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Thursday, July 28, 2016

Look Up and Within and Live Life Through Eternity’s Eyes

Drawing close to my Jubilee year has made me reflect more than ever on my mortality.
Reflecting on my own mortality has had the effect that I’m focusing on the mortality of those special others in my life — parents, children, siblings, etc.  There’s something very sobering in thinking about death on a daily basis.  And in this Jubilee year I will be thinking intentionally about death every moment I can.  It’s like I want to be touched spiritually every moment of the rest of my life, having known something irrepressibly serious and deeply significant that is all too easily missed in this superficial life.
If I look at those photographs above, where I’m held by my parents, who this day are still alive, it causes me to feel sad, teary even; that all those years have gone by; that they were so young, and so was I; that we cannot reclaim that day, to visit it, as it was, even for five minutes.  The time is gone!  Yet, we have our day, fifty years on, spare one.
These reflections have caused the sort of consternation that decrees the need:
1.     Death to self, that others might live a little more, so Jesus comes alive in me.
2.     Death to self, that, in minimising my own cravings, I’ll see God.
3.     Death to self, so that I will finally live something approaching a truly godly life.
4.     Death to self, where my remaining years with precious family would count.
5.     Death to self, so there’d be fewer regrets through the days and decades ahead.
6.     Death to self, in order that, in my remaining years, I would taste something of heaven’s life for me.
7.     Death to self, so I would no longer be my own impediment.
Life runs better when there’s more death to self.
Sometimes I think that we Christians make complex the simple.  God’s Word tells us to die to self, yet we opt for a secularised, quality-endorsed character reformation package.  We lose sight of Jesus in this.  We lose touch with the Holy Spirit’s work in us.  And the Father, well He just fades into the background in our lives.
What better reason have we to be compelled to die to self more than to make the most of our loved ones?  To be Jesus with them and for them.  That’s reason compelling enough.
The truth is, any moment now, an end could come.  Any end, and certainly an end that will leave us horribly disfigured in sorrow.  All our moments are rich historically, and we never sense the enormity of history until eternal dimensions impress themselves on our lives.
© 2016 Steve Wickham.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

God Loves You and That's Your Task Too

Here’s a secret not many know or recognise to be true: it’s natural that we either don’t like ourselves or we don’t like bits of ourselves; important bits.
Don’t believe me?  Talk to yourself about your lack of confidence in some situations; your anxiety; how you hate it when you don’t meet with others’ acceptance or approval.  It’s not other situations or other people we’re really upset with when bad things happen; we turn those horrid things that happen to us inwardly.  After all, a child blames him or herself for the fact his or her parents are divorcing.  And why is that we can forgive others much easier than we can forgive ourselves.
Our biggest issue in our spirituality is our self-concept, and only God can heal of us of our own berating pressure on ourselves.  We’d approve of ourselves if only we were a bit further along the road in our growth.  But God loves us right now, even with all the sin we struggle with.
God wants us to know ourselves, and yet we can only know ourselves if we:
1.     don’t run from ourselves
2.     learn to depend on God enough to journey with Him
3.     commit ourselves to a life of learning.
The invitation to the Christian life is not centrally about biblical or theological or ethical knowledge.  It’s not about degrees or ministries or who we know or rub shoulders with.  It’s not about what we can do or how much we can do or how well we can do it.  It’s not about how long we’ve been Christian.
The invitation to the Christian life is a horrible journey none of us genuinely want to take, if we had a choice.  It’s the character reformation that makes a disciple, not how well they pray.  Christian character has nothing to do with spiritual gifts; indeed, it’s the spiritual gifts we glory in, in our pride.  Christian character tests dash pride.
The reason we agree with God to endure the reformation of our character is we find ourselves in a place where we have no choice.  Life brings us to this place; no place to run or hide.
The invitation to the Christian life is God’s summons to wrestle with life in a way that only works when we accept ourselves, because, if He loves us, who are we not to?
God knows this, and we should know it too.  Life is about learning, and the type of learning life’s about is a learning we have to learn not to resent, because to resent it is what should be accepted.  This character learning is the hardest learning, ever.
And when we know God knows us, and we know and accept ourselves, we notice that others know us well and accept us.  We’re deeply sown into the midst of life in others’ lives.
We can accept ourselves we can love others, and only when we can love others are we truly Christian.
God loves you more than you do because you are lovable.  Believe that and begin to live as He wills for you to live.
© 2016 Steve Wickham.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Cultivating Genuine Freedom in a Global Culture of Fear

