Friday, January 13, 2017

My Gut Lied

I went with my gut. Ten minutes later I regretted it. An hour later I really, really regretted it. Twenty years later, I don't think I'll ever forget it. Thankfully, there's a happy ending to the story and I didn't end up lying in a gutter. These days it's a funny story I tell.

The young man on the tram asked me the time. Then he sat next to me. Then he asked me how many stops it was until Bell St. I'll tell you when we get there, I said.

He started to pour his heart out about how lonely he was in Australia. Will you be my friend? He asked. Soon he was writing down my phone number. I went with my gut. He seemed friendly and lonely. He decided not to get off the tram at Bell street. I had two choices of tram stop, both equally close to home. Thoroughly frightened by now, I got off at the first one. My new “friend” followed me off the tram.

He started asking increasingly personal questions. I think by now we can agree, my gut had lied to me. What felt right had turned out to be wrong. Can I come home with you? He asked. Over and over. After about the third or fourth no, he asked rather mournfully, wouldn't your parents approve? I jumped at the chance.

No, I said, definitely not. (No my parents, who were far, far away across the water in another state, would definitely not approve of me taking a complete stranger to an empty house with none of my house mates home.)

I was infinitely relieved when he gave up, and I was finally able to walk home without him following me. Shortly after I got home the phone rang. For me. My new “friend” asked when he could see me again. Nothing I said seemed to put him off. At last he told me, You're the only girl in my heart. If I don't see you again, I will die.

This time I didn't do what felt right. Fine, I said. And hung up. I never heard from him again. Probably he was just a foreign student wanting to marry an Aussie and become a citizen. Or something like that. I don't know. What I do know is that my gut lied to me.

Go with your gut.

Just do what feels right.

Stay true to yourself.

We hear and see these a lot. They seem to be the catch-cry everywhere I go. Hidden in those phrases is a tiny grain of truth. Scientists have shown that our instincts, fuelled by mirror neurons, can help us make decisions our rational brains can't explain. If properly trained those instincts can be lifesavers in emergencies. However, our gut has a dark side.

The Bible sheds light on the whole truth.

There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death. (Proverbs 14:12)

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it? (Jeremiah 17:9)

In other words, our instincts are unreliable and sometimes downright deceptive. How do we know when to trust our instincts? For a start, nothing that compromises on God's law or contradicts the Bible is right... Even when it seems like the only way out of a stick situation. Beyond that, the more we train our instincts and emotions with truth, the more we get in the habit of doing the right thing when it's really, really hard, the more reliable our instincts will become. The Bible says:

Keep your heart with all diligence, for out of it spring the issues of life. (Proverbs 4:23)

But not only that:

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding. (Proverbs 9:10)

Had I turned to God for wisdom before giving away my phone number, I might have been spared a lot of fear and anxiety.

Everywhere we turn there are catchy slogans and eye-catching memes, but before we go with our gut, nod our heads and click the like button, we need to ask ourselves if they are Truth, or just a little bit of truth mixed in with some dangerous lies. The truth may not look or feel as good, but it's always the best option.

Monday, March 3, 2014

It's Not On The Outside

Have you ever been buzzing with frustration after one thing after another, after another has gone wrong?  Ever thought, "if only I could just have a break..."?  Ever felt so wound up you think you might explode?

No matter what is going on in your life, though, none of that frustration is coming from the outside.  Frustration, anger, rage... they all start on the inside.  Yes, sometimes you should be angry and frustrated by the world you live in.  We should all be upset by injustice and cruelty, but letting that anger stew on the inside is not going to help.  It's not God's way.

Jesus is the perfect example of perfect balance.  He got angry, He expressed anger, and He always did it right.  It's pretty incredible to read some of the things Jesus did and said and to realise that He was always in control - He always spoke and acted in perfect love, not simply as a reaction to how He was feeling at the time.

