Christmas reflection 2014

Khaki-chums-xmas-truce-1914-1999.redvers100 years ago this year, during the First World War, the Christmas truce took place between British, German and French soldiers in the trenches on the Western Front. On Christmas Eve 1914, soldiers from opposing sides, who were stationed there to kill each other, instead got to know one another, shared photos of loved ones, and even had a game of soccer.

This of course made their superiors furious, not just because the troops were disobeying orders, but because it is much harder to harm someone with whom you have formed some sort of relationship. The enemy is to be faceless and nameless.

The same holds true for millions of people living in poverty around the world this Christmas. They are the faceless and nameless ones. In reality though, the enemy that is poverty is not faceless. Poverty is about people, it is not about statistics. Poverty is also not just about a lack of material goods; it is more about a lack of dignity, a lack of a sense that you are important. We are reminded that poverty is always personal because it is about relationship.

Back in the year 2000, the World Bank undertook a major study of poverty from the point of view of those actually experiencing it. In the study, called Voices of the Poor, 60,000 people living in poverty were interviewed and asked what their view of poverty was. The overwhelming response was that it was about lack of power, lack of dignity, and that it drives one into despair.

At Christmas many of us celebrate the coming of God to Earth in the form of a human, Jesus Christ. Also known as the Prince of Peace, Jesus came to set the world to rights. In The Message translation of the Lord’s Prayer in the Gospels, Jesus’ prayer starts off as,

“Our Father in heaven,
Reveal who you are.
Set the world right;
Do what’s best— as above, so below.”

The more common translation that many of us would be familiar with includes the phrase, “may your kingdom come on Earth as it is in heaven.”

This kingdom of God is something that Jesus talked about more than anything else. It is a kingdom of transformation, and it is transformation at every level of existence: physical, emotional, and spiritual.

In the Book of Revelation – an often difficult book to understand – it is described in terms of a promise that there will one day come a time when God will complete this kingdom and that tears will be wiped away, and there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things will have passed away (Revelation 21:4). Justice, peace and transformation will prevail. This is the promise we have from the One who was born as a helpless baby in a manger 2,000 years ago.

Jesus made poverty personal. He saw everyone he came into contact with as a person of dignity. Once people encountered Jesus, they were never the same again. They were transformed in every way. This is also our very identity as followers of Jesus. Everything about who we are is wrapped up in who Jesus is and what he has done.

God has come to earth to identify as one of us, to bring good news to the poor, to set the captives free and to restore the world to rights. This is God’s dream and it is the hope of Christmas. May your Christmas be blessed, meaningful and hopeful.

Whose is that face staring back at me?

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“Anyone who needs 50,000 people a night to tell them they’re OK has to have a bit missing. And I do mean that in terms of your sense of self” – Bono

“Everybody’s famous here but nobody’s known.” – U2, Lucifer’s Hands

We live in a society where more and more people don’t know what it is to feel loved just for who they are. When people don’t feel loved unconditionally, they seek affirmation from external sources.

There is nothing wrong with this in itself, but when it becomes our primary way of feeling that we are ok, it becomes a serious problem and we become narcissistic.

Recently I visited my former workplace to see a few people and to do some writing. As I was sitting in the cafe typing away, a stream of people walked past over the next hour and stopped to chat and just ask how I’m going. I’ve never been so glad to be interrupted! It’s nice to feel that affirmation and warmth from old friends. Continue reading

When it hurts like hell

alone-62253_640“It’s not about what you’re doing but what God is doing in you” - Mark Sayers

Even when it hurts like hell.

Sometimes we go through things in life which are painful beyond anything we’ve ever had to go through before. And sometimes we feel like we’ve just had enough. Recently I posted a very good article about the fallacy of believing that God doesn’t give us more than we can handle. A few more thoughts about this come to mind:

  • We sing a song at church sometimes which has the words of Romans 8:28 – all things work together for good for those who love the Lord. That might sound glib, mainly because this verse has been used out of context, and often in an incredibly insensitive way, but it’s a statement of hope. And hope is what we can’t live without.
  • From my devotional book this morning: Leave outcomes up to me. Follow me wherever I lead, without worrying about how it will all turn out.
  • “I know it aches, and your heart it breaks, and you can only take so much. Walk on.” – U2, Walk On
  • Suffer well. Depending on your suffering, the temptation to bitterness and self-pity is always there. You will no doubt feel these at times, and if you do, don’t beat yourself up. But don’t stay in those places. Ask God to teach you to surrender and trust. One day you will be able to use your experience for the good of others.
  • Surround yourself with friends. Reach out to them. It’s not selfish to say you’re struggling. If you’re anything like me, you will tend to feel weak and a burden on others. That is mainly about fear of their rejection. You may also be too proud to ask for help, believing you should be able to handle these things yourself. Don’t be fooled.
  • You will go through a rollercoaster of emotions and you won’t be yourself a lot of the time, possibly for months. Again, depending on the nature of your suffering, your confidence and self-esteem will likely take a battering. That’s ok. Don’t worry about what your friends might think if you’re a bit different around them. You’re still you and they will still love you.