Seems every other day there’s a mass shooting, an international terror attack, or some other act of terrorism with which our minds must contend.
Depending where you live in the world the issues themselves have varying veracity in terms of threat level.  And although any area or facility could be a target, it’s clear that the risk remains higher in certain regions and situations.
But there’s a new crazy getting around.  It’s that person who’s thrown their caution to the wind.  They’re capable of anything, with access to weapons and the initiative to make a plan.  Crazy can happen anywhere, anytime.  And if that’s today’s thing, what will be tomorrow’s?
We exist in a culture of fear, particularly if you invest your time in the News Press, spend any significant time on social media, or have a life that takes you into the community.  We can’t escape it.
So how do we cultivate freedom
to oppose this culture of fear?
We must learn to switch our conscious thoughts to those in our midst again; to our wives, children, husbands, parents, siblings, and our friends and work colleagues.  We must learn and relearn the value of entering the land of the living, and to resist spending inordinate amounts of time in the fake world of curated crime reports and social media hype.  We must return again and again to the state of living life.  We must learn, too, that all of this life is not yet revealed to us, so we must learn to trust our loving God.
Cultivating the personal and interpersonal freedoms of acceptance in community is the only way to resist the culture of fear sweeping the globe.
The more we refocus on people in real life situations, the less we’ll fear what could or might happen in the worlds of our imaginations.
Resisting the culture of fear in our world is as simple as insisting on cultivating freedom through being present with those around us.
Freedom is a choice of response when fear abounds.
Make it your possession.
© 2016 Steve Wickham.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Dear Jesus, Now, About Submission

May I proffer a prayer?  Of course, You’ll say, “Okay!”
Lord, I struggle to submit; in my pride and in my fear, and these in combination, with misunderstanding, and an oft-skewed perception, together with a spoonful of gracelessness, I struggle.  It lands me in hot water every time.  And I know it’s Your will that I not only submit, to the remittance of Your power, but it’s also Your will that I suffer the consequences of my sin, for that’s how I’m destined to learn or to languish, which is my choice after all.  You are, after all, a wholly just and a solely righteous God.
Why is submission so hard, Lord?  Why do I get it right some of the time, yet at other times I don’t?  Why is it that I must suffer this pride that hates being prideful?  How is it that I’m encumbered by this overweening need to be humbler than I am?
Thank You that in the times I do submit, that You give me Your power and favour and rest.  My heart is richer for the peace You give that says “Enough!” knowing that enough is not only okay, but perfect on earth in Your estimation.
You, who submitted perfectly when You strode the earth, which was a submission You were frequently criticised for, and a submission that saw You given peaceably, though in torment, to death; that submission is what I seek for You to teach me.
About submission, Jesus.  Make it meaningful in my life and time.  Make it manifest through every fissure of my life.  Make it multiply in effect for Your glory’s sake.  AMEN.
To submit to the Lord is to surrender in such a way as to trust Him, who is Peace, Hope and Joy, for peace, hope and joy.
© 2016 Steve Wickham.

