First World Problems

My first experience of the third world was a result of my own first world problem… “Mum, I need an ipod”. That's what I told her when I was 15. She was horrified. She grew up in a time when there was barely enough to eat, and the thought of her daughter living in a world where an iPod was a “need” made her realise I needed a wake-up call! Luckily, our church was planning a short-term mission trip to Honduras that summer, so she signed the two of us up! We spent a week staying at a ranch, eating local food, mixing concrete to help build latrines and lay floors, bringing medical and hygiene supplies and school supplies for the kids, and spending time with the kids in their school. It was so eye-opening. I saw a lot of real physical need. I can't say I changed much after I came back from that trip, not that year anyway… but it planted a seed in my mind that began to grow. When I got to university, I came back to Christ after many years of wandering. One of my first thoughts was, “I want to go back to the developing places of the world”. I wanted to leave the comfort and ease of western society and be challenged by the daily physical struggle of those in the third world… and I wanted to help somehow. Maybe I could be a teacher, or help in an orphanage?
I felt a call to study Chinese. I didn't know why. The puzzle pieces just didn't seem to be coming together. I wanted to help someone, somewhere… but who? How? Where? After some fasting and praying I started to come across material about the persecuted church in China… poverty, suffering, struggle, but God was doing miracles and the Chistians were alive with joy and faith! A fire was lit in me… that's what I wanted! I wasn't going there to help… I was going to learn. How was their faith so alive and full of power? Why didn't we have stories like that in the West? Was it their poverty? Was it their political climate?

In the dictionary, a first world problem is defined as “a relatively trivial or minor problem or frustration (implying a contrast with serious problems such as those that may be experienced in the developing world)”. I guess most of us would agree that a problem like “my coffee isn't hot enough” or “my kitchen isn't the colour I want it to be”, when compared with those living in less than $1 a day, are not “real problems”. But what about us as Christians living in this prosperous developed world? What if the first world church has a lot more spiritual “first world problems” than we realise? How did we end up with things like apathy, complacency, materialism, desire for comfort and security, fear and worry, low levels of faith, self-sufficiency, with all of our “Christianity”? When we read of movements of the work of the Holy Spirit today in places like Africa and Asia, we have to stop and wonder… why aren't we seeing that here? 

Then I had a thought… where did Jesus struggle the most when He was walking the earth? Where did He perform the least amount of miracles… and why?

Mark 6:1-6
The Rejection of Jesus at Nazareth
1 He left that place and came to his home town, and his disciples followed him. 2 On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, ‘Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! 3 Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary* and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offence* at him. 4 Then Jesus said to them, ‘Prophets are not without honour, except in their home town, and among their own kin, and in their own house.’ 5 And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. 6 And he was amazed at their unbelief.

Verse 3 is so interesting… rephrased, “isn't this that carpenter's son? This is the kid that we grew up with in our neighbourhood! Look, we know all his brothers and sisters!” Today, we could almost rephrase it, like “Oh yeah, Jesus, He's the guy I grew up with in Sunday School when I was a kid, we celebrate Christmas and Easter, he's the guy whose principles founded our nation… we're a Christian country! … I know all about that Jesus guy…”.  Familiarity. Maybe it was that same familiarity that bred contempt in those from his own hometown… maybe that contempt is why they took offense at him… and were stuck in unbelief. Are we “hometown” pals with Jesus? 
It's probably a complex issue, and something that can't be over-simplified. Perhaps many of us have become like the third set of seeds in the parable of the sower that were growing, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful (Matt. 13:22). But how much do we think about the fact that we, in our “Christian nation”, might be so familiar with Jesus and so quick to assume we know him by association, because, well, we're a “Christian nation”… that we are like those who are actually stuck in unbelief? Is our Church routine, our religious principles, and our comfortable enjoyment of the blessings we believe God gave us, actually lulling us into an unbelieving familiarity with the Saviour of the world? The Jesus who requires absolute obedience and wants every part of our life? Are our first world spiritual problems more serious than we thought?
In Matthew 7:21, Jesus says “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven”. Isn't that scary? Isn't it… a wake up call?
Most people will acknowledge that Jesus was a wonderful teacher. Most people like the principles he taught about love, mercy, servitude, and humility. But Jesus said, “if you love me, you will obey my commands”. It has taken me a long time to realise that, in fact, I have a lot of unbelief and disobedience in my heart! I actually wasn't doing things like forgiving (Matthew 6:15), taking my thoughts captive to make them obedient to Christ (2 Cor. 10:5), being content with much or with little (Phil. 4:12), confessing our sins to one another (Jam. 5:16), believing that the same power that raised Jesus from the dead lives in me (Eph. 1:19-20), fearing God instead of fearing man (Matt. 10:28), denying myself and taking up my cross daily (Matt. 16:24-25), doing nothing out of selfish ambition or empty pride, but in humility consider others more important than yourselves (Phil 2:3), and believing that “God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:19).
Let's cast off our over-familiarity with the Saviour of the World, and come to him believing that he is who he says he is, and that we need him and his power every day of our lives! Not just His principles, with “a form of Godliness but denying it's power” (2 Tim. 3:5)… but with full belief, faith and obedience. Only then will we see him move in power like he promised!

