You are made for so much more than this

The recent death by suicide of two celebrities, one a designer and the other a chef, together by the decision by a 104 year old professor to end his life has had the media world buzzing with commentary and expressions of regret and sorrow. In some cases, even anger.

In the United States reported death by suicide became the second highest cause of death in the 15 to 34 year old group and 10th overall in 2016. There were a total of 45000 suicides that year. In Australia there were 3000 in 2017, but that is from a population of 25 million. Why has suicide become such a crisis?

Without minimizing the pain and struggle of those who find life intolerable, or even discussing the ethics of prematurely ending one’s life by choice, I suggest there are two fundamental reasons. The first is that for some, life has no meaning or purpose and the second, there is nothing beyond the grave, no eternal state.

The Gospel answers both of those implied questions.

The highest point of God’s creative act is you. Every human being has been made in His image and carries within them the divine imprint of their creator. In Genesis 1:27 God states that He created male and female in His image. Nothing else in all of creation can make that claim, In fact in Psalm 8 the writer asks in wonder “what is so special about mankind that you not only think about them, but you care for them. In fact you have made them superior to all of creation and given them authority over everything!” (my loose paraphrase!).  Back in Genesis he gave further meaning to the life of those he created by telling them to manage the rest of creation, to look after it on His behalf. A job, sadly we have not been particularly good at.

The writer of Psalm 139 states emphatically that God was active in our lives before we drew our first independent breath. So much so that he designed us and put us together exactly the way he wanted to. In Ephesians 2:10 we are told that God had prepared work for us to do even before the world was created. All of life has meaning, no matter how dark and dismal it may seem.

Our life is also valuable. Sadly some people question their worth when they are no longer able to do what they once did, or their relationships fall apart or they lose their job. In fact when any of the many things we use to determine our significance fail us. They may ask, ‘why am I here?’ ‘What’s it all for, why bother?’ What is our value? It may be seen in the affection of others, the contribution to those we have influenced, our place in society, even our success at work or sport or academic achievements. But God puts a much higher standard on your value. Th Cambridge Dictionary states that value is: the importance or worth of something for someone. Your worth to God is measured first of all in the creative activity that made you who you are, but more significantly by the fact that he exchanged the life of His son for yours. He estimates your worth to be that of His son, he was prepared to exchange the life of one for the other.

Your life has meaning, and you are valuable, but you are also unconditionally loved. God loves you so much that he sent His son to die in your place. Now he declares (Romans 8:31-38) that there is absolutely nothing that can separate you from His love, if you have committed to Him in faith. He loves you, he will keep you eternally safe and there is nothing you can do about it!

A number of years ago I conducted the funeral for a 94 year old gentleman. Many years before he had committed murder and served 30 years jail. Now he was in an aged person’s home. At the end of his life on earth he had few friends, was unable to leave his room and lived with his memories. But even there he discovered and received God’s forgiveness and when he died shortly after, he did so with hope and peace. I should add that at the funeral I met a relative who unknown to him, and me, had been praying for him for 30 years!

Victor Frankl was a prisoner during World War II and held in a concentration camp. He was able to discover meaning in the suffering around him and later wrote: “Life retains its meaning under any conditions. It remains meaningful literally up to its last moment, up to one’s last breath.” God has imbued your life with purpose and meaning, he estimates your worth beyond any measure that this world can suggest, and he holds you in the iron grip of His love. You are pretty special!

What of the second issue? Does life continue beyond the grave? The apostle Paul wrote that if we (Christians) live only for this life we are most to be pitied! The writer argued that if there is no God ‘we might as well eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we might die’. Why live a life of commitment and sacrifice if there is nothing else? Why bother? Dostoevsky claimed that without God, everything is permissible. Other philosophers argue that it would be unethical not to pursue personal pleasure, because that is the only meaning to life. To deny your self is not only stupid but morally wrong.

The grave is not the end. Eternal life does  not start at the grave either. It begins the moment you and I enter a relationship with God through faith in His son and continues beyond the time that our physical life ends. While we live here we suffer the effects of sin in the world with all of its corruption and suffering, but we wait along with the rest of creation to be set free to obtain the glory of the children of God (Romans 8:27).

You are special. You are created in His image and designed for a purpose. You are the pinnacle of His creative acts, you are of inestimable value and He loves you. You are made for much more than this.

