Living Water: No Turning Back

This post is loosely based on chapter 4 of Living Water by Brother Yun. It was my launching-pad and thoughts around a related theme. The chapter is titled ‘No Turning Back’.

At the beginning of the chapter Yun references John 15:16 where Jesus says,

“You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit – fruit that will last.”

I’m fast approaching middle-age and I have to ask myself the difficult question of how much fruit that-will-last have I produced in my life? If I were to die today, how much of my influence would echo through to eternity? I don’t ask that question for a desire for my own legacy, but to question if I have spent my time well.

The question is easier ignored because the answer is confronting: precious little. I could attempt to justify myself by defining the question more broadly and try to wriggle off the hook. I could probably even make a semi-convincing argument. The truth remains the truth, no matter how much I dislike its implications.

I resemble a cheap fruitcake. Being a fruitcake there ought to be much fruit; and yet it looks like the baker has thrown the fruit from across the room, and whatever small amount happens to reach the the mixing bowl is the end product.

Earlier 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. … This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples. (v1-2, 8)

Honestly, I am in need of a good prune. I need to make conscious decisions to put my growth-energy into fruit, not leaves or limbs. I want my life to amount to more eternal fruit. Not out of fear, but as an act of love.

Yun goes on in the chapter to talk about how we should seek God’s plan for our lives. He assures us that if we listen, we will hear it. More importantly, we should accept that there will be opposition to any plan that comes from God. There will be vicious attacks from the enemy and friendly-fire from those who should be allies. “In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil men and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.” (2 Tim. 3:12–13)

As Jesus says in Luke 9:23, “‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.’” One does not ‘take up a cross comfortably. The cross is an instrument of humiliation, suffering and ultimately death. And we’re called to take it up daily.

We will be humiliated because the world at-large will not accept the Word of God. The world mocks the wisdom of God and think itself more wise. We will suffer at the hands of the enemy, just as Jesus did and many thousands of his disciples have throughout history. Some will be martyred in a single act of brutality; others will lay down their lives in a daily surrender. It’s a cross; not a silken robe. Stepping up for Jesus is stepping out into a battleground, make no mistake – but don’t back away.

Who in their right mind chooses to enter a war? The brave, who choose to swallow their natural fear for a greater good. Those who put others before themselves and want to prevent suffering. Those who are willing to take a stand against evil. Those who believe in the rightness of their cause and trust their Commander.

Jesus asks it of us and as Christians we’ve said that he’s Lord of our life. That should be the end of all negotiations. Jesus came to the world, and to the cross, to provide a means by which people could be reconciled back into relationship with God. Those who don’t know him are the reason why we should carry our cross. As the recipients of God’s grace, sharing the good news should be natural, if we can just learn to humble ourselves and value the opinion of God more than that of our family, colleagues, neighbours and world. (Keeping the good news to ourselves would actually be the most malicious hateful thing we could do).

Prune at will, Lord God. Join me, brothers and sisters, in bearing much fruit and making the vineyard flourish.

Living Water: Forgiveness

This is the third post looking at chapter 3 of Brother Yun’s Living Water. The first two chapters were covered in previous posts on Repentance and Lessons from Esau (better termed, Life Derailment).

I believe that forgiveness is an important topic whether or not you ascribe to a faith. In our lives all of us would have come across, and then likely runaway from, bitter people. A lack of forgiveness causes a person to become bitter and that bitterness leaks out, polluting their lives and those around them. Bitterness is toxic and drives most sane people away; they aren’t enjoyable to be around.

It is easy to be bitter. As humans we can easily hurt others, intentionally and unintentionally, through our words and actions. I remember hurtful (albeit somewhat true) things that were said to me more than twenty years ago. Many people have suffered physical and emotional wounds by others, or events in their lives, that have left deep scars. Bitterness isn’t a dormant rock which weighs you down; it is a cancer which spreads and affects your whole life. Unchallenged, it grows in size and over time will suck the joy and hope from your life. It will cause you to become thorn-like, which pushes others away and stops you from being embraced.

