The 1987 movie Princess Bride includes this conversation between the Albino and the hero of the story, Westley inside the Pit of Despair:

Pit-of-Despair-wordsWestley: Where am I?
The Albino: [raspy voice] The Pit of Despair! Don’t even think…
[clears throat]
The Albino: … don’t even think about trying to escape. The chains are far too thick. Don’t dream of being rescued, either; the only way in is secret. Only the Prince, the Count, and I know how to get in and out.
Westley: So I’m here till I die?
The Albino: Until they kill you, yeah.
Westley: Then why bother curing me?
The Albino: Well, the Prince and Count always insist on everyone being healthy before they’re broken.
Westley: So it’s to be torture?
The Albino: [nods enthusiastically]
Westley: I can cope with torture.
The Albino: [shakes head enthusiastically]
Westley: Don’t believe me?
The Albino: You survived the Fire Swamp, so you must be very brave, but no one withstands The Machine.

Unfortunately, few of us would cope with the pit of despair with as much nonchalance as Westley. For most of us, the pit of despair is a dark place where there’s no humour. American author Erwin McManus said: “I realize that I live on the bubble of insanity. I feel the weight of human suffering, loneliness and despair on me all the time. It’s not getting easier; if anything, it’s always right on the edge of my skin.”

The Bible is a book that addresses life as it really is: There is the story of Elijah who experienced one of the high points of his career, then the next minute is sitting under a Broom Tree in deep depression. Jonah was another who hid away in deep depression, once again, after he had experienced a high point in his career.

The interesting thing is that in neither case did God accuse these men or blame them for their situation. In fact  Elijah’s case he fed him and allowed him to sleep – perhaps aware that one of the solutions to despair is simply dealing with the physical need for food and rest.

But for my part the Apostle Paul hit the nail on the head when he described the groaning of creation, a great picture of that pit of despair. Paul then goes on to explain how the Holy Spirit goes down into that pit of despair with us and, when we don’t know what to say to God, groans with us.

In the same way the Spirit also comes to help us, weak as we are. For we do not know how we ought to pray; the Spirit himself pleads with God for us in groans that words cannot express.  And God, who sees into our hearts, knows what the thought of the Spirit is; because the Spirit pleads with God on behalf of his people and in accordance with his will.

It’s a great encouragement to me to know that no matter how deep we go into that pit, God looks on us with compassion, he enters the pit with us and leads us out in hope.

384927-slim-dustyIf you’ve been around country music in Australia for any length of time you’d be familiar with Slim Dusty. His career as a country music entertainer spanned nearly seven decades. One of his early songs went like this:

And the biggest disappointment in the family was me
The only twisted branch upon our good old family tree
I just couldn’t be the person they expected me to be
And the biggest disappointment in the world was me

Why do people think like that? Why would we tell ourselves that we’re a disappointment to our loved ones? Why would we listen to the little voice in our heads that says we’re inadequate, we’re not good enough, we’re a failure?

It’s something called shame.

Brene Brown did a great TED Talk on the subject of shame, and she called it the swampland of the soul. I think we all get affected by shame at some stage, but for some people shame has led to addictions, violence and even suicide. Shame is that voice inside our heads that says, you’re not good enough, and it eats away at you and leaves you feeling worthless.

Some people will tell you the way to overcome shame is to improve your self-esteem, but I want to suggest something else. You see, one of the big issues with shame is around identity. People need to find some sense of identity and it’s usually shame that holds them back. They begin to believe the voice that says they’re no good – and that becomes their identity.

In an earlier post I quoted veteran biker John Smith’s book, Busting the Myth of Self Esteem, in which he argued that the western approach to self esteem has led to us thinking that the purpose of life is to find ourselves, but that there is actually something more: the search for meaning and purpose beyond ourselves.

There’s a guy we read about in the Bible called Paul who was an accessory to murder and was known as a violent person. He had a radical conversion to Christianity and over time wrote some significant letters that make up a large part of the New Testament in the Bible.