Soar Like Eagles

I want to share two stories, about two different eagles…

There was once an eagle that had been flying for a long distance and was very tired. Afraid of predators if he landed to rest on the land somewhere, he spotted a large ice floe slowly moving down a river and decided to rest upon it for a while. He thought to himself, “I won't stay long on this ice as it's quite cold, but just long enough to restore my energy”. The longer he stayed, the tireder he realised he was. Eventually, he noticed a large waterfall up ahead. He thought to himself, “no problem, I will wait until the ice floe is about to fall off the waterfall and I will lift my wings as it does and continue flying”. He settled down to wait for the approaching waterfall, and just as the ice floe reached it the eagle attempted to stretch out his wings to fly. But as he did, he realised that his whole body had become numb from the cold ice floe, and he could barely move! He panicked, but it was too late… he plunged over the edge of the waterfall together with the ice floe, and was lost”.

The second story is like this…

A farmer once found a young eagle that had been injured. Since the farmer kept chickens, he decided to take the eagle home with him and nurse it back to health in the chicken coup. The eagle healed and the man decided to keep it as a pet. Every day he would come out with the chicken feed and call the chickens and the eagle out to their meal. The eagle would hear the man coming and try to race the chickens to their food! He had grown very big and ate a lot. One day, a hunter came along and noticed the eagle being kept in the chicken coup with the chickens, living as if it were one of them. Having used eagles to help him hunt game before, he said to the farmer, “do you mind if I buy this eagle off you? I'd like to use it for hunting!” The farmer agreed and the hunter took it to his home in the neighbouring village, and gave it space to fly around. But the next day when the farmer came out with the chicken feed for his chickens again, the eagle heard the feeding call from his new home and came flying over to fight the chickens for their chicken food again! Realising that the eagle still thought it was a chicken, the hunter decided to take the eagle up to the top of a high mountain. As soon as the eagle saw the great expanse of the sky, and was away from the distractions of the chicken coup, it immediately took flight, soaring the winds and the heights, and it became an expert hunter.

What can we learn from these two eagles?

The second eagle doesn’t know who he really is, and what he’s really capable of. His environment has created habits in his behaviour and thinking that have caused him to think that he’s a chicken, and the biggest highlight of his day is to just get the most chicken food. It takes someone to come in and tell him that, no, he was meant for much more than this, and take him to the heights of where eagles are really meant to be. As soon as he’s there, the temptation of the chicken food and the coup disappears, as he realises how good it is to live how he was meant to live.

The first eagle is already flying. He knows who he is, but he is tired and wants to rest. Instead of making the effort to fly to higher heights where the wind could carry him, he decides to rest on a cold ice floe. It gives temporary relief from his tiredness, but lulls him into a false sense of security. Assuming he is free to come and go from the ice floe at any time, he stays there, thinking it will have no effect on him. But the longer he stays, the more numb he becomes, without realising it. And then, when a critical moment comes, it is too late to find out that the ice floe has disabled him, and he cannot escape.

I wonder if any of us feel like either of these two eagles. Perhaps we haven’t fully realised who we are in Christ, and we are stuck just pecking chicken food from the ground, not realising the power that is within us, and the heights that await us. Or perhaps we realise we might be more like the second eagle. We are tired, or perhaps we have become distracted, and we want to rest on a false security… finances, our own abilities, our possessions, our reputation, our comfortable routine, our earthly relationships, entertainment, our culture… Perhaps these things are starting to disable us, our convictions, our dependence on Christ as the only true source of hope and safety.

Perhaps we need to run to him today and say “take me back to the heights again, may I not find rest and hope in anything but you”. Or perhaps we need to ask him to take us to the heights for the first time, and give us a revelation of who we are in him, and what we were meant for.

Who are we as Eagles? Or in other words, who are we now that we are in Christ? Here are some things we can reflect on, to remind us of who we are in Him… (watch the video below)

Blazing a Trail

One morning when we were out walking along a bush path near our home here in New Zealand, David suddenly stopped as he saw some familiar flowers. “These make great tea!” he said, “they help cool the body.”
They sounded great, considering it was a hot day! We took some home and dried them. It wasn’t the first time he had done that… when we were in his village in China, I cut my foot on some broken glass while swimming in the river. He quickly went to the bank of the river to look for a particular plant which helped stop bleeding quickly. He picked some and wrapped it around my foot, and it was very effective!