Brother Yun uses the analogy of bitterness being a weed in the garden of your heart. He makes a valid statement in today’s beauty-and-success-conscious world,

“Many people spend a lot of time and effort trying to beautify the outside of their lives, pulling up the surface weeds when really they need to go below the surface and dig up the root.”

Forgiveness can be a challenge. Brother Yun, who has suffered brutal torture in Chinese re-education centres has a right (humanly-speaking) to be bitter and yet he says,

“there is absolutely no point in withholding forgiveness towards anyone, regardless of what they have done.” Yun understands that unforgiveness actually does more damage to the person holding onto it, than the one they are angry at. As the saying goes, bitterness is like (you) drinking poison and waiting for your enemy to die.

While reconciliation requires two people, forgiveness only requires one. And forgiveness doesn’t mean letting someone escape justice for their actions, only that we “release our own desire for vengeance and leave it in God’s hands.”

Forgiveness for a Christian is even more important. Actually, it’s mandatory according to Jesus. If we want to be forgiven for our sins, then we have to forgive those who sin against us (Matthew 6:14-15). Considering our job as Christians is to be ambassadors of reconciliation, it makes sense that the first place we have to do that is in our own lives. A bitter person can hardly tell others the good news about Jesus’ love. Not without it being a sad (and somewhat delusional) and unconvincing offer.

In my experience forgiveness in “challenging” situations is more than a one-time event. Our heart might struggle, wavering between anger and forgiveness. Just like a wound might need dressing multiple times to fully heal, so sometimes we have to make the choice to forgive. And that can be very hard.

What I find most personally challenging is not forgiving others, but forgiving myself for the mistakes I make. I’ve done and said dumb things which have hurt others, more often than I would like to admit. Even when I know better. And then my natural inclination is to dwell on the failures. I need to extend to myself the same forgiveness God has for me. Negative self-talk unchallenged, wreaks a dreadful cost in our lives. Allow conviction, not condemnation. Only our enemy, Satan, wants us to be trapped in the despair of condemnation.

The best way I can end this post is to quote the challenge Yun also posed:

“Dear friend, I encourage you to put this book down and spend some time in prayer, asking the Holy Spirit to show you if there is anyone you hold unforgiveness towards in your heart.”

And I’d add, including to yourself. Allow Jesus’ grace to extend to your innermost being.

Further thoughts on the Folau saga

A reader, bmadtiger, recently responded to an earlier post I made about Rights and Responsibilities which was addressing the Israel Folau saga that has been playing out in the Australian media for months.

A Short Background

Israel Folau, professional rugby union player instagrammed a biblical quote warning about the consequences of sin according to the Christian faith. Person(s) unknown complained. His employer, Rugby Australia, tore up his multi-million dollar contract and banned him from playing for life. Media piled-on. Controversially, Folau then raised $2m crowd-sourced to contribute to his defence.

I began writing a response to bmadtiger… only for it to lengthen to the point where I thought I’d make my response into a post. Then I sat on the post for a time and let it percolate…

bmadtiger’s comment had directed my attention to an article by Ray Barnett, A Two Edged Sword: What Might Justice Look Like. While willing to support Folau as an individual, Barnett’s concern is that a win for Folau might inadvertently strip Christian organisation’s of their ability to sack on religious grounds of staff. (i.e. a school teacher with beliefs or acts not aligned with the Christian values).

It could become a double-edged sword, and I also see bigger dangers which I’ll address soon. First though, why I hope it does not.

The Legal Question

(I am not a lawyer. This is what I hope would be the law: which ought to be common-sense enacted for the greater good of the community).

Folau was essentially sacked for breaching his contract; presumably for bringing Rugby Australia into disrepute. Folau’s primary job is to chase a football and score points. As a part of that job, he is a representative of the sport, to a degree.

