for the family. I had not previously used Facebook, but wanted to leave a message so signed up to the site.
Facebook confronted me with both a marvelous mechanism to connect with people and also a fantastic array of utterly trivial and quite pointless time wasters. I did notice, however, that some people were writing excellent articles and posting them on Facebook. Then I realized these were in fact blog feeds and this started me pondering whether I should confront the low-grade content on Facebook with something a bit more edifying to the soul than Farmville and the likes.
So little Aisling induced me to join Facebook, which then seeded the idea of starting a blog. What you are reading is the result, and being born out of the memory of Aisling it has a sober tone to it, an awareness of how precious life is and how essential faith in Christ is given that life can be so short. My prayers go out to Aisling’s parents and sister and I thank them for their own faith in Jesus which is also an inspiration and encouragement that Christ is sufficient for all we need.
The hardest thing about having strength is not using it.
Controlling strength is particularly important for fathers of small children, outbursts of strength around young children is devastating to them, whether the outburst is physical, verbal or emotional. My own experience is that preventing angry outbursts at my children takes a huge amount of self-control, humility, practise and help from others. I am not good at this.
I am not alone unfortunately, New Zealand’s heart-breaking child abuse record attests to this, and the statistics are but the tip of a destructive iceberg. The latest New Zealand figures are indicating that 2011 is likely to be another year of child abuse shame in our nation. People can and do look for many reasons and excuses why adults, men particularly, harm children. It is essential to investigate causes and prevention strategies, but that’s way outside my purpose here.
All I know is that my children are physically, emotionally and verbally much weaker than me and sometimes I turn this against the little people who I love the most. God does not give His gifts to those who exert strength over others, he allows the meek to inherit the earth (Matthew 5:5). He does not make greatness in His kingdom a function of strength or power, greatness in the Kingdom of God comes through humility (Matthew 18:3-4).
Controlling my frustrations, voice, irritation, anger, and physical strength is essential for the well-being of my children. It is also essential for my attainment in the Kingdom of Heaven. To attain to the Kingdom of God I must humble myself – especially before my children.
God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong;
(1 Corinthians 1:27 ESV)
It does help me at least a bit to remember in my moments of frustration or irritation at my kids that once again I can thank God for using the weak to shame my strength into submission so that I may also become a child of our Father in heaven.
After writing this my wife, who is much better educated than I about these things, tells me that stress experienced by young children causes demyelination of cortex neurons, leading to learning difficulties and also causing the child to grow up tending towards emotional responses rather then rational responses when stressed.
Gifts I have noticed this week:
416) Cleaning the kitchen floor, because the washing machine flooded.
417) Home-made Turkish coffee… Mmmm!
418) Traffic noise after the tragic silence yesterday.
419) Dwindling wood pile keeping us warm.
420) Hearth stopping hot coals from burning our house down!
421) Growing accustomed to an un-routine lifestyle.
422) Hot shower on a cold morning.
423) Toast at midnight.
424) Comfy woollen jersey.
425) Small people who quail before an unrestrained ranting.
426) Paradise ducks on the pond.
427) Reminder that even the strong can fall.
428) Walking out of shade into sunshine.
429) Cicadas chirping.
430) Rope swing in an old tree.
431) Industry noises echoing around the hills reminding me there are echoes of Christ everywhere.
432) A small army of lancewoods.
433) Acknowledging a passing “I should have…” thought without beating myself up for it.
434) Blinding reflections of glory.
435) Cats lying on a roof to catch the last sunny warmth.
436) beauty of sailboats and steeples.
437) A church who accepts me in my strength and, more importantly, in my weaknesses.
The collage of beautiful children is from various news stories – each of these children was murdered in New Zealand within the last five years, and there are many others also.
If you are a sensitive soul only read the following article on a day you are feeling strong – it’s reality, but not easy to consider.
I’m not quite sure where to start, I have things to do, stuff to read, prayers to pray and blog posts to write… Meanwhile Japan is deeply grieving a major catastrophe and fearful of a potential nuclear disaster on top of that. Despite our recent earthquake nightmare here in New Zealand I am finding it impossible to comprehend the magnitude of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, let alone the threat of nuclear radiation leaking from several damaged reactors.
In the days after February 22 it felt like our little nation had been kicked in the stomach, a much more vicious kick than the explosions at Pike River dealt us. On Friday evening the owner of that enormous boot sunk it into my guts again as we watched the ocean suddenly rise up to encroach upon peaceful towns and cities in Japan with complete disregard for life. Japan may have a much bigger population and economy than NZ, but their pain is the same. Their fear as the earth heaves is the same. Their terror as enormous waves crash upon them is something unknown to us. Apprehension at a potential radioactive menace is also foreign to our nation.