That day as we picked the tea flowers, I wondered… who discovered which plants were edible and which weren’t? What leaves made good tea, which were good for medicine, which were poisonous if you ate them?
I’m sure there must have been years of trial and error by people of all tribes around the world, and some horrible misfortunes! I sure am grateful for all those accumulated years of ancient knowledge, as well as the discoveries of modern medicine. I can’t imagine having to live without pain killers!

The bible is full of the stories of those who blazed a spiritual trail… Abraham, Moses, David, Joshua, Peter, Paul… there were so many things that went wrong, and so many things that went well. The wonderful thing is, we have all of their stories written down to learn lessons from! I always seemed to need a hard lesson to finally learn some things for myself, but I’ve had enough hard lessons now that I’m content to learn from others’ wisdom and mistakes, and just believe them when they say that it doesn’t go well!

But now we are facing so many new challenges in our world, so many new frontiers of change, that sometimes it makes it hard to forge our way ahead. How do we face things like globalisation, social media and technology use, genetic engineering, gender roles, a hectic pace of life, modern medical care, and rapid population growth? Can we just rely on the stories and truths of the past?

Proverbs 3:5-6 “Trust in the Lord with all your heart
    and lean not on your own understanding;

in all your ways submit to him,
    and he will make your paths straight

Some things may change, but some never do. God is just that… He never changes. He has made Himself available to us as the medicine, the healer, the teacher, the provider, the guide, the path… but we must be tuned in and be willing to trust Him. Jesus told us “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6), but how has He revealed this “way” to us? How do we keep forging a path ahead through this unknown territory of the modern world?

Of course, there are many truths we can and must learn from the bible.
In the scriptures we find old medicine that still applies to our modern bodies, old ways that still apply to our new path.
Psalm 119:105 “Your word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.”
God’s word is like a mirror that reads us, a book that comes alive when we read it. Through it we learn God’s character, the things He likes and doesn’t like, who we are, the things he wants us to know and where he wants our hearts, minds and loyalties to be. But it must be the Holy Spirit working through the Word and in our hearts to be effective.

Other believers are an essential part of our own life as believers too. God intended us for fellowship with each other, all parts of one body.
1 Corinthians 12: 12 “The human body has many parts, but the many parts make up one whole body. So it is with the body of Christ. 13 […] we have all been baptized into one body by one Spirit, and we all share the same Spirit. […] 17 If the whole body were an eye, how would you hear? Or if your whole body were an ear, how would you smell anything? […] The eye can never say to the hand, “I don’t need you.”
The head can’t say to the feet, “I don’t need you.” […] 25 This makes for harmony among the members, so that all the members care for each other. […] 27 All of you together are Christ’s body, and each of you is a part of it.”

We need other believers in our lives to encourage us along the path ahead, pray for us, teach us by word and example, and sometimes remind us if we are not living the right way. Oftentimes, those who have gone before us into certain territories can let us know of the dangers, or help us see things in our lives that we are blind to.

But sometimes, we can be doing all the right things like going to church and reading the bible, and still feel a bit lost, or miss the trail the God has for us. One thing that we often seem to forget is the most important source of all… God Himself. Spending time in God’s presence is something that Jesus did very frequently. His vital communion with His Father is something that we need just as much as He did.
In the gospel of John chapters 13-17, the last night that Jesus was with His disciples before he was to be crucified, Jesus comforted them as he told them that he would be leaving them. Up until then, they had relied on him in person being there to guide them, teach them, and show them by example how to be his disciples in the Kingdom of God.
But now he was leaving… and they were distressed. How would they face the world with all it’s challenges without him there? He promised an amazing thing to them that would help them blaze the trail ahead…
His presence in Spirit (John 14:16-18). He would still be with them by sending another helper, a comforter, a teacher, to come alongside them and be with them: the Holy Spirit. The disciples and new believers could do nothing without the Spirit guiding them, which is why Jesus asked them to wait in Jerusalem until the power of the Spirit came upon them (Luke 24:49, Acts 1:4). This would give them power (John 14:12-14) to face the obstacles ahead, guidance all along the way, and peace (John 14:27) like a soothing balm that would protect them from distress and fear… medicine that wasn’t anything the world could give them. This way they would do the same works He did, and even greater! Imagine that!

God never asked us to blaze a trail on our own, with constant trial and error, always seeming to pick the wrong plants to eat! He has placed in us, around us, and before us, the things we need to blaze the trail he has called us to walk… mainly, Himself. He will help us discern which things are helpful, which things are good, and which are poisonous… but only if we are willing to trust Him, learn from our fellow believers, spend time in His presence, and take Him at His word.

