A Longing Fulfilled

This week, I'm preaching on one of the great passages of the New Testament - Hebrews 11-12.

29 times, the passages tells us that it is 'by faith' that those who have gone before persevered until the very end, often under extremely difficult circumstances.

In my reading, I came across a cross reference in Proverbs 13: 12:

Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.
— Proverbs 13:12

After reflecting on a Proverb last week, I thought, why not continue?

The saying is confronting for anyone enduring hardship. To hope, and then hope some more, only to come up with nothing. It makes the heart sick.

On the other side of the coin though, having a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.

The language of this second phrase can't be ignored. It's impossible to think of it without seeing the new creation.

But what do we do in the meantime? Is this life just one disappointment after another - one giant hope deferred?

Ultimately, our hope will not come to fruition until that final day. But we receive mercies from God in our daily lives that remind us that our longings are fulfilled in Christ.

Back to Hebrews 11 and 12, we see most famously that Jesus is not only the pioneer of our faith, but the perfecter of it as well. In John 14, he tells us that he will not leave us alone, but give us another Counsellor - the Holy Spirit. He will remind us of what is true. He didn't just give us faith. He will sustain our faith as well.

Before writing off this life as one big hope deferred, dwell on those reminders God has graced you with of fulfilled longings in Christ. They may not be the ultimate and eternal reality, but they will spur you on as you wait for that day when all our longings will be fulfilled, and that tree of life will be ever present.

R U OK 2017

The time has rolled around again for R U OK day, where Australia is encouraged to:

- Ask
- Listen
- Encourage Action
- Check In

It’s a great initiative which brings mental health awareness back into our minds. Last year, I said that if you’re willing to ask the question of a loved one, we need to be willing to hear the response, and commit to walking through what may well be a very long journey.

I love these four action points of R U OK day, because they remind us that while the conversation begins with a question, it isn’t where we end. No - when we ask, we also listen, respond and follow up.

The book of Proverbs contains so much wisdom, and particularly around the topic of friendship.

Consider the following verse in relation to the premise behind R U OK day:

A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for a time of adversity.
— Proverbs 17:17

In a fallen world, we must expect relationships, and life itself, to have difficult times. There are moments of beauty in life, but also seasons of hardship. Proverbs concludes that true friendship and brotherhood is present all the time, not some of it.

Let’s consider what it means to be this kind of friend as we reflect on the message of R U OK day, and how asking, listening, encouraging action and checking in are all part of what it means to fulfil biblical friendship.

The gospel is a message of unconditional love - it is not a fair weathered reality but one where God's love is there in the sunshine and in the rain.

May our relationships with others be the same.

A Deeper Rest

The commandment that God gives Israel to keep the Sabbath day holy is familiar to many of us.

But in Hebrews 4, God tells the early Jewish Christian community that Sabbath still stands:

There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works, just as God did from his.
— Hebrews 4.9-10

The author of Hebrews has been encouraging his audience to persevere in their faith. In the same way as Israel took their eyes off God and his gracious provision in the wilderness, the same warnings are held out to them that their rest may be in jeopardy.

We are not just told that finding rest in God is a good idea. We are commanded to do it.

Ultimately, I believe the kind of rest Hebrews is speaking about is eternal rest. The message to not fall away from the faith is strong, and so we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.

If an eternity free of crying and pain is our promised eternal rest, then I believe this also increases our opportunities for rest in this life.

When our lives are hectic, when our minds are cluttered and when we believe the lie that we can achieve rest if we just work hard enough, we fail to find peace.

Hebrews 4 tells us to rest just as God rested on the seventh day.

When God rests, I don’t believe it’s because he’s tired. I believe it’s because he’s satisfied. God isn’t in bed sleeping, he’s in an armchair looking out at his creation and delighting in the fact that it is very good.

In the same way, God’s promised eternal rest reminds us that when all is said and done, if this life doesn’t go according to plan, we have not been forgotten.

We can take rest from our works in this life because we see that the world will keep on spinning even if we stop. The earth does not rotate on our own axis, but on God’s.

When we find rest in God, the Christian does not just enjoy a better life to come. They enjoy a better life now. What does ‘better’ mean? Not necessarily richer or more prosperous. No, we are assured of something far greater. Instead of happiness we find joy and contentment that transcends our current circumstances. If we are sad, depressed, lonely or despondent we are not destroyed because we have a deeper reality. We are headed towards God’s final rest and so we can find rest in the midst of the struggles of the every day.

When we are restless, we keep our eyes fixed on God and in this we find a rest that is deeper than any other.