The question is, does the religious opinion of an individual, expressed off-field, bring an entire sporting organisation into disrepute? Or is it just a guy who has an opinion which is counter to the majority? I think making the assertion that he has brought the entire sport into disrepute is a hard-sell.

With Rugby players, we mostly want fit people who are good at chasing footballs and colliding with the opposition when required. We don’t really care what their IQ is, and normally if they’re a drug addict or a wife-beater we’ll help rehabilitate them. Folau, aside from his religious beliefs, is a great player and a model citizen, on and off the field.

Contrast that with the hypothetical Christian organisation raised by Barnett. It is a different situation entirely. A Christian organisation, especially a church or school, is understood to be fundamentally Christian as a primary aspect of it’s identity. Taking the “Christian” out of it would be like trying to strip one side of the double helix; a fundamental change and breaking it from what it is supposed to be. Most parents send their children to a school because they want them to have a Christian influence. (At the very least they accept that whilst there they will have a Christian influence).

Now enter the hypothetical ‘wayward’ staff member, who is found to be living a non-Christian lifestyle, or is an atheist in belief. A Christian organisation that became known as non-Christian (or sub-Christian) would quickly suffer reputational damage and lose a significant part of it’s ‘unique selling-point’. The key base of their demographic would vote with their feet.

As an example: A man who is drunk on weekdays but stone-cold sober on weekends, is unfit to counsel alcohol addiction on a Saturday. He doesn’t practice what he preaches. His lifestyle is inconsistent with his advice, and he lacks credibility. The same would be true in a Christian school environment. If the school is purporting to teach pupils how to live a Christian lifestyle, they must be able to demonstrate consistency and integrity to the message. The belief system is critical to what is being offered.

On Reputational Damage

It’s my belief that if ‘reputational damage’ is a key aspect of a contract, then most of Rugby Australia corporate stooges should lose their jobs. Their (mis)handling of this case has done more damage to the sport than Folau’s comments ever did.

Rugby Australia, when confronted with this public relations issue, reached for the nuclear option. They didn’t negotiate, they didn’t fine or suspend him. They banned him for life. In a news.com.au poll, 53% of respondents agreed he should be sacked. That’s 47% who disagreed (133,116 respondents). That’s the nuclear option.

Rugby Australia should have come out and said they completely disagreed with Folau’s opinion, but that he had a right to it. If they wanted to, they could also have negotiated in his contract whatever precautions they wanted. Both parties could then decide if they were willing to sign on the dotted line. I’ve never seen the ball fumbled more as by the Rugby Australia board.

The media too, with almost relentless attacks on everything-Folau has done itself reputational damage. It’s clear bias and desire to execute-by-media has been on full display. Which is tone-deaf of them, considering that in the same survey 72% of 134,558 people thought Australia had become too politically correct. But perhaps they perceive that as 28% who are enlightened and they need to redouble their educational efforts? (/sarc).

A Bigger Threat

In his article Barnett raised the concern of the end of religious exemptions from discrimination claims. He wrote, “If exonerated and reinstated, Israel Folau will become the precedent…”

A precedent will be set, regardless of the outcome. If Folau loses does that mean an employer can claim any politically-incorrect statements are a sackable offence? Will sharing ones faith be considered anathema? Will contributing to the conversation in the ‘public square’ be off-limits even in your own time, at the risk of unemployment?

There are already such cases in Australia where individual activists have weaponised the judicial system to silence their ideological foes. I don’t want more of it.

It is my hope that Folau will honour those Australians who have stood with him, by pushing this until there is a sound-and-beneficial precedent set. It will be the greatest try of his life, and of immeasurable value for all.

Will there be Justice?

As I’ve said, this has played out severely in the media, and touches on some pretty powerful nerves of offence and freedom.

As Barnett wrote,

[Folau] was treated unjustly as the law currently stands. Circumstances do seem to have been manipulated against him. He did appear to run foul of the politically-correct brigade and social warrior commerce with which society has now been saddled.