People are there. Rely on them. God is there. Trust in God as much as you are able. Hope is real. Our present sufferings are temporary.

Confronting the lie: God won’t give you more than you can handle

This is the second article I’ve seen about this and I’m glad it’s being said more.

When you’re going through a crisis, the last thing you want to hear is someone saying that God will give you nothing more than you can handle. It’s insensitive and suggests that you’re not right with God or else God wouldn’t allow you this suffering.

When people go through unspeakable suffering, the best we can do is sit with them and let them know we are there for them. Don’t tell them you understand when you don’t. Saying things like that, while well-meaning, won’t be heard by the person suffering.

What does need to be clarified though is that we get through crises with God. I know that’s easy to say, and only those who have been through intense suffering can relate to it.

As St Paul says, “when I am weak, then I am strong.” And as the author says, it’s when we have nothing left that “the strength of the God of resurrection will be seen. Until we get to that point, we rely on ourselves thinking we can handle it and take care of the problem.”

Dancing on the grave of division

nils-boots-on-berlin-wallThis is a slightly reworked piece I wrote in 2009 for the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. This year marks the 25th anniversary of that most momentous of occasions in world history. If it has some meaning for you, I hope you take a lot out of it.

1989 was a big year for me, and for the wider world. It was the year I left my teenage years behind. It was also the year that the brutality of government repression in Tiananmen Square rocked the world, U2 came to town and rocked the tennis centre for seven nights straight, and Hawthorn went back-to-back.

The biggest news by far that year though happened in November when the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, literally overnight. For 28 years the wall had separated Berliners from each other, dividing not just a nation but whole systems of government, as well as of course families, traumatising them in the process.

This is all very personal for me, having German parents who grew up during a world war which saw their country devastated both from within and without.

Continue reading

Missy Higgins – honest, raw and genuine

Missy_Higgins_@_Sir_Stewart_Bovell_Park_(8_1_12)_(6693050923)I have had the privilege over the years of seeing some great musicians live. And as someone who is not musical in the sense of playing or singing, I have found that the great artists all have their own unique sound: U2 and Midnight Oil come to mind for me. Another one is Missy Higgins.

When you have that sense that the first time you listen to an artist that there is something special here, it stays with you. That’s what happened when I first listened to Higgins’ first album, The Sound of White, about 10 years ago. The emotion, honesty and vulnerability in the stories she tells through her songs, songs of the everyday joys and pains of life, as well as her unique Australian sound, have had an impact on me that always have me looking forward to her next release.

Seeing her live though was something else. She has a wonderfully quirky, comfortable stage presence, like she is having a conversation with you. She has that wonderful combination of being a self-confessed introvert yet possessing the ability to be a natural on stage, confident and able to just be herself. With Missy Higgins, what you see is what you get.

Her songs generally tell a story of life in all its beauty and ugliness, and of the impact that music and people have had on her. Her latest album, Oz, is a covers album of songs that have had an effect on her young life. Like me, it is the lyrics of songs that have the greatest impact on her. It might be a line or just the way in which the story is told that triggers memories of days gone by when significant events happened to us or when there were turning points in our lives. This is what makes Missy Higgins so easy to listen to.

Higgins’ music over the years has followed the example of those who have influenced her. But, like many quality artists, she is a whole package. It is her lyrics that inspire and take you to another place, but it is also how she sings, in that raw, honest, Australian drawl with a music that is fitting for the mood of the lyrics.

Not many artists are so open about their musical journey, but seeing footage of Higgins’ life as she sang songs that describe her joys and pains, gives you a sense of connection that only the really good artists possess. Again, like artists of true quality, you come away from a Missy Higgins song feeling like you know her just a little bit more. That feeling was amplified seeing her live, as she told of the ways in which the songs from Oz left their mark on her. There was an intimacy about a show like this that leaves you both satisfied at the end yet disappointed that it couldn’t go on for longer.

This was the last live show for Higgins for at least 12 months, due to the fact that, in her words, she has another project coming up next year which involves trying to bring up a human being.

The setting of the Regent Theatre in the heart of Melbourne was fitting for this excellent show. Performing her last show for a while in her home town, in a venue that is such an icon of this beautiful city, just added to the sense of occasion and feeling that was evoked by her presence. When she eventually tours again, be sure not to miss out on experiencing the delightfully ordinary, accessible yet beautiful stage-presence of an Australian icon.

Life is a choice

german-shepherds-watching-catLife is a choice.

We find that this is true especially when we struggle. It is through struggle that character can grow. In fact I would say that it is only in struggle that character can grow. We can choose to rise above our troubles or decide to be overcome by them. Rising above them doesn’t mean ignoring them and pushing them asunder. It means moving forward regardless of the storms of life that are swirling all around us.