“Saints of all ages have made it their business to be present to God, and out of this has sprung their truest vocation. They become, therefore, the ones who blaze spiritual trails for others. Every generation of Christians must courageously face dark wildernesses, peculiar to the time in which they live. […] The saints who make it their full intention, therefore, to practice the Presence (however they term this) become the courageous pathfinders, whether for the many or the few. And in doing this, no matter how much they suffer, they are to be accounted doubly blessed, for they have discovered what they were born to do.”

– Leanne Payne, The Healing Presence

If He Walked the Earth Today…

One day I sat and pondered…
What would Jesus look like if He walked the earth today?
Would he have an iPhone, or no phone at all?
Would He have a Facebook account, an Instagram, an e-mail address?
Would He wear blue jeans, or a robe and sandals, or something completely different? 

And then I realised I had seen Him…

I saw Him as a high school girl,
Who stood firm in her faith
With courage and humility…
…even at gunpoint

I saw Him in a hijab 
On a bus in Iran
Sharing quietly with the woman next to her
About the man in white who had come in her dream|
And given her peace from the turmoil inside

I saw Him in jeans and a T-shirt
As a pastor in a local church
Setting up chairs on a Sunday morning

I saw Him dressed in a white coat
In a science lab…
Exploring the incredible universe
His Father had created

I saw Him dressed as a street-sweeper in Beijing
Who once was a top brain surgeon
But was discovered to be a traitor to the Party
With her loyalty to this King
So now she cleaned those streets for Him 
With all her heart 

I saw Him immaculately dressed in a suit and tie
Laying hands and healing the sick
But always wearing his thinnest suit when it was cold
Because he wanted to know when those who were clothed sparingly
Were starting to get cold too

I saw him in sneakers
A 19-year-old on the street outside a supermarket
Sharing with the homeless and drug addicts
About the hope and healing in Him

I saw Him with a loud voice
Full of faith and passion
Standing on a stage
Not wanting anyone to miss the good news
That a Saviour had come for them

I saw him dressed in Thai silk
Dancing a traditional Thai dance
Using his own way
To worship the Father in Heaven

I saw him in a wheelchair
Trudging through the slums of Africa
Leading a team that was handing out wheelchairs to others
And bringing hope to the hopeless

I saw Him as a husband
Tired after his long day
Making a cup of tea for his wife|
And rubbing her feet 
After her long day

I saw Him in Parliament
Petitioning for the weak and vulnerable
The unrepresented and the voiceless

I saw Him dressed in a nurse’s gown
Patiently and lovingly attending to her patients
Giving them her time and a listening ear
Whenever they felt afraid or alone

I saw him as a young girl,
A grandparent,
An African fisherman,
A single mother,
A youth leader…
I saw Him in a business meeting,
In a kitchen,
In India,
In a house church
In a worship team
In war-torn Syria…

…and he was wearing all kinds of things,
Looking like all kinds of people
And acting in all kinds of roles
With few possessions, or many
With a phone, or without
Because it didn’t matter really,
It was what He did and why
That really counted. 


One night, my husband told our kids a Chinese story at bedtime. It went something like this…

There was a man who lived near a bamboo forest. He liked to walk in the forest, and often cut down some of the bamboo to use for building and other useful purposes. There was one bamboo in the forest that was particularly tall and lovely, and he thought it would be perfect as a pipeline to carry water through. As he approached the bamboo with his knife, the bamboo indignantly said to him “please don't cut me down! That's going to hurt, and anyway I'm too tall and lovely to be cut down!” The man replied, “you are tall and lovely, and that will make you very useful! But you're no use to me unless I cut you down.” The bamboo very much wanted to be useful, but being cut down just seemed far too painful. The man came back the next day, and the next, waiting for the bamboo to give its consent. Finally the bamboo plucked up enough courage and said “Ok, cut me down!” It braced itself for the knife, and as the man cut away, it was indeed very painful. Finally the cutting was finished, and the bamboo breathed a sigh of relief. As he lay recovering from the painful experience, the man said to him, “now we need to cut off all your extra branches. You need to be nice and smooth.” “What?!” said the bamboo, “I thought we were finished! But if you must, go ahead and cut off my branches”. So again the man took his knife to the bamboo and began the painful process of cutting off the branches. It took some time, and the bamboo winced at each branch being removed. Finally the man removed the last branch, and the bamboo breathed a sigh of relief. “I'm sorry, bamboo”, the man said, “but there is still one more thing we need to do, and it will probably be the most painful of all”. The bamboo was upset, but he had learned that the pain was part of the process of becoming useful, so he said “ok, whatever you must do…” The man said “we must hollow you out. We must remove all the obstructions that will stop the water flowing.” As the man knocked out the obstructions one by one, the bamboo began to feel lighter and lighter. Even though it was painful, it also felt good in a way. Finally, the bamboo was hollow and ready to be used. As the man started to allow the water to flow through the bamboo, he could feel it, cool and refreshing. He saw the water going out to the fields to water the plants, and watched as they began to grow and produce food.