Monday, July 18, 2016

How Intimacy Forces Us to Grow or Resent

PAULINE and Geraldine met at church one day.  They seemed immediately to have much in common. Both had a baby and another child each under six.  And their respective husbands, Brice and Doug, seemed to get along together as well.  Both families spent much time together over the ensuing five years, at church, in each other’s homes, serving others for Christ together, and serving and loving each other.  Both couples were active in their serving within their church, much to the extent that between the four of them they were nearly three fulltime equivalent pastoral roles (senior leaders) on the church staff.  Each couple was not only an ideal complement for each other, but both couples were an ideal complement for their church.  Everything worked so well.  And, best of all, the church was growing in reach into the community, and in spiritual depth.
But then something happened, which happens in a lot of relationships.  A misunderstanding occurred, a theme of poor communication developed, and the relationship disintegrated.
Geraldine and Doug experienced a sudden loss within their family, and they found what they deemed to be no solace from Pauline and Brice.  For Geraldine and Doug, it seemed that for Pauline and Brice it was pretty much business as usual, and Geraldine and Doug found that extremely hurtful.  In fact, it was as if their friendship had withered in proportion with their increased responsibilities at the church, and upon their mutual reliance to run the church.  The more they worked together, the less they were friends.  How could their friends — best of friends — and pastors at that — become so cold and unloving… overnight?
There’s always two sides to a two-sided story, however.  Whilst Geraldine and Doug were grappling with their loss, Pauline and Brice obviously had to shoulder the bulk of the church workload, and they were already burning out.  They hadn’t realised that they privately resented the fact that Geraldine and Doug already had a plethora of support, and it seemed as if Geraldine and Doug didn’t need their support.  That hurt!  But the fact was Geraldine and Doug were privately watching for support from Pauline and Brice; support that Pauline and Brice had erroneously thought was superfluous.  It was a massive misunderstanding, because of a lack of communication, transparency and vulnerability.  Both couples wanted to be needed, and neither couple felt the other cared.  The fact was both couples cared a great deal.
What started out as beautiful in the realm of relationships became caustic, then toxic.
The couples came eventually to be so hurt as to despise each other, and the fractured relationship between the couples actually caused marital friction (between partners in both marriages) where there had previously been none.
There’s a reason why church is difficult, and why many people find they’ve outgrown church.  Church demands an intensity of relationship that can quickly outstrip the maturity in the relationship.
Now, these sorts of fractured relationships don’t just happen in church, but they do frequently happen in the church.
Here is a vital truth we all need to face: get close to anyone — like we do in churches — and we find we’re forced to face truths we would prefer weren’t there.
God places us in community to become intimate with others, which feels good for a while, before community becomes the source of pain and the catalyst for growth.
The wisdom for couples like Geraldine and Doug and Pauline and Brice is as simple as it’s painful.  To transcend the pain they would each experience for their closeness, they each needed to be mature enough to crave reconciliation.  It’s too easy for couples like Geraldine and Doug and Pauline and Brice to become polarised.  And yet all they each needed to do was to keep putting Christ first.
Put Christ first and growth becomes inevitable.  The key irony surrounds pain.  Had it not been for the pain Geraldine and Doug and Pauline and Brice experienced, there would be no impetus or vehicle for growth; no need of needing to put Christ first in a fresh and meaningful way.
The mature keep putting Christ first, because to be mature requires consummate commitment to humility.
Getting close to other people forces a response.  Either we grow in accommodating people or we resent what intimacy forces us to face.
© 2016 Steve Wickham.
Postscript: the example of Geraldine and Doug and Pauline and Brice is fictitious — entirely, and deliberately, fabricated.  It’s merely an illustration.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

A Power We All Wield, Yet So Often Don’t Understand

OH HOW much power we each have!
We don’t know or realise, most of the time, just about every given moment, our influence.  Without even trying, we, ‘the powerless’, wield such great power.  Power of the tongue, influence through action and inaction, the choice of acceptance and rejection, actors for impact every interactive moment of our lives.
We have a very real power extant in our interpersonal relationships.  Power to commend and to condemn, to usher kindness and cruelty, to encourage and to exasperate, to delight someone and to dishearten them.
At times I’ve been criticised for emphasising encouragement over challenge.  I’ve just seen enough of the hardships of life to know that God does much more in most lives these days through encouragement than he does through challenge, not that challenge is inappropriate.  It has its time and place and point.  But if challenge is going to be used by God it will be on-time, on-target, and on-point; we only need to be one degree off and that challenge comes off as a damaging criticism.  Sure, God can and does use criticism to grow us, but speaking the truth in love needn’t be sloppy.  In fact, it isn’t.  And even as I write these words I’m so well aware of the power I’ve wielded in cutting people down, past and present.  I’m grateful these days that most of the time I’ve got some awareness of insight, the Holy Spirit’s voice, so I can hurry into the operative elements of a fivefold apology when I speak words and do actions that damage.  I’m reminded how damaging it is when I hear people use their power to cast aspersions about others.  To judge them, or slander their name.
Oh how one word can either bless or break,
Or how a solitary act can shore up or shake,
Let’s use our influence so others aren’t maligned,
Instead, use it to encourage and be kind.
We usually don’t realise how powerful our personalities are.  Each of us has influence; to bless and curse.  This influence is a power we so often underestimate that we have.  God bids us, use it for His glory to bless and not to curse; to use it well.
© 2016 Steve Wickham.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Strongest Faith, That’s a Doubting Faith