When God created us in His image, He gave us the power of choice.  Animals, on the other hand, simply react to the physical conditions on the outside.  They are driven by circumstances.  Too often, we behave as though we are animals.  Something happens.  It makes us feel bad.  We let the bad feeling drive our response.  We give up our power to our emotions.  But no matter how we feel, we can choose how we respond - if we depend on God to empower us to do what is right.  In fact, even when we let our emotions control us we are making a choice - the choice not to do the hard work of thinking about what we're doing.

Often we try to control life.  We try to protect ourselves from bad things and ensure that good things happen to us.  There's certainly a place for taking sensible precautions, but we can't control our world.  No amount of preparation can protect us against all disease and natural disaster.  No amount of manipulation can stop other people from doing things we don't like.  What we can control, what we can choose, and what really matters is what comes from inside us.  It's our reaction to whatever happens, whether we like it or not.  We can choose to act in love despite pain and frustration.  Or we can let our emotions carry us.  What will you choose?

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

A Person's A Person

Did you ever read Dr Seuss's book, "Horton Hears A Who"?  Perhaps the most memorable line in it is:
"A person's a person, no matter how small"

Dr Seuss was teaching children something profound. In the Bible, God talks about there being
"neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female..." (Galatians 3:28)

According to God, all people are of equal value.  A person's a person no matter... what.

I've just read a book called "Ghost Boy"* written by Martin Pistorius, a man who spent years unable to move or communicate on his own and yet fully alive and aware in the prison of his own body.  His story is a reminder of the truth that God told long before Martin existed: God has put a spirit in man that makes us unique in His creation.  God has given each of us something that makes us people, a completely different creation to animals.

One of my great longings is that we all remember this whenever we see a person with a disability, especially an "intellectual" disability.  The brain is just part of the body that can be broken like a leg or an arm.  The brain can get "sick" just like a heart or liver.  BUT if someone has a broken leg or heart disease or cancer, we don't assume that they are less of a person.  We don't think that they won't mind eating custard every day for the rest of their lives and sit them in front of children's television for days on end.  On the other hand, if a person drools and mumbles apparent nonsense (or doesn't talk at all) or rocks back and forth endlessly - if their brain is "broken" - we tend to treat them as though they're not people at all anymore.  In fact, we often call them "vegetables".

But God said that He is the giver of every good gift.  One of those gifts is the human spirit.  Is God capable of giving us something that is broken?  The brain might be broken, but inside every person, no matter how vacant or weird or scarey they seem, there is a human spirit, and just because the brain is broken doesn't mean the spirit is.  There is neither slave nor free to God - surely being trapped in the prison of a dysfunctional brain is another kind of slavery.  But God sees the person inside the prison.  A person is a person no matter what.

Jesus came so that everyone could have an opportunity for eternal life.  No exceptions.  God sees and values the person inside the prison.  God sees everyone as equally valuable.  Do we?

*While this was an excellent book in many ways, it does include some very disturbing content about the author being horribly abused in a care home.  Sensitive readers may prefer to skip chapters 35 and 36 (titled "Memories" and "Lurking in Plain Sight").  I would have preferred not to read the graphic details myself.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Why Do I Feel Like Such a Failure?

Do you?  I'll bet if you're a woman, especially if you have kids, you feel like a failure a lot.  Am I right?  Every day?  Many times a day?  You may not even be sure what The Standard is that you're trying to achieve, but every day you feel pretty sure - even convicted, perhaps - that you haven't reached it.

Well.  You feel like a failure because you are a failureAs am I.  You see, the first two people created, Adam and Eve, were created good and put in a beautiful garden.  But then they ate the fruit that God had told them not to eat - the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.  By choosing to decide for themselves what was wrong and what was right, Adam and Eve put themselves and their children at war with God Himself.

God is the ultimate expression of all that is Good and Perfect, so, like our first parents, you and I are at war with all that is Good and Perfect.  Only, it can seem mixed-up and confusing because the tree Adam and Eve ate from was the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  We've all learned to be socially acceptable as well, so we humans don't completely wipe each other out, so from the outside it looks like there's a lot of good in us... until there's an all-out war, when human nature is seen in the raw, minus a lot of that "social acceptability". (Think the Rwandan civil war, the Holocaust in Europe, or any number of present-day conflicts such as the war in Syria and even the riots in indebted countriesin response to "austerity measures".)