If a Judge is to make a decision favouring Folau, the Justice must be made of titanium. The media and activists will be applying relentless pressure, with the undertones of carrot and stick. In the Judge’s heart and mind is where the battle will be won or lost.

I hope that the decision will be made with common sense. Common sense seems in short supply these days; one can never know if it’ll be there when it’s needed. We’d be foolish not to be appealing to God that his Justice would be delivered, albeit through a human justice system in this case.

Final Thoughts

Ray Barnett put it well, so I’ll let him finish this post:

In many of the serious documents coming from the first few centuries of our faith, when our brothers and sisters faced Roman brutality far greater than we can possibly imagine, they did not—nor could they—argue at law for their rights at law. Their defence was their godly lives and the tangible displays of community that saw them cover the loss and deprivation of any and all members who suffered the attacks of the authorities. Absorbing them into the community and family that transcended all human associations, providing for lost income or resources.

This did two things. It provided for needs in a society in which there was no government assistance. More significantly, it gave a visible demonstration of a better Kingdom. It showed that Christ was able to create one new community, one new people, out of men and women from many different racial and social backgrounds

Living Water: Lessons from Esau

When I was reading the excellent Living Water some months ago I’d planned to write blog posts for each chapter. After discovering Kindle didn’t allow chapter-only exports I had to delay my plans. Because of this post #1 on Repentance sat alone for a long time.

Chapter 2 of Living Water is entitled ‘Lessons from Esau’. Months ago I sat looking at this chapter, trying to extract my blog post. It wasn’t coming to me, no matter how hard I tried so I planned to skip writing about the chapter. And yet, now I see it. Clearly my heart or mind wasn’t in the right place at the time. This post, therefore, is chapter 2, ‘Lessons from Esau’ (which relates to Genesis 25:29-34).

The chapter starts by quoting Revelations 3:11-13, 19. The first two sentences stand out to me.

“I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown. Him who overcomes I will make a pillar in the temple of my God.”

If Jesus tells us to ‘hold on’ and ‘to overcome’ then there is an adversary who is trying to take ‘our crown’ from us. Satan will do all he can to steal our identity in Christ, to weaken our faith and to make us ineffective spiritually. I don’t think he cares how he does it: it could be through physical distraction, emotional injury or spiritual apathy. We need to realise the tug of war is real, ongoing, and the costs of losing are personally high.

Verse 19 says, “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent.”

Godly rebuke and discipline is given to us because of God’s love for us. But discipline is only beneficial if we accept the correction. I paraphrase that, ‘Listen carefully and respond accordingly.’

When I was first trying to find my ‘post’ I was looking at the chapter too narrowly. I read it as primarily talking about sexual sin, pride and greed and how they’ve derailed so many high-profile Christians. However, that isn’t what Yun’s talking about. He writes, “Satan is an expert at tempting us to fall.” I’ve heard it said before that Satan isn’t all-knowing, but he’s had plenty of experience in working out which buttons to press. Yun recounts from his own life how his pride resulted in him being imprisoned in Myanmar because he stopped listening to the promptings of the Holy Spirit.

It doesn’t matter what our weakness is, we need to guard against the enemy exploiting it. As Yun writes the following (taking Esau’s bowl of stew as a metaphor):

“There may be a bowl of stew in your life as well. If you make a wrong decision and partake of it, it can destroy your life and bring you untold misery and pain.”

Which raises the question, what are the ‘bowls of stew’ in my life? What are the things that are more likely to distract me from the things of God? I think it’s important to identify the areas of vulnerability and bring those areas before God in prayer and surrender. It could be rewards (e.g. promotion, money, fame) or pleasures (activities, sports, relationships) or even attitudes (cynicism, independence from God, selfishness). Yun advises,

“This doesn’t mean that we control ourselves, but it means we must submit to the Holy Spirit who lives inside of us and who helps us to fear God and hate sin. …it is only the grace of God that can help and train us to overcome temptation.” (italics his)

I know that there are areas which I need to reflect on and take to God. Two scriptures stand out to me.