What are we really experiencing as we consider the tragic events in Japan? Surely there is empathy, mourning, shock. Yet if we are honest there is also fear – fear of the future, of what might yet be to come that may affect us more directly. The news is full of it, interviews of experts asking them why that building collapsed when others didn’t. Official inquiries into industrial accidents. Quizzing world experts on seismology asking whether more ‘big ones’ might be in store for us. Accosting theologians, ministers and pastors for an explanation of what God is doing. We are scared. The very fact that we are watching these events on our TVs and over the internet testifies that we are distant from them. Distant from catastrophe, fearful that it might happen to us.
Some like to blame God or other people, some say “I told you so”, some take the ‘let’s eat and drink for tomorrow we die‘ attitude. Those of us who are trying to trust our Father commit ourselves into His hands (Luke 23:46), knowing He may lead our lives directly into suffering but also knowing He has redeemed us (Psalm 31:5). This certainly doesn’t take away the nagging questions or the fear, but it does help me to quieten my soul (Psalm 131). The future is supposed to be unknown to us (Ecclesiastes 8:17), we are called to trust the One who controls it all.
How do I write about giving thanks this week? It seems wrong to list what I am glad for when so many have had life itself snatched away. We thanked God for the miracle of September 4, when few were injured and no lives were lost. Now we are not so sure. We are only a small nation, surrounded by friends. It has been a very long time since we faced something like this in our land. It is a shock for the images on TV to be coming from just up the road, for the accent to be our own, the expressions and faces so familiar.
In the shock of not quite knowing how to react, the outpouring of assistance for Christchurch has been astonishing. Everyone wants to do something, and all those little somethings are being organized to make a real difference. There is stuff to be thankful for, but at the moment it is thankfulness through pain, the hard eucharisteo.
O God, you have rejected us, broken our defenses;
you have been angry; oh, restore us.
You have made the land to quake; you have torn it open;
repair its breaches, for it totters.
(Psalm 60:1-2 ESV)
Let me quote from others who have better words than I do this week:
What will a life magnify? The world’s stress cracks, the grubbiness of a day, all that is wholly wrong and terribly busted? Or God? Never is God’s omnipotence and omniscience diminutive. God is not in need of magnifying by us so small, but the reverse. It’s our lives that are little and we have falsely inflated self, and in thanks we decrease and the world returns right.
Ann Voskamp, One Thousand Gifts, page 59.
There is so much that is ‘wrong and terribly busted’, but at the very least this recent event has reminded me that even the foundations can be shaken, the only safe refuge is Christ.
I will praise the name of God with a song;
I will magnify him with thanksgiving.
(Psalm 69:30 ESV)
Everything can be snatched away. All my stuff, all my achievements, even those I love most. If that is what I cling to, I am in a perilous place because sooner or later it will be gone. All these joys which add fullness to my life must be used a levers to turn my gaze towards Him who gives so generously. It is He that I must cling to and treasure above life itself even. From Chris Tomlinson at Crave Something More blog:
And then these words came from the lips of my heart: God, I love your gifts. They are so good and precious. But even more, I love you apart from your gifts.
This is a truth I want to live out more fully. It means seeing God’s gifts as for my good, whether those be gifts of blessing or gifts of loss. It means rejoicing in those gifts, because God means for us to find great pleasure in them. And it means always treasuring the Giver above the gift, because He is our greatest pleasure.
Chris Tomlinson, When Narnia Awoke in My Back Yard.
It’s all about the Giver, seeing Him through the gifts, the gifts of blessing and the gifts of loss. This is the hard thanksgiving, the hard eucharisteo.
Gifts I have noticed this week (262 – 269):
262) A bowl of wild blackberries to eat, even if they are a weed!
263) A young person standing up to let me have a seat on the bus (but does this mean I am now viewed by the young people as an old codger?)
264) The fascinating strangeness of a stick insect I saw on the footpath.
265) So many expressing compassion by words and actions
266) Freedom to be a Christian openly
Still in prison is Shoib Assadullah, an Afghani Christian who has been in a holding jail in a district of Mazar-e-Sharif, in northern Afghanistan, since October. A recent letter from him suggests that his life is in danger
Assadullah was arrested on Oct. 21 for giving a New Testament to a man who reportedly turned him in to authorities.