The words of the title of this piece are taken from a song by Mercy Me. Great song, click on the link.

https://youtu.be/Z6pS5HCkgPI

 

Richard Foster

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When God Sings!

 

What is the sound of God singing? In fact, does God sing? Well according to the Bible, yes, he does! Even though I have tried to I can’t imagine what that sound is like. There are some clues as to how and why he does, however.

The prophet Zephaniah announced a series of judgements on Israel, Judah and even the Gentile people for turning their back on God and being wilfully disobedient. But as he got to end of this damning indictment he declared there would come a time when things would be different. God would preserve and protect all of those who called on His name. Furthermore, the King of Israel, the Lord would be in their midst. Things might be tough, the circumstances of life could get difficult, there might be temptation to give up but, he says ‘Fear not, don’t let your arms droop and grow weak!’

Life gets difficult. Sometimes the stress of living gets too much. Financial problems, ill health, broken relationships, difficulties at work, falling profits and rising debt and the rest threaten to overwhelm us. We are drowning, or so it seems; or at least life is just so hard. Maybe our arms grow tired and our hands become weak – giving up seems an attractive option. But then God calls out ‘I am with you’! He is in the midst of this, with us. He is not shouting from the side lines, giving advice, making suggestions. He is right there in it with us. He is Immanuel – God is with Us! Whatever your circumstance, your difficulty, your mess, God is in it with you.

That’s good news, but it doesn’t end there. This God is the one who is not only able but who will save, he will deliver. The message of Zephaniah is that God will deliver those who call on Him because he knows them, has chosen them and has declared them to be righteous. He is not swayed by the opinions of others, he doesn’t listen to the descriptions that are used about you, even if they are your own. ‘I’m too weak, too poor; I’ve failed so many times, I’m tired, my problems are too big I just can’t do it!’ Of course, there are many who will agree with those views and be happy to add to them ‘call yourself a Christian, I saw what you did, failed again didn’t you, what makes you think you can handle this problem? You’ll never change, you’re a product of your environment, you’ll always be insecure and unloved…’ You are who God says you are! Chosen, loved, significant, a winner, secure, righteous, delivered, set free! Why? Because he says so.

So, what has all this got to do with singing? It is in that context that God says That he is in your midst and he is rejoicing with gladness. The Hebrew words used in the passage (Zeph. 3:17) are translated differently by some but essentially they mean: He looks happy, he is displaying all the characteristics of joy and festivity, just as if he is at a festival or banquet. He is excited.

He does more, he quietens you, he gives you rest. He doesn’t raise problems of the past, he doesn’t debate your failures he is there as a Mighty God who will save you, he dispels your fears and quietens your soul. It is His love that does this, the same love that the apostle Paul says we can never be separated from and through which we are made more than conquerors.

Then he exults over you with loud singing! Some translators use the word rejoice rather than exult, but the root of the word means to go round in circles, to get excited, to dance. Not only will God sing, he will dance. Let your imagination run, what does this look like, sound like? God is in the midst of your life, with you, and he is dancing and singing. Why? Because the battle is won, he has delivered you. This is the sound of victory, he is celebrating.

Joy is the highest mood of worship. So much so that the people of Israel were threatened with a curse because ‘they did not serve the Lord with joyfulness and gladness of heart’ (Deut. 28:47). Paul tells us that the kingdom of God is righteous, joy and peace in the Holy Spirit and we are reminded that the joy of the Lord is our strength. When the walls of Jerusalem were dedicated, ‘the joy of the Lord was heard from a long way off’ (Neh. 12:43). Yet as Nietzsche famously wrote ‘I might believe in the Redeemer if his followers looked more redeemed’. What is it like to look redeemed? Surely God, himself, gives us a clue. He sings, he dances, he laughs. He is excited and enthusiastic, he doesn’t care about the opinions of others, he gives full expression to his joy. What about you, what about me? Do I look redeemed? When we meet and worship is it with gladness and joy or as C.S. Lewis once remarked about the church do we suffer from a terrible sense of good taste. Do we give full expression to our joy, or are we more concerned about our image, the opinions of others, our heritage? Some might say, but that’s alright for some but I’m an introvert (me too!), that’s just not me, I can’t express myself like that. Yes, but wait a minute, weren’t you created in the image of God? Aren’t we supposed to reflect his character in worship? Think about it, draw your own conclusion.