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:3-5)

This passage does not say that there isn’t a speck in our brother’s eye, but that we first must see clearly before we can reliably help our brother. And also,

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6,7).

It is all too easy to get tied up in worry, even worrying about ‘good things’. We aren’t supposed to worry; we should take things to God. Worry crushes our spirit, faith that God’s looking after something can give us peace and confidence.

Distracted

With the rare exception, I have written a blog post every week for a long time. Except it’s been over a month since my last post. So what has happened?

Distraction. Some of what has distracted me has been good-distraction in-and-of-itself. Like maintaining and strengthening relationships, or good stewardship of what I’ve been given (i.e. maintaining the garden), or beneficial long-term (i.e. occupation focused work). Other distraction has been less-good and less productive: gaming, avoidance and other time investments that will never pay dividends.

There’s also been a big block of stress during that period, which mentally constipated me and had me reaching for any mind-numbing procrastination as though it were Valium. And more recently illness that quite literally put me on my back. Thankfully both of those issues have now been resolved.

The truth is the distraction began earlier in the year. At the start of January I was more focused on the things of God and faith. And then like a man heading out for a distant port, I heard the siren’s song of temptation. I started to have more ideas for stories, and my hunger for other hobbies grew too. Now I know that God has given me giftings to use for his glory but that doesn’t mean they should overshadow my desire for him. These were not his blessings, but the enemy’s temptations. I have allowed these other activities to absorb more of my time, thoughts and heart than they had any right to. It’s time for me to re-evaluate my priorities.

I have recently been pondering this passage from Colossians 3:


1 Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.

What does this mean for my life? How does it translate to how I spend my time? On if and what I write? If I am God’s servant, his adopted child, how is my life different in a day to day, hour by hour fashion. My life is not my own, I was bought with an incredible price.

That’s actually a danger that I face as a creative person. My mind can spin a dozen ideas out of thin air – and each of those ideas could easily absorb hundreds of hours of writing time. But I want to make sure that I’m not spending my life on something inconsequential.

All that matters is that which lasts for eternity.

A Real Miracle

This is a true story of a real-life miracle that happened a month or two ago. While I might paint the scenery around the foreground to make the blog post more interesting, the core of the story is entirely true and without exaggeration.

To comprehend the situation fully you first need to understand something about my wife and for that let me use an analogy: women are like vehicles. Some women are shiny, sleek racing cars; others are reliable SUV mini-people-movers; still others are utility vans. As different as the vehicles are, they all have their good qualities. Notwithstanding my wife’s beauty and lovely personality, she’s definitely an M1A2 Abrams Tank. She probably averages about 0.8 sick days a year. If you cut her arm off she’d stay home only long enough to cauterize the wound with the heated base of a fry pan and only let out a barely audible hiss of discomfort while doing it. Then she’d be at work without delay. Such is my wife; one tough unit.

So about a month or so back I told her I was experiencing some minor back pain. Not too uncommon for me, just enough to let make me uncomfortable and let me know I’d better not overdo it. I’d give it a 1/10 on the pain threshold. She said she too had a bit of back pain. Not unheard of, we’re both aging :). Throughout the week neither of us said much about it but we were both still dealing with it, without much in the way of visible signs.

On the Wednesday night she didn’t play basketball because of her sore back, which clued me in slightly that this was more than just discomfort. (I’m not the most observant man). I suggested we didn’t need to do a food shop this week. She replied we did have to because we were having dinner guests on Friday night. I offered to do the food shopping if she needed me too; she went ahead and did it herself anyway.

At work on the Friday I got an email in which she told me her back was really quite bad, and she’d just cancelled our dinner plans for the evening. Our outing for Saturday (adventure rooms) was also in jeopardy. For her to tell me she was in pain I knew it was bad. I offered to leave work early and catch a bus to her so I could drive her home. I suggested she leave work early. She declined both. Only later did I find out that “bad pain” actually translated to excruciating pain like:

  • I can’t stand up from my seat
  • I’ve been holding back tears all day

That’s my wife – a real unit of strength and tight-jaw suffering. I wasn’t sure what condition she’d be in when I got home. I certainly didn’t expect what I found.