If anyone should have experienced shame it’s Paul because of his past experiences, but he said, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone. But he also said this: For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. Now that sounds like a statement of shame, but then he goes on: But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.

That was a pretty significant statement of identity: By the grace of God I am what I am. Here was a man who overcame shame and discovered his identity in Jesus Christ.

But he also had this to say: Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. That’s a pretty significant statement too.  Why would we condemn ourselves when the creator of the universe has promised us that he loves us so much he sent his son Jesus to die for us, in order to bring us into a right relationship with himself.

In those moments when you doubt yourself, or worse, you actually tell yourself that you’re no good, remember Paul, an accessory to murder, who learnt that his identity was rock solid when he allowed Jesus to change his life.

You can download or hear my message to Maida Vale Baptist Church on shame here.

chin_stateA year ago I wouldn’t have known there was a place called Chin State. I am now aware that Chin State is a mountainous state that is home to the Chin ethnic group in Western Myanmar (Burma). It is the poorest of 14 regions in Myanmar and the most remote. Since the end of July, much of western Myanmar has been hit by monsoon rains that have left hundreds of thousand people homeless.

Late last year the Perth Chin Baptist Church commenced a special relationship with Maida Vale Baptist Church, making use of our facilities in High Wycombe. As a result I have become more aware of this amazing group of people, many of whom lived in refugee camps before making a new home in Australia.

The news media has been silent, to a large degree, on the disaster in Chin State, but Chin people around the world have been united to try and get much needed assistance to their families. Take a look at this short video from the Chin community of Indiana in the United States.

Probably about 10% of Australia’s population has dry eyes. Since I’m one of them, I’ve taken a particular interest in the condition called Meibomian Gland Dysfunction or Meibomian Bletharitis and learnt that there’s more to our tears than we realise.

In fact our eyes have been so delicately and intricately crafted that it only takes a tiny malfunction in our Meibonian glands to give the idea that there’s a beach party in full swing with sand being the key ingredient. Understanding the make-up of tears has certainly helped me to appreciate the incredible planning and craftsmanship that went into this small part of our body. Let me explain as best I can.

There are three important layers in our tears.  They all need be present in balanced quantities for our tears to effectively moisturise the eyes.  The innermost layer that sits against the cornea is the mucin layer (it produces mucus).  Next is the aqueous layer.  This is made of water and is secreted by the lacrimal gland. The outer layer is made of oil, which is secreted by the meibomian glands which are located in the upper and lower eyelids.

In my case, and most instances of dry eyes, it is the failure of the meibomian glands to produce sufficient oil, that creates the sensation of dry eyes. I’m hoping for some relief from a new treatment called IPL (Intense Pulsed Light) that was featured on Channel 9’s “A Current Affair” about a month ago. In this treatment, intense light stimulates the glands.

I concur with the writer of the Psalms who said of God, I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made. For most of us three minute layers of mucus, water and oil in equal measure on the surface of the eye keep us comfortable day in, day out all our lives.

As if that weren’t complex enough, try adding the intangible elements of emotion. Add a little sadness, grief, joy or loss and see what happens. 

Then there’s one more element, the spiritual: Early 19th century author, Washington Irving said:

There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition, and of unspeakable love.

… That’s tears made in heaven.

treeroots copyA visit to Karijini National Park in Western Australia’s Pilbara region last week was a refreshing reminder of the wonder of God’s handiwork.

The rugged beauty of the ancient walls contrasted with the freshness of rock pools and the grandeur of waterfalls. The rush of water plunging down the rock face overwhelmed the senses, but in another part of the gorge  the twitter of birds was all that broke the silence.

The challenges of nature were everywhere. I couldn’t help noticing the gnarled trees that perched on the rocks and maintained life when the source of life: water and soil, seemed so hard to reach. Over the years the roots had pushed their way through tiny crevices in the rock and had pushed their way towards sunlight, then downwards towards the water far below. The search for water was the factor that enabled the roots to reach further and deeper, no longer restrained by earth, but holding onto the rock face as they spread downwards towards the source of life.