The Lord, your God, is in the midst of you, He is singing over you with joy, because the victory is won, and you are delivered. The least you can do is join in.

 

 

Between Times

 

There is a parallel between the times of the prophet Jeremiah and our own days. The people of his day were living in exile, because of their collective disobedience they were taken to Babylon where they were to remain until God re-established them in the city and land of their inheritance. In the meantime they were to live in the place where God had sent them in anticipation of a future when they would live under the rule and authority of the King of Kings. While we have not been taken into a physical exile, as the people of Israel were, we are living under the authority of an alien ruler whose desires are contrary to the plans of God, and we do live in anticipation of the time when Jesus will return and establish his reign.

The times we live in lie between Christ’s ascension into heaven and his return in glory, in the meantime our world is under the rule and authority of Satan, the one who stands in absolute opposition to God and his purposes for humankind. These times are appointed by God and will end when he decides they should. While there are things that we can and should be doing which God requires before the return of his Son, we cannot bring forward the day, it is an appointed time and part of God’s eternal purpose. When the disciples questioned Jesus about his return in Acts 1, he answered that it was not for them to know when and how this would happen but in the meantime there was work for them to do. That work was to be witnesses to the things they had seen and heard, to be heralds of the good news by the power of the Holy Spirit that would indwell them.

We live in anticipation of the return of Jesus Christ; we are living as aliens in a land under the authority of a ruler whose plans, purposes, values and intentions are in direct opposition to our king. This isn’t our land; we are strangers here. It is inevitable then that there will be a clash between our values and those that belong to this world. One of the challenges this poses for us is how to succeed in the world of work, family and community while having different purposes and motivations from those we live amongst. Is it possible to survive, let alone succeed, in the business world without conforming to the standards and expectations of those around us? Paul’s answer to this dilemma was to instruct his readers to be transformed by the renewing of their minds; he went on to say that this was the most reasonable form of worship they could offer (Romans 12:1-3) The solution to successful Christian living in the midst of alien land is not to enforce a set of rules and regulations but to do those things that will serve to renew our minds. Once our minds have been renewed then there will be no problem in deciding between the various choices we are faced with. Rather than try to live under a set of prohibitions, most of which we will occasionally fail to keep, we should focus on filling our hearts and minds with those things that will serve to bring our lives into harmony with the Lord Jesus Christ.

Too often Christians put themselves under a tremendous burden of guilt by following self-imposed disciplines, assuming that this is what it means to live a righteous life. God puts the emphasis on the positive rather than the negative, instead of concentrating on what you shouldn’t do focus on those things that will renew your mind. Fill your thoughts with the word of God, communicate regularly with Him in prayer, seek out the fellowship of others whose desire is to grow in Christ, and commit yourself to doing his will in your home, community and place of work. In this way your mind will be renewed and the details of life will look after themselves. Jesus said that we should seek first his kingdom, then, everything else would be provided out of his grace.

 

Two Lessons Learned

The recent debate about redefining marriage have convinced of me of two things. Firstly, personal insult and vitriol will probably not change my mind and, secondly being called names by people who neither know me or have bothered to engage with me will not diminish my sense of self-worth.

When I am insulted because I dare to express an alternative view it is more likely that my opinions will be strengthened rather than changed. I would like to think that I can participate in reasoned debate and be open to change, but when attacked that possibility is significantly reduced. I recall being advised by a prominent person some years ago ‘do not attack me for the position I hold, because I will feel duty bound to defend myself’.

Inevitably there will be times in life and work when our opinions are not shared by others, descending to invective and insult, or even the subtle put down such as ‘the wise opinion would be…’ isn’t likely to be conducive to either good relationships or effective outcomes. We need to find a better way. Engage, dialogue, listen and accept the possibility of an alternative and most importantly treat the other person with dignity and respect – even when they disagree with you!

Insult is usually intended to diminish the worth of the other person. If you can’t win the argument, attack the person. My own sense of self-worth or personal significance is not located in the opinion of others and rather than being diminished I am emboldened when, rather than having a reasoned discussion someone would rather hurl insults.

My sense of worth, my significance as well as my security and knowledge that I am unconditionally loved and accepted is based on my faith.  I know that I am made in God’s image, that he has a plan and purpose for my life and my eternal destiny is secure. No invective or abuse will change that knowledge. I don’t have the answers to every moral question, neither do I believe that I am always right, but I know who I have believed in, and I am convinced that he able to keep and protect me for eternity.