My wife’s often said, “Faith’s like a muscle, it only grows when you use it.”
And that’s what significant tests of faith are for: our growth.  Only if our faith is stretched, even pushed to overload, even over the edge into a beckoning gulf, will it grow… if we don’t ultimately give up.
True faith cannot give up over the longer run.
True faith learns to press in
when life’s too tough to live.
The strongest faith is a doubting faith, because a doubter who doesn’t give up shows definitive faithfulness.  The doubter’s attitude may stink, they may plummet in lament, they may lack gratitude, they may chuck hissy fits within, but they’re also in elite biblical company: Moses, Job, David, Jeremiah, etc. — and, at times, the whole nation of Israel.
What the doubter lacks in attitude they make up in behaviour.  They may not want to step in faith, but, provided they do step in faith, they demonstrate faith — the most compelling kind.
In going against their own will in favour of doing God’s will, they show whose allegiance is theirs; God’s, and not their own.
The doubter is a light on a hill
to all who watch their lives.
They epitomise strength in weakness, and
they show everyone Christ is a compelling companion,
best of all, in the midst of life’s fire storms.
The doubter, at their weakest ebb, is positioned to be encouraged.  And that’s where, when God ultimately speaks, it affirms His Presence, which engorges a doubter’s faith, making it realer and stronger.
Faith cannot grow unless we’re pushed past the end of ourselves, over into the beckoning gulf, where we find ourselves sinking in desperately trying to swim.
There, as the circumstances of our lives lap like waves over our head, is our greatest moment of faith, even as we acknowledge we’re eroded by doubt.
When faith is stretched as circumstances conspire, attitudes are bound to waver, and yet there’s still little to worry about, even as doubts encircle our lives like a white pointer shark out to make us its meal.
It doesn’t matter how we feel.  In the context of faith, it’s what we do that counts.  And that’s the encouragement we need when our faith is floundering, stretched to breaking point through circumstances that conspire.
God’s greatest encouragement abides in our weakness,
that in our doubtingest faith is His strength for our growth.
The object of faith is growth over the lifespan.  Faith only grows when it’s tested.  Testing requires circumstances that cause doubt.  Doubt is a seminary for faith development.
© 2016 Steve Wickham.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Exploding 5 Myths About Depression You Thought Were True