I have resisted that knife before. Have you? Who wants to willfully endure pain? 

In John 15, Jesus says “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.” 
I have watched people prune lovely rose bushes right back to little sticks, and fruit trees with huge lovely branches cut right back… I thought, “why on earth did they do that? It looked lovely, and now it looks terrible!” And yet, the next year, the rose bush was full of lovely new blooms, far more than the year before. The fruit on the fruit tree was big and plump, and there was lots of it! 
I remember the realisation one night that I actually had to make the painful decision and say the words (with a genuine attitude), “you know, you're right…I'm sorry”. I felt the resistance, the desire to self-defend, to shift the blame, deflect… but I felt the pruner standing there quietly saying, “let me prune that away”. It felt like a knife cutting to my heart, like a skillful surgeon's knife taking out a tumour of pride. Ouch! And afterwards… I felt lighter. I felt freer. Perhaps, like that bamboo, I felt the life-giving water flowing through easier… 
How often we want to be that bamboo that stays in the forest. We're happy with how things are there, and we feel safe with our branches and foliage making us look good perhaps, or look flourishing. But as long as we stay there, we're not useful for the many things that need to be done… things that we could not imagine or plan ourselves. We have no purpose, other than for our own gain. But as we slowly allow the pruner to do the pruning, we find that we're much happier being useful than we ever were looking good.

Between Worlds

A poem of sorts written about a Third Culture Kid’s* journey, and the Christian faith pilgrimage…

It’s strange…
Feeling more at home on an aeroplane,
Or in an airport,
Feeling more at home between worlds,
Over international waters…
Or perhaps with those who aren’t where you’re from
But aren’t where they’re from either…

Dreading the question of belonging…
“Where are you from?”
Because it can only be answered with “everywhere”…
… dreaded, because the answer also holds
an equal truth…
“… and nowhere.”

Hearing your parents say “we’re going home”
But when you arrive,
You find it doesn’t feel like home at all.
Things you’re supposed to know,
Ways you’re supposed to relate to
And when you arrive, all you feel is
“I’m not from here”.
But if you went back,
You’re not from there either.

Quick to adjust,
But slow to attach
Afraid to commit, because you know
That soon, it will be time to go again.
And the pain of the loss
Might not be worth the effort,
Of another relationship
That must be left behind.

But when you meet someone
Who is just like you
Who was born here, then moved there,
Then back and forth, and then somewhere else
You feel you’ve found a long-lost friend
It’s as if a family member has been found
You laugh and cry,
About things that others can’t understand.

“So who am I?!”
Your soul cries out…
“And where do I belong?
Am I doomed to always be
A foreigner
A pilgrim
Wherever I may go?”

And then one day you realise,
That a Son was sent from another world
To this one, where He didn’t belong either
And told those who followed him,
That His Father – their Father – was preparing a real home for them
But not here…
Because nowhere here is home for them.
Then you finally breathe a sigh of relief,
And realise that it’s ok to feel like a pilgrim everywhere…
Because we’re not home yet.

Hebrews 11:13  “…They (the heroes of the faith) agreed that they were foreigners and nomads here on earth. Obviously people who say such things are looking forward to a country they can call their own. If they had longed for the country they came from, they could have gone back. But they were looking for a better place, a heavenly homeland.”

Philippians 3:20 “For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ”

*Third culture kids (TCK) are people who were raised in a culture other than their parents’ or the culture of their country of nationality, and also live in a different environment during a significant part of their child development years. They typically are exposed to a greater volume and variety of cultural influences than those who grow up in one particular cultural setting. TCKs move between cultures before they have had the opportunity to fully develop their personal and cultural identity.

Keep it Fresh

“Wow Anna, that's very careful colouring!”
“Ughhh Mum, don't say that!” she replied.
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because you say that EVERY time…”

Aren't people so perceptive from such a young age?! She was right… I had been giving her that same line when she showed me her pictures, for the last few weeks! Even my four-year-old knew that what I had to say wasn't anything particularly… fresh!

I'll be the first to admit I don't have a green thumb… I kill almost all the plants I try to nurture (even cactuses)! Sometimes I'm too anxious over them, or too busy and neglect them, or I just don't take the time to learn about how to take care of them, so I treat them all the same. Funnily enough, I've found I can be like that with people too. Now, I've taken to keeping mostly fake plants in our house, because they're just so much easier than real ones! But in a way our hearts and spiritual lives, including our relationship with God and others, are a bit like a garden… they need keeping fresh. 