 

Don’t live among the ruins!

 

Arise and shine for your light has come and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you! This ringing call to action was given to the people of Israel to rebuild the city. (Is 60:1) It was time to get up – and shine.

For too long the people had become used to living among the ruins, now was the time to get up and focus on what could be rather than what was or even had been. Too often we become used to living among the ruins. They may be our own personal ruins or the broader aspects of society or state that affect us all.

Are there ruins that you are content to live amongst? Perhaps the ruins of broken relationships; career or business failure; lost opportunities academically or on the sporting field; or as the result of some other set of events or circumstances. Maybe you have just got used to the rubble of the past and have become content to sit amongst it. Sometimes you will push it aside or arrange it into neat little heaps, but still it remains. It is time to get up from the ruins because the glory of the Lord has come upon you. God has a plan and purpose for you, but first you have to get up and look around. Once you do get up, you can look around, form a plan and start to clean up the mess. I was recently impacted by vision of government and church leaders in Jakarta with brooms in their hands. They were cleaning away the rubbish in preparation to establish a city built for God’s glory. What a powerful picture. Isaiah 62:10 calls the people to clear the way, remove the rubbish for the new city. In the same manner, God calls us to clear the way for him to come and establish a city which will welcome him.

 

For many of us though, we have to start much closer to home. Are there ruins in our own lives that need to be removed? Have we hung on the disappointments and failures of past so that we have become content to live among them? Then it is time to get up and clear away the mess. Start by establishing a perimeter of faith around your home. Look around, are their ruins there? Is your present reality determined by the events of the past? Clear them away, change your thinking, establish a new set of behaviours.

 

Once you are satisfied that the rubble is cleared from your own backyard, then move to your neighbourhood, then your community, to your city and your nation and beyond. Take back what the enemy has stolen and disfigured one step at a time. When the rubble is cleared away you can start to build something new. But to do that you need a plan. How will know how to build unless you have a plan to follow? Have a vision for yourself, your family, your neighbourhood and your city and commit to implementing it. Every time you build, raise a standard. Declare who you are, become a signal to those around so that they know where to come in their time of need.

 

As your standard rises high above the places you build, people will gather to you – your sons and your daughters will come to you (Isaiah 60:4). This is God’s promise; don’t be content to live among the ruins:

Get up

 

Clean up the mess

Build something new

Raise a flag

And People will come to you!

My Epitaph

Recently I attended the funeral of an elderly man that I did not know particularly well. During the service, family members and the officiating minister made the usual references and paid tribute to the man’s life and the contribution he made to his family and wider society.

I have conducted a lot of funerals and in most of them opportunity is given to some to reflect on the life and times of the deceased. Of course that may not always be possible, I have officiated at the funerals of very young babies, as well as those who have lived a rich and full life. I am always affected emotionally on these occasions, always. I do not grieve for the one who has died, but for the loss felt by those that remain, in some cases that loss is palpable. I recall one particular funeral, of a man in his thirty’s that took his own life. He was associated with the biker community and all that they are connected with. As I looked out at the mourners, tough looking men and their partners, I was struck by an overwhelming sense of hopelessness. Their eyes were vacant behind the sorrow, they did not comprehend this death and had no way to deal with it. That affected me.

Often in teaching or mentoring others I will ask them to produce a timeline indicating times of significance in their life. At the end of the line I will ask them to draw a tombstone. On that tombstone I ask them to write their epitaph, or the things they would like others to write about them when they are gone. For those who find this insensitive or too challenging I may ask them to imagine that they are at a party and are the first to leave. If they were able to sneak back and listen in, what would they expect to hear people say about them? What sort of impression did they leave, how would they be remembered?

My father in law was a funeral director for nearly thirty years, he always vowed he would not have a funeral because he found the hypocrisy of them too much to take. His frequent comment was that if people had something good to say, they should do it when the deceased is alive and not try to find something after they die. When he died, and I conducted his funeral, hundreds attended and many good (and true) things were said.

In all of the funerals I have conducted, and often in the time leading to the final parting, I have yet to hear someone say they regretted not spending more time in the office or at work. None of them said they wished they kept their house cleaner, or their car better maintained. No one has told me that they were disappointed at the state of their investments. My father in law was fond of saying that in his nearly thirty years as a funeral director he never saw a trailer on the back of a hearse.