Do Not Be Anxious About Anything?

Just a few weeks ago I was asked to preach a sermon on Philippians 4: 4-9. It seemed like a straightforward enough request, until I realised what was contained in that particular passage of scripture:

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.
— Philippians 4:6

Did Paul really say not to be anxious about anything? What does this mean for those of us with clinical and diagnosed anxiety disorders? Is ‘anxious’ the same as ‘faithless’ according to Paul?

Let’s establish a few key points:

- As far as I know, anxiety as we have come to describe the disorder was not part of Paul’s worldview. Psychology as a discipline was certainly different to what we see in the 21st Century. We have come to understand human physiology in ways that were not dreamed of in the first century.

- We need to look at the context of Paul’s writings. He is in chains for the gospel (Philippians 1: 13) and goes through a great deal of mental and emotional processing. In this 4 chapter letter, Paul acknowledges that death is better by far but he knows he must go on for the sake of the gospel. He also claims that he has learned the secret of contentment in all situations, whether in times of need or in times of plenty.

- If we therefore look at Philippians as a whole, we don’t get the picture of a man who is necessarily calm about his circumstance, but he is at peace in the midst of his circumstance. He is restless, but there is a theological truth that speaks into that restlessness.

Based on these historical/cultural/textual factors, we must conclude that when Paul speaks of ‘anxiety’, it’s not necessarily the same as what we would call ‘anxiety’ in the clinical sense. In modern speak, Paul doesn’t seem to be able to control his thoughts, but his faith in the Lord does help him process the feelings and behaviours that arise as a result of these thoughts.

But even if the anxiety Paul speaks of is not anxiety in the modern ‘clinical’ sense, Philippians 4: 6 teaches all Christians some important lessons. Those of us with a diagnosis ought not to completely overlook the implications of this passage:

- The Lord is near (Philippians 4: 5). This means that in the midst of fear, we know that God has not left us and we know he will return.

- Prayer brings peace (Philippians 4: 6-7). Why? Because it acknowledges that God is ready to hear us in our times of need. The parable of the persistent widow (Luke 18) shows us the power of ongoing prayer.

- Faith in God does impact how we can process the upheaval and restlessness that comes with anxiety. Philippians 4 shows us the power of remembering that there is a God who loves us dearly, regardless of our present circumstances.

While I don’t believe the message of Philippians 4 dismisses the reality of anxiety disorders, it does give us a framework to bring our uncertainties and burdens before a God who hears.

When Care Is No Longer (A)Cute

'You'd go to the doctor for a broken leg, so you shouldn't feel bad if you need help for depression'.

I wonder if you've heard this phrase before. I love its thoughtfulness, and how it seeks to support those who need help.

The statement is an attempt to reduce stigma, and for that I am grateful.

But for a long while it didn't sit well with me, and I think I have only just recently worked out why.

A few weeks ago, we ran a meeting for the small group leaders of the church I attend. I took the opportunity to encourage the leaders to consider how best to care for those with mental health issues in their groups.

One leader, who practices as a nurse, helpfully noted that it can be difficult or daunting because mental illness is not an acute issue.

Not knowing exactly what she meant (I'm originally a teacher, and acute is a mathematical term in my mind!) she said that acute illness is one with an expected recovery date. In contrast, chronic illness is one that is ongoing.

And there it was. There was the flaw in the broken leg analogy.

When someone breaks their leg, they go to the doctor with an expectation that within 2 to 3 months they will be up and walking again. When someone acknowledges that they may have depression or anxiety, there is no standard timeframe for recovery.

This creates different dynamics for care within the church.

If someone breaks their leg, we may organise meal rosters, in-home care and organise people to drive the person to doctor's appointments. These are great, and we should do them. There is also an assumption that the need for this kind of care will come to an end.

When someone is struck with mental illness, we cannot import the same expectations. We may drive the person to appointments, help with meals and in-home care. And 2-3 months later, the need for that same kind of care continue. Suddenly love hurts a little bit more, and becomes that bit more sacrificial. Do we give up on the person at that point, or press on in loving them?

If we in the church are going to care for those with chronic illnesses (not just mental, but physical also), we need to reorient our expectations and timeframes. Depression is not the same as breaking a leg and it requires a different approach.

This is where our theology impacts our practice. God's love is enduring, it is patient. His grace is not sufficient until it gets too hard. His grace is ongoing, indefinite, for as long and as much as it takes.

If we are called to love God and our neighbour as ourselves, we are called to love like he has loved us. And that love is enduring, patient and willing to stand side by side for the long haul if needed.

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.
1 John 3:16-18