“Not only has my freedom been taken from me, but I [am] undergoing severe psychological pressure,” Assadullah wrote in a letter dated Feb. 17. “Several times I have been attacked physically and threatened to death by fellow prisoners, especially Taliban and anti-government prisoners who are in jail.”
Assadullah became a Christian about five years ago. During his imprisonment, last month his mother died due to the stress of her son being in prison, according to the Christian.
Assadullah, who has no legal representation, has also been pushed to recant his faith. Authorities have tried to build a case that he is insane in order to explain his change of faith and possibly to justify a more lenient sentence for him, sources have said.
“My case is supposed to be sent to the court shortly, because the prosecutor has the right to hold a case only for 30 days,” Assadullah wrote. “The court’s decision is most definitely going to be the death penalty for me, because the prosecutor has accused me under the Clause 139 of the criminal code which says, ‘If the crime is not cited in the criminal code, then the case has to be referred to the Islamic sharia law.’”
Sources said that there are diplomatic efforts underway for the secure release of Assadullah.
In his letter, Assadullah wrote that freedom is a gift from God.
Compass Direct News
267) My nine year old asking questions about the realities of faith that I didn’t get to until I was nineteen.
268) Being corrected.
269) Time, even though I use it so poorly.
- See my entire list
Such relief to turn off the TV and allow silence to settle upon me after being saturated with news casts of crumpled buildings, dust, distraught survivors, sirens, fires, a toppled cathedral, and bodies in the rubble. I run water, hot water, to wash dishes and thank God for this – a simple, everyday thing which requires major city infrastructure to function and I almost never consider it.
The residents in Christchurch cannot so easily shut off to the disaster. No water, no sewerage system, even no electricity for many. Roads, buildings and bodies broken. Some gone for ever. The interview of a father, a little younger than myself, desperate to help search for his wife in the rubble of a building. In tears he tells the reporter that when his two small daughters asked this morning where mummy is, he could only reply that she was “still at work”. At work, somewhere under that heap of concrete.
Another man tells a different reporter that he is waiting for news of his sister, also a mum, and he asks anyone who is ‘a praying type’ to please pray, “because there is real power in praying you know”. His exact words… faith, even there, even now.
Interestingly, it is now those who claim not to believe in God that are protesting ‘give Christchurch a break’. Who exactly are they addressing? The forces of nature? Even our Prime Minister commented today that “we will not bow to this challenge”. The worldview that there is no God, that chance and randomness rule, causes folks to become hopelessly unstuck when that very randomness and chance strike with force. They shout “unfair” when another earthquake strikes within six months of the first.
There is no reason that can make sense of this event.
No words that can spare our pain.
We are witnessing the havoc caused by a violent and ruthless act of nature…
…We are a resilient nation, and we will not bow down to this challenge.
Prime Minister John Key, 23 February 2011
The great irony is that the Son of God Himself addressed this very issue when asked about senseless deaths:
Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
(Luke 13:4-5 ESV)
Jesus debunks the idea that it is because the people who perished were any worse than those who survived, in effect He is saying that tragic events happen, they are not due to God being ‘out to get’ anyone. Judgment will happen at the end and that is when sense will be made of everything. In the meantime some things will seem senseless, there is nothing useful to be achieved by attempting to make them make sense. The difficult work of faith is to refrain from excusing God from having any responsibility by theorizing clever arguments to let Him off the hook, He could have prevented this earthquake, He chose not to. And yes, it doesn’t seem fair.
I didn’t even feel the initial quake yesterday, being 300km away (190 miles) and on my lunch break at the time. Arriving back at work ten minutes after it occurred, my colleagues asked if I felt it. Even then it was evident that it was large and centered near Christchurch. We felt the aftershocks too, I thought of the six stories of concrete above me while watching my computer monitors wobbling and coffee gently sloshing in my cup. There was no reason to think it could not happen here too, no cause for complacent idealism that because I am a Christian I would somehow be spared. Heaving earth and falling concrete give no heed to my theology.
Please pray for the people of Christchurch after a large, shallow earthquake (magnitude 6.3, 5km depth, 10km SE of Christchurch city) struck at 12:51pm today. There is severe damage to buildings, including the cathedral and police have confirmed fatalities. There was also a large aftershock at 2:57pm.
I don’t know what to say, all I know is that we should be praying for the families affected by this tragic news and ask God to shine light and hope in our nation.
I am amazed at the integrity and compassion of Pike River Coal CEO Peter Whittall, he clearly cares deeply for the men who have lost their lives and it took a courageous man to deliver the news he gave this afternoon to families anticipating news of hope.
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.