With God, everything is alive! After all, He is the living God! Isn't it wonderful that He placed Adam and Eve in a garden, and their job was to take care of it? It was alive! The whole thing! It was full of plants and animals… fruit, vegetables, flowers, bugs, birds, everything was alive! And the living things they ate, like fruits and vegetables, nourished their bodies and kept them healthy and growing. God loved to walk with them in the garden too… how beautiful and fresh. The bible just seems to be full of stories about gardens, trees, grass, fruit… things that are alive and growing! Every day, the garden of our heart needs tending too… it needs watering with His Spirit, it needs the good soil of His Word, and the sunlight of His daily presence.

John 15: 4-5 “Abide in Me, and I will abide in you. The branch cannot itself produce fruit, unless it abides on the vine. Likewise, you cannot produce fruit unless you abide in Me. I am the vine; you are the branches. The one who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for apart from Me, you can do nothing.”
Many times, I have let my relationship with God go stale… I've gotten into repetitive habits of prayer that were more like going through the motions than attentive listening and sharing my heart, I've been reading the bible with my dusty old “yesterday” glasses on, and having patterns of thinking that were run-over with weeds of unbelief or legalism, choking out the good plants. The scary thing is, not only does it affect me, but it affects the people around me. When someone needed comfort, all I had to give them were stale platitudes. When someone needed a sensitive ear, all I had was “let me tell you all the memorised answers”. When someone had a spiritual need, all I could see was a physical hassle. I was on auto-pilot… I had forgotten to abide. Without abiding, I'm like a fake plant in a way… I can't produce fruit, I can't nourish anyone, I can't decontaminate the air or produce oxygen. Without abiding, I can do nothing.
When we abide in Him, even the same-old-things can become fresh again! I remember when my Mum had just passed away… I was so overcome with grief. I knew that “she was in a better place now” and, “I'll see her again some day”, but for some reason those things just didn't seem to comfort me during that season. I started to wrestle with God about why those statements, though true and factual, didn't seem to help. He didn't really answer me at the time, until one day… I was just going about the housework, when suddenly God gave me a totally new way of thinking about it… we are all like runners in a race in the Christian life, just like Paul talked about in 1 Corinthians 9, and some of those runners He plucks out early and places them at the finish line to cheer the others on, all part of the great cloud of witnesses like in Hebrews 12! Now that was some fresh encouragement! I imagined Mum at the finish line cheering us on as we continue to “press on towards the goal” (Phil. 3:14). I knew God was encouraging me with some fresh ways of thinking about a same-old-truth.
When we abide in Him, we also have fresh and living things to give to others, things that will build them up, just like fresh fruit and vegetables building up our physical bodies. Once when I felt dried up and worn out, I asked a friend to pray for me. She and her husband prayed together, and afterwards she texted me what she felt the Spirit telling her to pray. It was one of the most refreshing prayers I've had prayed over me! It was for new wine to be poured out into new wineskins (Matthew 9:17), which is exactly what I needed but didn't even know it! It was so refreshing and powerful to have someone who had been abiding in the Spirit and drawing from the fresh word God had given.
Lamentations 3:22-23 “The faithful love of the Lord never ends!
    His mercies never cease.
23 Great is his faithfulness;
    his mercies begin afresh each morning.”

Afresh each morning! How wonderful. Let's keep our spirits fresh by daily listening to what God's Spirit has to say!


Million Dollar View

There they sat, chewing million dollar grass. Lucky cows… some might have thought. But there they were, cows sitting in a paddock right in the heart of Auckland City, with the best view in town. My Dad and I chuckled as we leaned on the fence at Cornwall Park, one of the oldest and loveliest parks in the city, which happened to also be part-farm. Considering the house prices in Auckland, these cows didn’t know just how much that grass they were sitting on was worth! And yet, thank goodness that park was still there, and hadn’t been developed… it’s huge old trees and beautiful green spaces provided much rest and leisure for all around. But those cows… if only they knew they had it so good…

She poured all of it out, every drop… all over his feet! Mary chose an expensive way to express her love for Jesus… couldn’t she have just given him a hug? But instead she poured an entire jar of pure Nard, an expensive perfume, all over his feet… his feet! I looked up the value of Nard in today’s dollars, and this is what I found: “The cost of the ointment was worth about 300 denarii, about $54,509 in U.S. dollars. The disciples were not only shocked by the cost of the ointment she was using, but of the amount that she was using. This act of devotion was seen as waste to the disciples.” Here is John’s account:

John 12:4-8 “But one of His disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was going to betray Him, asked, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” Judas did not say this because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief. As keeper of the money bag, he used to take from what was put into it. “Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “She has kept this perfume in preparation for the day of My burial. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have Me.”