I’m no world authority on depression, and I certainly don’t have a PhD, but I have suffered what many term ‘the black dog’ and so I may have something to contribute.  I know what it’s like to be depressed, to have depression, and to guide others through such a spiritual nemesis.
Here are five myths to explode:
Myth 1: “doctors and other medical and health professionals know exactly what you’re facing and enduring.”
Fact: nobody can know what you face or endure when you yourself struggle to name it — and naming it is important.  This is not to say that relevant professionals won’t be able to help.  They need to help you to name it as part of your recovery, but they’re not usually the panacea many think they are.  Certainly a good psychologist or counsellor as well as good friends are a vital, even indispensable, in accessing the empathy you need to receive in order to endure the entire journey; a season of depression.  And psychiatrists, psychologists and counsellors are essential in clinical depression.  But they need to know you, and have listened to you, before they can help.
Myth 2: “there is no hope for healing for anyone with a depressive disorder.”
Fact: Not true.  It isn’t true that if you have a depressive disorder that you have no hope for healing.  There is sufficient science on neuroplasticity nowadays to suggest it’s not only possible, with the right therapy and persistence over the lifespan, it’s likely that at least some healing can and does occur.  There is hope.  For everyone.  Remember, we’re even talking about the severest cases of clinical depression here, where coping measures can be learned that produce an experience of healing.  Hope for depression sufferers is a quenching oasis in a parched land.  And hope is an integral part of healing.
Myth 3: “depression is a waste of everyone’s time.”
Fact: depression can teach us much about the melancholy of life that we’d know little or nothing about otherwise.  It can also make us more compassionate.  “So this is how life is for many people!”  That is a remarkable revelation.  We could view depression as God’s test to know ourselves better and deeper, so depression can actually be viewed as an investment of and for our time.  And, for those who help people through depression, such therapy and ministry is an encouragement, as we see great leaps of gutsy conviction undertaken and little nodes of growth in those who engage in their pain.
Myth 4: “it’s normal to feel guilty and ashamed to have depression.”
Fact: in bygone eras there certainly was a stigma about depression — as if it were a personal and deplorable weakness.  Stigmas like this drove the expression of depression underground.  But have a look on social media these days.  People everywhere are being empowered through the sharing of their stories of depression; blessed as they find courage to come out.  Of course, it’s natural to feel ashamed of having ‘mental illness’ but feelings of shame don’t have to be ‘normal’.  They can be overcome.
Myth 5: “you can’t have fun and enjoy any of life when you’re depressed.”
Fact: No so.  Even when we’re depressed we’ve got the capacity for laughter and joy, particularly as our thoughts go momentarily AWOL, forgetting for a few moments our elements of lament.  Sometimes depression can be a prerequisite for hilarity.  After all, what more could go wrong?
Here’s a bonus myth to explode:
Myth 6: “admitting you’re depressed opens a can of worms that should remain closed.”
Fact: Such a lie.  So many people I know attest to the fact that acknowledgement is half the battle.  Upon acknowledgement there’s empowerment; the opportunity to plan our way out.  Suddenly there is great purpose!  When we get a whiff that victory is possible, overcoming the nemesis becomes a positive driving force.  No one on earth will stop us when we have heaven helping us.
© 2016 Steve Wickham.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Stuck Between the Past and the Future

It happens.  The rug is pulled from under the feet of your life and you find yourself in that unfamiliar territory you could easily resent.  Suddenly there’s another revelation, as in déjà vu, “How on earth did I get here…?” and “How on earth do I get myself out of here…?”  I remember that thought; one vivid experience sitting in an AA meeting over a decade ago.  I’ve had other times like it since.  Times when I was stuck between my past and the coming, unknown and unknowable future awaiting me.
It’s an uneasy time.  A time where we may be given to feelings of dread.  Situations where we may momentarily despair even of life.
Stuck between past and future is a faith-growing time, where there’s nothing to lose in simply putting one foot in front of the other, never giving up, knowing when we’re halfway through hell we’re halfway out.
Amazingly, when we’re stuck between our past and our future, God is doing a work in us to heal us of what’s gone in order to prepare us for what’s coming.  Seems like we’re stuck.  But we’re not.  There’s actually a lot going on within the spiritual realms of our life.
So, when you’re halfway through hell remember you’re halfway out, and now is not the right time to relax.
Now is the time to be present, to be mindful, to be obedient in discerning and taking each anointed step.  Now is the time, taking each important step on the road to your God-appointed destiny.
© 2016 Steve Wickham.

