Tuesday, 13 July 2010


I appreciate that is a somewhat stark title for a blog entry. It's amazing to consider the power of such a short and simple word. One word that breaks hearts, shatters lives, ruins hopes and dreams.
I was motivated and inspired to clean up my blog and use it for something more worthwhile as a result of following the entries of Craig McKay as he slowly lost his wife to ovarian cancer. More recently, I have followed with baited breath the twitter feed of Britt Merrick whose daughter Daisy was diagnosed with cancer some months ago and very recently was given a clean bill of health following a period of chemotherapy. Today I read with dismay that she is in hospital again, that another tumor has been found and that it is huge. Nevertheless, Britt Merrick found space in his 140 allotted characters to affirm his trust in Jesus. I have never met this man or his family and all I know of him is the little that filters through from his sermons (he is the main preaching pastor at Reality church in California) and his twitter and facebook feeds. It is amazing how technology gives us access to people and information that even a few years ago would not have been possible. I am so blessed to have been able to listen to and learn from Britt's sermons and I now have the privilege of being able to pray for him, Daisy and the rest of the family as they go through a trial I can scarcely imagine.
I know it is obvious, trite and simplistic to say so, but cancer is so horrible. My mother survived breast cancer a few years ago, as have two of my aunts more recently, a good friend of mine lost her leg to a large tumour wrapped around her pelvis, a former colleague of mine succumbed shockingly quickly to aggressive ovarian cancer. Now Daisy Merrick is facing more surgery, more chemotherapy, as is another church pastor Matt Chandler, from The Village in Texas. A couple of days ago Pete Smyth tweeted and blogged about a lump found on his neck which has turned out to be cancerous. He is facing several months of chemotherapy.
Please do not misunderstand me. I am not suggesting that these cases are any more tragic just because they are Christians, or young men, or children, or known to me. Cancer is always heart-breaking, always indiscriminate, always unfair. But it is interesting to see a number of recent cases befalling people who I only know about because 21st century connects us all so well. As impotent as I feel, at least I can pray for these people and even let them know that though they don't know me, they have touched my life and blessed me and I am praying for them.
I hate cancer. I hate seeing the havoc it wreaks and the lives it destroys. I hate seeing the children who have to grow up without a father or mother.
But I love the faith of men and women who look into the face of adversity, trust in their God and move forward with faith and hope. As Hebrews 11 says, the world is not worthy of them.

Friday, 9 July 2010

Saving Privare Ryan and the Pressure to live well

As the battle continues to rage around them, Captain Miller draws Private Ryan towards him and whispers to him, “you earn this”. Not “you earned” this, rather “you earn this”. Its impact is devastating, as we see all to clearly over fifty years later as a now considerably older Mr Ryan falls to his knees and asks his family through his tears, “have I lived a good life?”
You see, we can all feel under pressure to live well, whether because we feel it is expected of us, because we are self-motivated or because we have loaded ourselves up with guilt in relation to what somebody else has done for us. We look back at the decisions we have made and how we have lived and wonder whether we have made the most of what was given to us.
Certainly we ought to live well. God considered us sufficiently worthwhile to give the life of his only son so that we could become part of his family. That value that God has placed on us and stated us to have should motivate us to make the most of the days allotted to us. We should see ourselves as precious and significant and we should live our lives in a way that reflects a self-view in those terms. What is more, God has commanded us to live a life worthy of our calling. This should mean that we recognise that we live on earth with a purpose and that in gratitude for all that God has done for us, we live so as to glorify Him and show Him to those we meet.
In order to avoid the paralysing self-analysis and potential self-recrimination that afflicted Mr Ryan (and which afflicts me during my more self-indulgently reflective periods) it is essential to recognise that there is a world of difference between reflecting on and then being grateful for what God has done and instead attempting to live our lives so as to try to earn what God has done. The former is an obvious and inevitable consequence of believing that Jesus gave his life in my place. The latter is an exhausting and ultimately fruitless attempt at self-justification. Jesus has not offered you the free gift of salvation so that you can then regress to attempting to earn it by the quality of your life, your obedience, your giving, your generosity. The Bible describes all of our righteous acts as filthy rags. That is the best your attempts to “earn this” are going get – filthy rags. Instead, sit back and recognise what God has done for you. Humbly receive it, thank God for His mercy and then get up and live your life well as an offering of thanksgiving to a graceful, merciful God.

Raiders of the Lost Ark & The Tiredness of Life

Indiana Jones is talking with Marion Ravenwood and a comment is made about how tired he feels and how old he is. “It’s not the years”, he says, “it’s the mileage”. How often it feels like that for us.
Preachers often talk about how the Christian life is a marathon, not a sprint, as if that were likely to encourage us. Why would 26 miles 385 yards feel more encouraging than 100 metres? I do not deny the truth of what has been said to us countless times from the pulpit or in “pastoral” conversations, however anyone will tell you that there are ways of saying things and ways of saying things.
I guess the words of Doctor Jones reflect how one would assess the likely longevity of a car. How many miles it’s done will be far more pertinent than how old it is. For us, it sometimes feels that we have grown weary in our Christian walk not so much because of how long we have been walking, but rather because in the course of walking we have been applying so much effort, straining to be better, harder working, holier, more humble, more patient, more forgiving. For me, “mileage” conjures up images not of having been a Christian for many years but rather of having spent those years striving and struggling, fighting and fussing, dithering and doubting.
It is not meant to be thus. God never intended for us to be worn out by our lives. On the contrary, the Christian life is offered to us an alternative to burdensome load of life without God. “Come to me all you are weary and heavily burdened and you will find rest for your souls. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me for I am gentle and humble in heart…for my yolk is easy and my burden is light”. Does that sound like hard work? Does that sound like a lot of effort? A marathon? Lots of mileage? Does it?
If your life as a Christian has begun to feel like a lot of hard work, like a lot of mileage, if it has felt that way for as long as you can remember, then something is badly wrong. This is not the life that God has called you to or saved you for. We undoubtedly work for God and try to live a life pleasing to Him, but always in his strength. Every breath we take and every step we make (I think I can hear The Police in the background) is for Him, but through Him as well. We ask Him what he would have us do, how we should spend our time and energy. The we ask Him for the strength, time and energy for what He would have us do and the humility to acknowledge that everything comes from Him and all of the glory and praise goes back to Him. That’s how God meant it to be – a vigorous, active, busy life, but never exhausting. A marathon in distance perhaps, but through Him we should arrive at the finish line full of strength, not crawling on our hands and knees (see my attempts to run the Windsor Half-Marathon for a helpful illustration of the distinction).