Don’t we just have the most practical and sensible ideas sometimes! In Judas’s case, his “sensible idea” of using the money to feed the poor was, in fact, a devious plan to get more for himself. Sometimes we can fall into this kind of selfishness… but often it’s just that we depend on ourselves and our good intentions to decide what we think is best: “Here’s a need that needs meeting, I’ll just do XYZ to meet it. I have this talent, so it seems logical to use it in this way to the best of my advantage. I have these resources, I’ll use them to get more”.

Honestly, if I had been Mary, I might not have thought to pour out all that expensive perfume on Jesus’s feet, and certainly not in front of all those people watching (and wipe it with my hair!). Seems pretty, I don’t know… awkward! And yet, Jesus was so pleased… whether she realised that was the intention or not, she had kept the perfume for the day of his burial (an eternally important moment), and her obedience and outpouring of love and adoration was recorded for all of us to read millenia later.

I remember hearing a story a while back about a brain surgeon who was one of the top in the world. He came to know Jesus, and one day He heard God telling him to use his skills and go and be a brain surgeon in the middle of Africa. He went. A lot of people thought it was such a waste… he could’ve made millions, he could’ve been famous, and had an amazing reputation. Isn’t it interesting how different God’s ideas are than ours?

Isaiah 55:8-9 “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

Our perspective is often just so… sensible! So practical, so… concerned about the present. From what I’ve learned, God is much more concerned about the eternal. We cannot possibly know how things will pan out in the long-run… we cannot possibly know all the things that God knows about what will happen, who our choices will affect, and what impact they will have. But here’s the thing… God does! And He wants not just the good, but the best.
I’ve often thought about why God chose to do what He did, the way He did, through His son… as I know many others have. If I was God, Creator of the Universe, would I send my son, my only son, to become a little baby to very seemingly ordinary and unimportant earthly parents, born in a dirty stable, growing up to be a carpenter (the God of the universe… quietly making tables and chairs for 18 years!), and then let him walk around, essentially homeless, with a crew of rough rabble, inhibited by the common limitations of a human body, and then let Him die in the most painful and humiliating way, completely
innocent and yet saying absolutely nothing in his own defense… all for a bunch of ungrateful creations like us that scoffed at him, rejected him and beat him? It just doesn’t make sense to us. I can’t imagine putting my own child through that… and yet, that’s the way He chose to do it. And there are so many treasures to be unearthed in that story…

I’m sure those cows can’t appreciate the value of the land they live on, and perhaps that surgeon couldn’t appreciate the eternal impact he would have by using his top-class skills in the middle of Africa. I’ve had times where I really wanted to use a skill or a resource in a certain way (mostly to my own advantage), and everyone else was telling me to do the same… and I felt God gently saying, “no”. I’m still waiting to see why, and what he does with it instead… but all I know is, it’ll be the best way, and the most eternal way.

Turn off the Sun

I remember watching a TV program once about the sun. It was so interesting, so fascinating… and yet quite terrifying. Solar flares, temperatures that are out of this world (no pun intended), explosions and nuclear activity that dwarfs the most advanced nuclear weapons. One of the scariest things was the fact that solar storms were causing solar flares which could reach close enough to the earth to have a huge and devastating impact on our lives here! …And all this from our lovely, warm, life-giving sun! It’s the same sun that allows photosynthesis to take place in plants so they can be nourished, the same sun that sunflowers turn towards throughout the day, the same sun that leaves our bedsheets feeling fresh and dry, that melts the winter snows away to make way for spring, that warms us, brightens our day, and is vitally important to everything that exists on this earth. If it died out, life on earth would die in a matter of minutes. How could it be such a… dangerous and scary thing?  

It’s funny, but I used to get a similar feeling about reading the Old Testament… what a scary God He was! Killing people, burning entire cities, flooding the earth and wiping out all (except 8) of humanity and his creation. I liked the New Testament much better… that was about our Jesus, our compassionate, merciful, loving, humble, servant Jesus. And yet… He told us many times in the gospel accounts, “if you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father”. What, you mean that same Father who allowed serpents, sent plagues, exiled His people, and poured out His wrath on those who disobeyed?   

I realised that, in all honesty, I really didn’t very much like a lot about that Old Testament God! I’ve heard many people say something like that. Maybe He’s not really like that, or maybe He changed when Jesus came, or maybe that was all just written by flawed people with an agenda. But… what if we just have a bit of a soft view of God? Do we see him as more of a Santa Claus figure, a jolly Father, or just a quiet and warm sunshine that is here to meet our needs? Maybe He is some of those things in a way… but do we forget the nuclear activity, the solar storms, the holy anger, the light so bright it would blind us if we saw Him face to face?  