One of my great heroes, and probably the most courageous person I have ever known of (apart from Jesus, who chose to go to the cross knowing full well what it would cost) is Martin Luther King. Check out this quote from King from his sermon, Antidotes for fear (Don’t worry about the gender-specific language. It was written in the language of the day. Of course this quote applies equally to women as to men):

“Courage faces fear and thereby masters it. Cowardice represses fear and is thereby mastered by it. Courageous men never lose the zest for living even through their life situation is zestless; cowardly men, overwhelmed by the uncertainties of life, lose the will to live. We must constantly build dikes of courage to hold back the flood of fear.”

Often when trouble strikes, we can feel overwhelmed, even paralysed, by fear. It has certainly happened to me. What I have found is that it is through the growing understanding that we are always ok in God’s sight, and slowly coming to the realisation that we can no longer deny God’s unconditional love for us, that we gain the courage to face whatever is in front of us. This can take years, and in reality, is never fully completed until the day we pass from this earth.

Courage is not the absence of fear though; it is admitting that you might be scared sh*tless but moving forward anyway. That’s where it is a choice. There is nothing wrong with being scared; it is when we allow our fears to overcome us that we never deal with the challenges we are facing.

One of the many examples of Dr King’s courage in the face of adversity is captured in this quote from a sermon he wrote while in jail for civil disobedience:

“Throw us in jail and we shall still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process and our victory will be a double victory.”

This is what love does, love born of the courage to face fear, look it full in the face and say, like Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings, “you shall not pass!”.

Life is a choice. God give me the courage to face it on its terms.

Loneliness kills more people than Ebola ever will

Great but tragic article from George Monbiot on this age in our existence being known as the age of loneliness. Check out some of these startling quotes:

  • “Ebola is unlikely ever to kill as many people as this disease strikes down. Social isolation is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day; loneliness, research suggests, is twice as deadly as obesity. Dementia, high blood pressure, alcoholism and accidents – all these, like depression, paranoia, anxiety and suicide, become more prevalent when connections are cut. We cannot cope alone.”
  • “Structural changes have been accompanied by a life-denying ideology, which enforces and celebrates our social isolation. The war of every man against every man – competition and individualism, in other words – is the religion of our time, justified by a mythology of lone rangers, sole traders, self-starters, self-made men and women, going it alone. For the most social of creatures, who cannot prosper without love, there is no such thing as society, only heroic individualism.”
  • “For [all our technological and material prowess], we have ripped the natural world apart, degraded our conditions of life, surrendered our freedoms and prospects of contentment to a compulsive, atomising, joyless hedonism, in which, having consumed all else, we start to prey upon ourselves. For this, we have destroyed the essence of humanity: our connectedness.”

Why I’ve had enough of being spiritual

Firefighters rescue stranded motoristsFirst glance at a heading like this might cause some confusion. “But isn’t God spirit? Jesus himself says so, so what’s the problem with any attempt at being spiritual?”

Jesus did indeed say that God is spirit, in his incredible conversation with the woman at the well in John 4. And because Jesus said it, we can regard it as true. But do we find it kind of ironic as well that it is Jesus – God with skin on – who says that God is spirit?

If we want to know what God is like, as Richard Rohr says, we can just look at Jesus. If Jesus is our image of God, then Jesus is what God looks like. And Jesus was a fully embodied human being, just like the rest of us.

Most of our spiritualising of our Christian faith actually harks back to Greek thinking rather than what the biblical story is actually bringing across. And what Jesus meant when he said that God is spirit was not what we think it means. He was speaking into a specific situation and context with the woman at the well.

Most of you will have probably heard the story of the man who drowned in a flood and went to heaven. The story goes like this: Continue reading

Finding love by loving others

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This is a really good piece. I particularly love this quote:

“Because we do not usually understand and internalize the nature of our foundational sin, we usually think our job as Christians is to embrace a moral system, live by it, and thus to be good people in contrast to all those who are evil. In fact, God’s goal for us is much more profound and much more beautiful than merely being good: it is to do the will of God by being loving, just as God is loving.”

Finding the life we’re after by being loving goes against what much of the church says. We are often taught that loving ourselves first is the way to loving others. But that is not biblical. We find life by loving others, by “losing our life” for the sake of others. That is what loving God is. Of course it does matter hugely that we accept that we are loved. But that is different from trying to build our self-esteem at the expense of others.

It is actually about realising that we are already loved; we don’t need to do anything to feel loved. Our identity comes from knowing that we are already loved and then loving others out of that freedom. It is in the giving of loving others that we find identity and the fulfilment that we are constantly searching for.

It is a huge relief to realise that we don’t need to be “needy” and desperately search for love. If we do that we end up using and manipulating others. Love is infinitely greater than fear.