As I looked at these roots I could hear the writer of Psalm 42 talking about the desperate search for God that is built into every person. While it may not be something we are aware of, there is a longing that can’t be filled by anything other than the Creator himself : As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God? My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me all day long, “Where is your God?”

The “U” of Change

Posted: July 5, 2015 in Uncategorized
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The U of changeIn my last post I talked about three hindrances to change. As you move down the left hand side of the “U” through the process of change you may encounter the voice of judgement, the voice of cynicism and the voice of fear. In order to bring about real change it is necessary to let go of these voices. They will take you to a place at the bottom of the “U” where you come to a deeper place of connection with yourself. But change can’t stop there.

As you move up the right hand side of the “U”, providing you have effectively let go of the voices of judgement, cynicism and fear, you will begin to “let come” three new voices that will allow you to more fully take hold of the future.

The voice of hope is the place where you may crystallise the vision. You can start to envision the future more clearly and, having let go of those voices that hinder, are able to be hopeful of what is yet to come.

The voice of grace enables you to explore the future. Someone once said: We need to fail often to succeed sooner. Grace is not an excuse for doing wrong, but it recognises our failures and allows us to move forward without fear, cynicism or judgement.

The voice of faith is the opportunity to step out in practice. Change requires faith because there must come a time when you’re prepared to take a step forward and grasp the future as it emerges.

This process can hold true in organisational change as well as in individual change. It is relevant to the change process that is required in spiritual growth as well as the changes we experience in the workplace, at church and in the home. Remember CS Lewis’ words in my last post: CS Lewis once said: It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.

If you’re going through change right now, enjoy the journey and stay strong!

Making a U Turn

Posted: June 28, 2015 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , ,

vq-U-layersThere are many metaphors for change and many theories about change, but I particularly like Otto Scharmer’s Theory U. Here’s my interpretation: Change can be recognised in a U shape. The top left of the U we can call “now”, while the top right of the U is our preferred destination. Here’s a diagram of it, showing that change requires an open mind, an open heart and an open will.

In order for us to get from “now” to our preferred destination it’s necessary for us to go down the left hand side of the U to that silent, deep place at the bottom where we know that change has occurred, before moving up the right hand side. You see, change is a process that requires many steps, and they often take a very long time.

At the top left of the U where where we begin the process of change, our normal approach is to download from the past. We make decisions based on habits or experiences from the past. That’s why it’s not uncommon when we talk about change in an organisational setting to hear the phrase: “We’ve done that before; it’ll never work.”

The journey down the left hand side of the U is the process of “letting go” while the journey up the right hand side is “letting come.” But the process of letting go involves three significant stages: Letting go of the voice of judgement; letting go of the voice of fear; and letting go of the voice of cynicism.

The voice of judgement calls on us to control people; we make decisions about people based on our experiences and our expectations. Letting go of the voice of judgement also means letting go of these people; accepting that we don’t need to control people by our standards and expectations. The voice of judgement hinders our ability to love and prevents us from opening our hearts to the people who we need the most.

The voice of cynicism is that dark place where trust is stifled. We’ve been hurt by people, by organisations, or processes and we cynically refuse to be hurt again, sensing that those people, organisations or processes will never change and there is no chance that change can occur while they are a part of our situation. Letting go of the voice of cynicism allows us to trust again and thus release the process of change.

The voice of fear paralyses us. Often it’s fear of change. Sometimes fear of the unknown. Whatever that fear is, it can stop change dead in its tracks. As we let go of fear we allow our hearts, minds and will to be opened up to the possibilities of change.

CS Lewis once said: It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.

For us to grow, change is necessary, but we can stifle change and hold it back if we are not prepared to let go of the voice of judgement, the voice of cynicism and the voice of fear.

I just love it when a plan comes together … and you haven’t even planned it.