At one funeral I conducted the deceased had expressed the wish that the final song should be one by the Crypt Kickers Five, called the Monster Mash. He wanted them to remember him with a smile. At another the casket was brought on the back of a prime mover accompanied by a couple of motorcycle riders. These were memories the deceased wanted left that said something about them. Others leave different recollections: Charles Spurgeon once wrote of John Bunyan ‘prick him anywhere and he bleeds Bible’. I remember conversations with an elderly friend of my father in law, whatever the topic, within a sentence of two he would be talking about Jesus.

What would you write as your epitaph, what would I? How would we like to be spoken of when we leave that party? Would our ears burn, or would we be humbled? How about some of these: ‘apparently had a really good sense of humour, but I never hear him laugh at home’ or ‘She was really keen on sport, but never watched me play’, ‘a great family man, but was always at work’, ‘don’t really know what she believed about God’, ‘Has a real talent for pointing out what is wrong in others’, ‘really good at starting projects, but…’ and so on. Obviously none of us would want or expect these things to be said about us – but I have been to too many funerals where participants were searching to find those glowing tributes that they wanted for those to whom they were saying their last good byes.

If we want good things said about us when we leave, then we need to arrange our lives so that it becomes possible.  We need to live intentionally, determine what values we want to instil in others, what sort of legacy we would like to leave and let these things inform the choices we make about how to live.

As I reflect on this I realise I have a lot of work to do, a lot of reframing of my own priorities, and a lot of ground to make up. What would I like written of me? A tough question. Perhaps that ‘his life made a difference to others’, will that be said? That will be left to others but it will really depend on what I do with the life and time that God has given me to live right now.

The Art of Zen Navigation

The hero of ‘Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul’ (the book by Douglas Adams), Dirk Gently espouses the practice of Zen navigation when trying to find his way to a particular location. According to Gently this practice requires that if you become lost or unsure of your way you should follow someone that looks like they know where they are going and follow them. You may not get to your original destination, but you may discover some interesting things along the journey.

I have used this method when trying to navigate labyrinthine road networks or find a way home after a popular event, sometime successfully, and sometimes not. The consequences of those actions may have resulted in some time loss or disappointment but rarely more than that. However, the same technique when applied to navigating through the more complex issues of life can have more significant consequences.

Yet, it seems that for many of us we are quite content to do that. In our search for meaning and truth we will often attach ourselves to some prominent and perhaps well-meaning individual who seem to have the answers and follow them. This is no more obvious than in the pursuit of religious truth and knowledge.

The recent panoply of celebrity religious leaders who have fallen into difficulty should serve as a precautionary notice, but if we know anything from history, we will probably take little notice. In recent times prominent leaders have fallen over for reasons ranging from tax fraud, misappropriation of funds, inappropriate contact with minors, verbal and emotional abuse of those under their care and questionable doctrine to name a few. What we can learn is that to blindly follow any religious leader (even those who profess the same faith that we do) is fraught with danger. All men and women are prone to disappoint and none can claim infallibility. Sadly, though, it seems that we would much rather take the road followed by many than make sure that it is the right road.

Following a leader who is convinced they know where they are going may be interesting, even exciting but it may also lead us to the wrong destination. History is littered with examples of sincere people who have blindly followed populist leaders in every arena of life, only to have their dreams and sometimes their lives destroyed.

Jesus offered an antidote to this malaise. He confidently declared that he was the way and the truth, and if you wanted to find your way to your father in heaven, your only option was to follow him. To aid us in this task he provided us with a road map for life that we call the bible. But just like in more recent times, not all of us are that good at reading maps so he also provided a navigational aid, which he called the Spirit of Truth. This Spirit was sent to those that received him on the day of Pentecost and for the years after that those new believers met together to discuss the journey ahead and to agree on the best way to take, with the benefit of this Spirit of Truth.

In more customary language we understand this to mean that a relationship with Jesus himself is the only way to discover truth and it as those who share this relationship meet together that the Holy Spirit discloses truth to them. Each of us has the privilege and responsibility to discover the pathway though the journey of life before us. We will not find it by simply following some enthusiastic, gifted and prominent leader but though a relationship with the author of life and in community with those that we share the road with. Christians are a privileged people, they have been told the way, in the bible, received the gift of the Holy Spirit and communion of others who share the same faith. These things working together will provide all the guidance we need to chart our way through the uncertain journey that lies before us.