Friday, July 1, 2016

When a Routine Ultrasound Makes Ultrasounds Routine No More

INNOCENT it was, a quiet, sunny, winter’s morning, July First.  A Tuesday.  Two years ago, today.  A day our lives would change.
We thought nothing of it really.  Apart from the fact we were going to ‘meet’ our unborn, and see their little 19-week-old body in utero, in the form of pictures, some in a printed form we could take with us.  We would see him or her move.  Little did we realise at this point we were about to see our baby from this view many more times in the intervening months, many more times than a normal couple might see, and get to know, their unborn baby.
We readied ourselves and set off in the car; us and our then 15-month-old son.  A quiet car trip, planning the day out as we went.  The strange thing as I look back, those plans soon withered into annihilation.  Those plans were very soon forgotten.  I have no memory of them.
When life changes in an instant, the present bequeaths to the incoming moments a state that can neither accommodate the past nor plan for the future.
We found our way to this brand-new clinic, within a pristine new hospital complex, where the ultrasound scan would take place.  There were still many workers around finishing the place off.  We arrived, registered that we were there, found a seat and some toys for our son to play with.  I can still picture where we sat and the types of interactions we had with fellow parents-to-be.  It was a beautiful moment, pregnant with possibility.  We really had no idea what was about to hit us.
Being invited in for the scan itself, we were impressed with how well behaved our young son was.  But, for some reason, the sonographer was taking such a long time to sort herself out.  It seemed to take her longer to get the views she needed to do our scan.  When she couldn’t see the heart at the right angle, she invited us to go and grab a coffee and return in thirty minutes.  At that point I was impressed with myself that I was able to pick out our foetus’ kidneys (which were remarkably prominent in the scan — little did I know that was not a good sign).  Suspecting nothing was amiss we did as was suggested, and so we went for some morning tea.
I had to shift the car because the ticket had run out, so my wife took my son up to the ultrasound scanning rooms and I followed them minutes later.  Upon arriving I sat in the same seat in the waiting room as I had beforehand.
Then, a minute later, there was a glimpse of Sarah — something wasn’t right.
She gestured to come into the room.
Sarah took up her position on the chair and the sonographer came into the room with a gentleman in his fifties — one of the chief consultants.  They reran the scan, talking a different language briefly, before they asked Sarah to get dressed.  We were then ushered into the consultant’s office.  He was very nice.  Being too nice.
Something was wrong, but we really still had no idea how wrong things were.
There wasn’t that much said, but this consultant felt like Dr. Phil.
He gave us the medical prognosis first, very matter-of-factly, then the plan for what next — how ‘treatment’ would change.  Then he said words etched into our memory:
“You’ve got to be strong for each other…
[his eyes welling up with tears at this stage] …
there’s a very long road ahead.”
In the disbelief of shock, yet knowing this is real, I said something without thought: “I suspect we’ll be thanking God for our faith.”  The doctor then said, “I thank God for your faith now…!  Thank you so much for making this easy for me.”  He then respectfully ushered us out of the rooms, a place I now felt as if we no longer belonged or were worthy of — a place of life, where we were now agents for death.  In a very short timeframe our understanding of where we were and what we were doing was obliterated.
From that moment, everything changed.  The drive home.  Being home.  Having family there.  ‘Words of comfort’ fell flat, and some well-meaning people infuriated us, even when they said innocuous things.  Vulnerable in a second.  We were in the throes of such an ambiguous grief, and those days grew into weeks, and only through the months did grief morph into something pliable for use; for me, lament in reflection and the simply resolve to keep going.  Sarah was always pragmatic, except for the sudden moments she’d be thrown; every few days or so, in her own private way.  Our faith did help, and heaven knows, your prayers helped enormously.
It helps to think back with fondness, only two years ago, to a time God knew we could endure, even if we didn’t have His confidence.
For the times coming for some of you, where the moment changes things, irrevocably, know that you have enough, and are enough, in the Lord your God.
It is well with our souls.  Even in the midst of that Tuesday morning, it was well with our souls.  Because we know Christ.  (And I laugh now, because this July 1st Sarah is very happy; to be buying new camera gear!  Her conversation with her father this morning: “Guess what, it’s the first of July!”  Dad sources Sarah’s camera gear, and it’s new financial year.  Life does move on J)
Christ is a friend for every horrid occasion and every sordid temptation; a friend we never thought we’d need; in the way we know now.
But oh such a friend, for such seasons as these!
© 2016 Steve Wickham.
Postscript: If you have time, take yourself through this sermon.  It does us good.