Anyway, so being at war with what is Good and Perfect makes us failures, with some good bits thrown in here and there.

But wait, there's good news!  By ourselves we are failures, but Jesus paid the price for that failure.  In Roman times, the crimes committed by a condemned criminal were nailed to their cross when they were crucified.  Jesus hadn't done anything wrong, so your sins and mine were symbolically nailed to his cross (the "handwriting of requirements against us" - the Bible still talks about sin after Jesus was resurrected, so it wasn't the law that was nailed to the cross, otherwise there would have been no such thing as sin any more! "Sin is the transgression of the law").  By repenting, being baptised and having hands laid on us to receive the Holy Spirit, we start to become something new.  No longer a failure.

Of course, we won't completely shake that "failure" part of ourselves until we are transformed.  We'll still feel like failures often.  But no longer hopeless failures!

In just two days is one of God's appointed Holy Days, known to the Jews and many others as Yom Kippur.  It is a day of recognising our human failure and the depth of our need for Jesus Christ and God our Father.  Physically, it's not an enjoyable day, since it means fasting for a complete 24 hours - no food or water in that time.  But spiritually it is a celebration of the fact that Jesus has paid for our weakness and sin.  It's a celebration that failure is just a temporary state - if we truly accept the price that Jesus paid.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

What Is Love? (It Suffers Long)

Today, I'm writing as a tribute to a lady who truly suffered long.  Through years of suffering and pain, she considered others and was truly a shining light.  In the last weeks of her slow and agonising death, she wrote letters of encouragement and gratitude to many people.

And this is what I have just "gotten" recently - " suffers long and is kind..." (I Corinthians 13:4)  It's not just the "suffering long", but the kindness at the same time.  We live in a world that tends to make heroes of people just because they suffer.  We call it courage when someone who is suffering goes on doing the things that they enjoy most.  But that's not real courage, it's just common sense.  It makes sense to spend lots of time with your family and friends when you're in agony - it will probably (although not for everyone, admittedly) get your mind off the pain.

Agape (remember that word for the love that God is?) is another whole level.  It's being kind to people who don't necessarily make you feel good (while suffering).  It's being kind to people who are contributing to your suffering (think of Jesus' crucifixion.. remember, God is love, so whatever Jesus did was love).

Agape suffers long and is kind.  That means it's relentlessly kind, not just for a day or two, or even a year or two while the world is watching.  Agape is kind for twenty years of pain and suffering.  Which is what makes Agape so completely different from our human definition of love - it's impossible.  And yet, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me" (Philippians 4:13).  Yes, you and I will stumble in this life, but if we have the power of the Holy Spirit, we can do the impossible - including being kind when we suffer... for a very long time.

Want to understand more about the Holy Spirit and how it can change your life?  Try reading The Holy Spirit: God's Power at Work from the free Good News Magazine.

Monday, July 8, 2013

What Is Love? (More Than Self-Sacrifice)

God is love.  That's what the Bible says.  But hang on, let's take a step back.  When I say "love" I don't mean the warm, fuzzy feeling that you feel towards a good friend you can trust.  Nor do I mean the emotional rollercoaster of being "in love".  I don't mean the overwhelming protectiveness we feel for our children.  I mean something much bigger, wider, and deeper than all of those.  I mean something that is outside and beyond feelings.  Sometimes good feelings come with the love I'm talking about, but sometimes it feels absolutely rotten because it means giving up what I want for the good of others.

So I'm going to stop calling this thing "love" and call it by it's Greek name "agape".  Not because it makes me feel all fancy to be using Greek words, but because it's so important to make a distinction between the love that is God (agape), and the pale human shadow of that Great Love.

So, God is agape.  In other words, to fully know agape, we have to fully know God... which we won't in this lifetime, but let's see if we can get a little glimpse of what agape truly means.

In I Corinthians 13 of the Bible there's a whole chapter about love. Early in the chapter it says something really interesting. It goes something like this:

"Even if I give away all my stuff and am willing to be burned to death, if I don't have agape, I'm nothing." 