Monday, 5 July 2010


I have realised, in discussing this very subject with some lovely friends, that I do not have an especially pioneering, adventurous spirit. My lovely wife, Sal, is the adventurous type, always looking for the next exciting thing. I tend to be more routine-driven, stick with what I know, keep ticking along. Sounds hideously dull doesn't it?
I don't want life to be boring or tedious. I want to have fun and excitement, I'm just not sure how many surprises I have an appetite for. Surprises can be lovely (my wife presenting me with a surround sound system a few Christmasses ago, or throwing me a surprise birthday party) or unpleasant (the £600 service for the car back in April springs to mind, or the discovery that I was to be made redundant back in 2009) and maybe the occasions on which the surprise has been unpleasant have spoilt my appetite for them altogether. Maybe I have lost some of my appetite for adventure because I don't know what will happen and I would rather stick with what is predictable.
At this point I think I'm going to get a little "deeper" and consider something I often discuss with men and especially those who are facing difficult "should I press ahead into the unknown" type decisions. Dr Larry Crabb has written a number of books on Christian counselling and is himself a PhD psychologist. One of his books is called "Be Strong, Be Courageous" and is sub-titled "God's call to Men". It is hardly unique in being a book about what it means to be a man and what God has for and wants from men, however it does avoid suggesting that the most suitable path is to find the nearest wild boar and wrestle it to the ground before building a fire and using its blood as war paint. Instead, the book looks at how men tend to be wired when it comes to making difficult decisions that require us to advance into the unknown.
Dr Crabb describes two spheres, the sphere of management and the sphere of mystery. Apparently men tend to prefer the sphere of management, which is where we are confident, secure, competent and in control. It is here that we know what we are doing and how to do it, here that we can cope, here that everything is under control. By contrast, the sphere of mystery is seemingly chaotic. Nothing is under control, there are no easy answers, we do not know what will happen next and we are outside of our comfort zone, our area of competence.
An example might be (and due credit must be given to Dr Crabb for this example which is lifted wholesale from his book) a husband and father awoken during the night by a slamming front door who goes to the window to see his teenage daughter running down the road. What is she doing? What has happened? What does he do now? Doing something constructive, something purposeful, something manly requires a step into the sphere of mystery. He could wake his wife and ask her to pray with him. He could let her sleep and go after his daughter. He could sit on the front porch and wait for her. None of these are assured of success, but they are decisive steps that reflect the character of God in some fashion or another. But the paralysis sets in when considering which of these steps to take. A man who resolves to stay within the sphere of management will do nothing, because he is so fearful of doing the wrong thing. He will sit there, like a rabbit in the headlights, because he does not know what to do and is afraid to take a step into the dark, a step that may be wrong, a step that is not part of a guaranteed recipe for success, a step that fills him with dread because he is not in control. So what does he do? He could lie there worrying and fretting, he could wake his wife up and shout at her and blame her, he could go downstairs, make himself a stiff drink and watch something distracting or worse on the TV or computer. All of these would represent a retreat into the sphere of management. He knows where he is and what he is doing. He's not fixing anything, but he's not taking any risky steps either. He is not reflecting the character and call of his God.
I know that however I dress up my disinclination for adventure and my desire for routine, ultimately it represents weakness and fear. I'm not being unduly hard on myself in saying that, merely honest about my shortcomings. It is hard for me to be adventurous, hard for me to venture forth into areas of uncertainty, hard to take steps when I don't know how firm underfoot the ground will prove to be. Think of Indiana Jones at the end of The Last Crusade, challenged to leap from "the lion's head", seemingly into a bottomless abyss, only to find the path solid beneath him.
Very recently, it took no small measure of firm encouragement from my patient and loving wife for me to venture forth and broach a difficult subject with someone. I was concerned I might embarrass myself, might look foolish. I thought it might not go as I hoped, but that is the very nature of adventure. I do not know how it will go, I do not know the outcome. Life is not a recipe or formula, where x + y = z. It does not work like that and if I expect it to I will be endlessly frustrated and regressive. So I bit the bullet and broached the subject. The world did not come to and end, I did not get shouted at or laughed at or cried at. Life goes on and I have learned a little lesson about adventure. Not much of one, but it's a start.
God does not want me to shrink back, to worry whether he will come through if I trust in him. He wants me to persevere, take the big risks, trust him, press forward. I didn't shrink back from the gap year in Uganda God called me to in 1998, or run away from the bungee jump offered in 2001 and yet here I am in 2010 fretting about whether or not to embark on a potentially difficult conversation! How much ground I have lost. God grant me greater boldness and courage and the will to be decisive in moving forward to the things you have for me. Help me to take the steps I find difficult and to look for the opportunities and doors you would have me push open.