Last Sunday night, channel 7’s Sunday Night programme featured the world record attempt by Internet sensations, How Ridiculous, in sinking a basketball a distance of 126.5m from the top of the Gordon Dam in Tasmania. I particularly loved it because Brett, who got the record shot, will be a guest at our Fun Factory in a couple of weeks’ time.

Heroes is the theme of Fun Factory which is Maida Vale Baptist Church’s annual school holiday event for kids from four-year-old kindy right through to year 6. We’re going to have a few guests who will help us with our heroes theme. How Ridiculous have used their ridiculous fame to support Compassion Australia, and that’s part of what we are hoping to get across to kids at Fun Factory.  We can all be heroes when we use what God has given us to help others.

Thanks Brett and the How Ridiculous team.

Check out the video of the Guinness World Record shot:

milky-way_karijini_western-australia_kellie-netherwoodI’ve done my fair share of camping in my time.

I remember laying on my back somewhere in the north west of Western Australia, gazing up at the night sky. Without the distraction of city lights the Milky Way becomes a living thing. It’s no longer a dark place, but a place where myriad lights fill every corner.

Then there are memories of camping on the banks of the Mary River in the Kimberley, shining a torch along the opposite bank to catch the glint of crocodile eyes. The worst part of camping is arriving at your camping place late after a long drive and having to put up the tent in the near-dark.

Isaiah 54 has nothing to do with camping, but it takes the readers thoughts back to the patriarchs like Abraham who lived in tents permanently – not just on holidays. Abraham was called to leave his home and move to a new country that God had planned for him. Similarly, Isaiah calls on the church to reach beyond the familiar:

“Enlarge the place of your tent, stretch your tent curtains wide, do not hold back; lengthen your cords, strengthen your stakes.

This morning in church I shared this as a call to the 21st century church. At a time when many people are expressing fear about the future of the church, I don’t believe it’s time to circle the wagons. Rather, I believe we need to hear the word of the Lord to Abraham and to Isaiah, to enlarge the place of our tent.

As a local church, we are calling on God to show us what that may mean. For me it certainly means we need to stop looking for the glint of crocodile eyes. Instead we need to look at the Milky Way and be reminded again of the majesty of God.

Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory in the heavens. Through the praise of children and infants you have established a stronghold against your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger.  When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?  You have made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor. You made them rulers over the works of your hands;  you put everything under their feet:  all flocks and herds, and the animals of the wild, the birds in the sky, and the fish in the sea, all that swim the paths of the seas.  Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! Psalm 8

DSC01573When we began our cruise of the Greek Islands last year one of the first words our guide taught us to say was efharistó, or thankyou. “Greeks love it when you say efharistó,” the guide said. The response we were told would always be parakaló, you’re welcome. Sure enough I found many opportunities to say efharistó to tour guides, waitpersons, bus drivers, shopkeepers and others and I was delighted that whenever I said efharistó, the response would always be parakaló.

I found something refreshing about using a word that was understood in a country far from home, and to have it acknowledged straight away. But perhaps even more important than that was the fact that the word I used the most was a word that focussed on the person to whom it was being addressed, not on myself.

Soon after being introduced to the word efharistó I drew on my basic knowledge of Biblical Greek and noticed straight away that embedded in the word efharistó, was the word charis, which means grace. This gave me a fresh appreciation of the way in which “thankyou” recognised an act of grace and at the same time was a symbol of grace.

In a society where entitlement has replaced thanksgiving the idea that thanks is an act of grace is quite important. When we go to a restaurant we pay our money and if the food or the service is not up to our standard we are more likely to express our lack of appreciation than to say thankyou. We have paid for something and are therefore entitled to a certain standard. Entitlement shows itself in many forms and sadly thanksgiving has been overtaken in many common situations.

May 30 is National Thanksgiving Day in Australia and it’s a great time to pause and reflect on the importance of saying thankyou to God and to the people who live around us. Even if we think that people don’t deserve it, saying thankyou is a powerful act of grace and we need to say it more.

Efharistó. Thankyou for reading this blog and for giving thought to these simple words.