Wow, right. So being really generous or being willing to die for other people isn't (of and by itself) agape.

That means (among other things) that if we sacrifice our comfort and well-being for others, it isn't really love unless it's for their greater good.  Too often, we try to please our loved ones (especially children) now - because we want to see them "happy" (and that makes us "happy") - at the expense of their future.  It might make my kids "happy" to eat lollies every day of their lives, but, considering the cost to their future health, it's certainly not agape.  Agape wants what is best for people, not what will make them feel good (of course, sometimes what makes people feel good is what's best for them, but we can't assume that making people feel good is agape all by itself).

So sacrifice and generosity aren't agape all by themselves. And that is just barely the beginning... More another time.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Why Not Me?

Have you heard of Job?  He was a rich dude in the Bible who lost all his children and all his wealth in the course of a single day... And then just to top it off he got covered in boils from head to toe.  At first, Job took all this very well - until his three best friends started haranguing him and telling him all the stuff he must be doing wrong to suffer that way. After that he started to feel pretty sorry for himself and asking that universal question: "why me?"

Ever asked that when life got tough?  It's worth reading the book of Job.  In the end he learned some important lessons, but it took a while for God's message to get through, because Job was so busy feeling sorry for himself.

Don't get me wrong, Job was going through a huge trial, and those three best friends of his were insensitive to infinity and beyond.  But.  The book of Job is there for us to learn from.  To learn, in part, what not to do in a trial.  One of the things not to do is to wallow in the "why me?" question.  It's something I've had to learn personally... a number of times.  Really, why not me?  What have I done to earn a life of ease and comfort?  I didn't create myself or my children or husband - so exactly what gives me the right to good health or anything else that I might want or think I need?  Nothing.

The apostle Peter wrote in a letter:
Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you... (1Peter 4:12

Those fiery trials are necessary for us to truly grow into children of God (what an incredible opportunity - to become a child of God!)

And in book of Hebrews God told His people:
And have you forgotten the exhortation which speaks to you as to sons: My son, do not despise the chastening of the Lord, nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him; for whom the Lord loves He chastens, and scourges every son whom He receives.  If you endure chastening, God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom a father does not chasten? (Hebrews 12:5-7)

The bad things that happen to us are not because God stopped paying attention to what was going on in our lives.  Nor are they the arbitrary punishment of an ill-tempered God.  Every challenge, difficulty, crisis, or even tragedy that comes your way and my way is an opportunity to learn something important.  Too often we (speaking for myself, anyway) waste that opportunity by asking God to make the bad stuff go away... and then either waiting or wallowing.

Now please understand, I'm not suggesting that God expects or even wants us to just supress the grief of a tragedy and get straight to pulling our socks up and learning the lessons He has for us.  Ours is an ever-merciful and patient Creator who understands what it is to be human - He doesn't ask us to just shut off grief and pretend it's not there at all.  Nor does God ask us to pretend that pain doesn't hurt and put on a happy face (otherwise a big chunk of the book of Psalms wouldn't exist!).  Jesus Himself felt and expressed anguish in His lifetime as the only perfect human being ever to live.  But - when we get to the point of just wallowing and feeling sorry for ourselves, or when we pause life (and personal growth) to wait for God to fix things so life is just as we think it should be - that is the time to start asking what God has for us to learn. God has promised:

No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful , who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it. (1 Corinthians 10:13)

Did you really read that?  Go on, read it again.  God is faithful.  Did you get that?  He will make the way of escape so that you may be able to bear it.  Have you really got that?  Do you really believe it - right to the core of your being?  Whatever you are suffering right now, however unbearable it feels - there is a way through.  Whatever God is throwing at you (or letting others throw at you), there is a message in it for you - a personal message, written in love, just for you from your great Creator.

Don't (as I have often made the mistake of doing) get so busy wallowing or waiting that you miss the priceless gift of the lessons that God is teaching you.  Is God's message getting through?  Why not you? Why not me?  God has so many things to teach each of us.  Are we listening?