I walked in the door to see her standing in the centre of the lounge room with tears of joy in her eyes and worship music blaring on the stereo. “Watch this,” she said as she lifted her knee up to her chin, and then the other one, followed by other displays of radical flexibility.

As she tells the story, she’d been suffering with the pain all day. As a colleague was leaving for the day she prayed with her for healing. Nothing overly special: just a prayer. A few minutes later my wife was driving in the car and realised she could lean forward without any pain. She tested it, moving around as much as she could and there was no pain. When she was at home she tested it fully: 100% movement, 0% discomfort. A miracle. Praise God.

Some might say it was just a fluke, some movement which cleared the pain. It’s possible, but unlikely. What’s the chances that after a week of pain, and a whole day of excruciating pain, it just happened to go within mere minutes of prayer? It could be a coincidence but once “coincidences” stack up continuously, then you have to believe it is something more.

We have faith and know that God can and does listen to our prayers. Why he answers some times, and not others, who can say… but what a wonderful example of God’s love demonstrated to my wife.

The Man in the Pit

That partly explains why I missed last weeks’ scheduled post. And almost again this week. I found myself in a deep pit and have had to climb out centimetre-by-centimetre. Which isn’t easy when you’re short and disabled. In some ways I’m not yet fully out of the pit but I’ve reached a height where the WIFI signal has returned.

How did I find myself in a pit? Part carelessness, part circumstance beyond my control and also just the part of the journey I’m on.

Work at the moment, and until December 2019, has intense timelines to meet. Every week there are deadlines. This leaves me feeling mentally exhausted by the time I get home. Compound that tiredness with my almost-routinely bad sleep and it’s a recipe for feeling like you’re being sucked down a whirlpool.

Most unusual for me, this resulted in me not even wanting to turn the computer on. Or if I did it seemed far easier to anesthetize myself with mindless games. The idea of programming or writing after a hard day was not on my schedule.

Publishing Vengeance Will Come made me super-excited. To see all of my hard my work in a format that others could read spurred me onward. I went from ‘I’m not sure I’m going to publish this’ to ‘I definitely have to write more’ within 24 hours. It was just thrilling to reach an endpoint on the project.

And yet as the weeks go by and the sales remain extremely humble (to use a phrase that is more palatable) it is disappointing. I never had expectations of making lots of money or generating a huge fan base. I was smart enough to realise that was unlikely. I just hoped that some readers would enjoy my story. A story teller doesn’t craft a story and then never tell another person: the joy is in the sharing. I’d assumed that Amazon being so large, and my books being low-priced, would give me at least a small audience. So far, that has not been my experience. Full disclosure: I have done no marketing. Still I had expected more.

God-stuff though is what put me in the pit in the first place. I’d been complacent and lazy and hadn’t been dealing well with a few things. Every time I tried to spend time with God, I’d end up thinking about other issues which would rile me up… Soon it became easier to not think about it. Except that didn’t solve anything.

Good spiritual disciplines were bent a little each day, and eventually began to buckle as less-helpful habits filled the void of easy distraction. My distance from God meant that I was no longer receiving his refreshing and the transforming of my mind. I wasn’t living out Jesus’ character but increasingly my own. Which has far less to commend it.

Thankfully, in the last week I realised the state I was in. I wasn’t just sliding down a a hill, I was actually in a pit that I didn’t know how to get out of. I’ve made more of a conscious effort to get my spiritual life back on track and there’s been a huge improvement, thank God. I knew he was always with me even through the difficult and painful times but I missed the sound of his voice.

And so now I’m working my way free of this pit. It’s dark, and I’m still feeling disorientated, but I’m taking directions from the Big Guy who has the Compass.