I guess the thing is, knowing the truth about the sun makes me a bit afraid and uncomfortable… it’s something I want to keep a safe distance from. Imagine the heat as you approached it in a spacecraft, doing as best as we could to design a protective suit that could withstand the temperatures. I’m not sure I could say to that sun as I approached it, “I don’t like that you’re this hot! Please, just turn off the heat!” The sun couldn’t change it’s properties, change it’s make-up, it’s temperatures, any more than God can change who He is. Just because I don’t like the heat, doesn’t mean He can just turn it off. Like He said to Moses, “I AM that I AM”. His most common name, Yahweh, means “I AM”. The very meaning seems to imply something unchangeable, no matter how we feel about it.  

So… why was Jesus seemingly so different from this aspect of God? Or was He? How easy it is to forget the Jesus who also whipped people out of the Temple in His Holy anger… and who had some firm and direct things to say about those who were supposedly the keepers of the law given by His own Father, and who spoke often about the eternal fire and warned of the darkness where there was weeping and gnashing of teeth. And yet He still reflected God’s kind nature perfectly, because the truth is that the Old Testament God the Father (and the same God the Father He is today) is also very merciful, kind, compassionate, and loving! (Just read some of the Psalms, especially Psalm 136!). Jesus was very aware of our weaknesses and temptations, He was human as well as God! But He was also aware of the bright and Holy presence of the Father, a presence He loved, and a presence that He came to make us ready for.   

The thing that we don’t often like to think about is, the gospel is bad news before it’s good news… the bad news is, there’s a fiery sun, a Holy God, a solar storm that we can’t withstand, that would melt us in a second, no matter how good or protected we think we are. It seems to me that it’s not because He is temperamental, controlling, angry, or down on us… but because He is so Holy (pure, clean, bright, with no darkness or shadow), and we (because of the fall in the garden back in Genesis) are so… not. And there’s nothing He can change about that, except… the good news is, there is! He has made a way! Or, if I thought of it this way, He has made a spacesuit of protection so that we can “boldly come before the throne of grace” (Heb. 4:16), we can approach that hot but loving sun, and we won’t be burnt. Instead, we will find help, love, protection, provision, mercy! That suit of protection is the blood of Jesus, the full truth and acceptance of His redemptive work for us on the cross. It was freely given, and it was costly… more than all the money, time and sweat spent on all the space exploration in the history of the human race. 

“Consequently, he (Jesus) is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.” Hebrews 7:25


Paradox Paradise

“You mean… you’re just going to give it away? But we need that money!”

My husband had decided to give away our remaining piano before we moved back to New Zealand. We could’ve sold it for about 4000RMB, around $800NZ. I was pregnant with our third child, money was tight, and I was anxious about all our up-coming expenses. How could my husband think this was a good time to be overly generous?

He had a student who needed a piano, a Christian family, and he felt very strongly that God was telling him to just give it to them for nothing. What could I say? I know what I wanted to say… but I’d learnt to trust my husband’s lead, so all I could say was… “alright, if that’s what you think we should do…”  

A week (or maybe several) later, the family came back to us and said, “we feel that God has asked us to give you some money for this piano. I chose the numbers 3 and 7, because they seemed like good biblical numbers, and I’ve multiplied them together and added a few zeros… here’s an envelope with 21,000RMB in it!”  

How could it be that when I let go… when we give away, when we don’t try to gain for ourselves, even when it hurts… we could end up with more than we could’ve imagined?  

Jesus seems to have taught a lot of things that don’t make sense to our natural minds… a lot of paradoxes. Look at all these paradoxes in the bible…

  • Finding through losing (Matt. 10:39)
  • Living through dying (John 12:24)
  • Freedom through servitude (Rom. 6:18)
  • Gaining through losing (Phil. 3:7-8)
  • Receiving through giving (Acts 20:35)
  • Strength through weakness (2 Cor. 12:10)
  • Exaltation through humility (James 4:10, Phil. 2:8-9)  

The thing is, these paradoxes all seem so foolish to our human minds! What do you mean if I want to be first I must be last (Matt. 20:16)? If I want to be a leader, I must be the servant (Matt. 20:26)? How are we supposed to understand all these paradoxes? 

I think Jesus was alluding to a secret… there was another place where things were different. A place where we can store up treasure that never rusts, where the merciful and meek win out, where the sufferers and mourners are blessed, a place that He knew so well but was so unlike what we know now. But like I learned with giving away the piano, I’m not sure it can be intellectualised… our minds just can’t comprehend it. But it comes alive when we just believe and obey… have those paradoxes come alive for you?