Category: Life/Reflections

Memento Mori – Remember that you will die…

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I haven’t posted anything for nearly a month and the main factor has been lingering illness. For several weeks I was plagued with unpleasant symptoms and diminished capacity. I’m pleased to have recovered enough to have something like a normal week, but I wanted to return to writing with something I reflected upon while sick. Memento Mori. 

In art, religion and culture a memento mori is something that serves as a reminder of the reality of death. Throughout the ages, many people have used iconography, such as pictures of skeletal remains, or activities such as walking through a cemetery, to bring to the front of their minds the fact that they must someday confront death.

Anyone who takes life and spirituality seriously cannot ignore the brevity of earthly life and the imminence of bodily death. To invoke a reminder like a memento mori is to force ourselves to remember our mortal fragility and to make the most of our time on earth, which is oh so fleeting.

For me, being ill served as something as a memento mori. Falling ill does not come with the guarantee of recovery. While we have excellent healthcare in Australia and it’s easy to be melodramatic about one’s symptoms to the point that they seem more severe than they actually are (“man flu” anyone?), relatively young and healthy people can and do die suddenly in this country more often than we’d like to acknowledge. Sickness says, “Even if this isn’t the last struggle, one day this body will give out.” And in the context of eternity, that day is coming sooner than imaginable.

I don’t want to be morbid and obsessive when it comes to the topic of dying. But I think many Christians suffer from the same mental and social avoidance of the subject as our unbelieving neighbours do. If we’re good evangelicals, we talk a lot about the historical and spiritual significance of Jesus’ death: but it seems we are quite proficient at mentally and emotionally divorcing the reality of His death from the rapid approach of our own.

This ought to change. In my life and yours.

In my research recently I’ve revisited the connection between godliness and preparedness for death and eternity in Puritan thought and spirituality. It has been said of the Puritans that for them, “a holy death was . . . the culmination of a holy life.”[2] Everything about life now had eternal realities in view and death was the inescapable passageway between this life and life evermore with God. Thus, dying well was recognised as an important component of the Christian life for many generations before us. And dying well is difficult if you’ve spent your whole life avoiding the subject.

Thomas Watson (the main subject of my research) said that one of the surest ways to grow in godliness was to “think of your short stay in the world.”He adds, “The serious thoughts of our short stay here would be a great means of promoting godliness. What if death should come before we are ready? What if our life should breathe out before God’s Spirit has breathed in? Whoever considers how flitting and winged his life is, will hasten his repentance.”[3]

We are all in danger of failing to heed a warning like Watson’s. There are special seasons where thinking upon death comes more easily. The sudden death of a loved one. The death of someone “before their time.” A serious illness, injury or close encounter with the prospect of death. But next week will see most of us failing to have “serious thoughts” about the end of our lives for a number of reasons.

One is delusion. When the serpent enticed Adam and Eve to rebel against God, he assured Eve that, in contradiction to God’s clear Word: “You will not surely die.”  Part of what allows us to live lives that don’t take death seriously, is to believe a form of this deception. Some days we can live (and sin!) as though we will never have to die. As though God’s Word in Hebrews 9:27 “It is appointed for man to die once and after that comes judgement”, isn’t a reality.

Some of us may fall for a slightly watered down version though, when tempted to go on living in ignorance of eternity and disobedience towards God. Satan may assure us “You will not surely die yet,” “You will not surely die anytime soon.

A chilling example of this is when a friend of mine shared the gospel with a young man in the Brisbane CBD one weekend. The young man was dismissive and left without taking God’s Word to him about sin, salvation and eternity seriously. The youth in question participated in some risky behaviour later that night as part of the “planking” craze sweeping the world at the time. He fell to his death from a building only a few hours after failing to take heed to a message of life and death.

Christians may believe the gospel – but do we treat each day as though it could really be our last. Are we clinging to Jesus with the type of desperation that says we may need the gospel for our dying moments at any time?

Another thing that will stop us from serious consideration is distraction. We may recognise that we need to take death and eternity seriously and agree in principle that these realities should shape our daily lives. But there are just so many things that take our minds other places. So much that needs to be done. So many interesting things to engage the intellect. So many pleasures that beckon us to pursue them for a few minutes or hours instead of contemplating the end of life.

Finally, we can also be desensitised to some of the things that would normally serve as good memento mori to us.  This is especially true of our repetitive exposure to death in news media. Every time we hear about a murder, traffic accident, terrorist attack, fatal disaster or other event resulting in the loss of human life, we should think about our own mortality and whether we’re prepared for eternity (see Luke 13 for Jesus’ take on this). But because we are constantly presented with strangers dying, we can’t seem to bear the emotional toll of always taking such news to heart and so we grow cooler (if not cold…if not callous) towards news of death unless it’s much closer to home.

How might we overcome delusion, distraction and desensitisation when it comes to our need to confront the reality of death? Here are three practical suggestions.

  1. We can intentionally take time to think and speak about death more than we currently do. Turn those nightly news items into memento mori that challenge you to think about the shortness of your own life. Set aside time in your week or month to contemplate death and better prepare for it. Discuss death more openly and frequently with trusted Christian friends: they need to be prepared just as much as you do.
  2. Share the gospel with people more often. Faithfully pleading with others to consider the reality of death and what lies beyond is a good way to keep being reminded of it yourself. A gospel outline like Two Ways to Live brings up the issue of death quite clearly. Others like Way of the Master often lead in with a question like “If you died tonight do you think you’d go to Heaven?” To present the gospel faithfully, you must tackle the reality of death: and not only that of the person you’re sharing with, but your own.
  3. Consider spending time with people who are closer to death or at greater risk of death. If you have trouble confronting death in your day-to-day thought-life and lived experience, it may be helpful to get connected with those who are evidently facing death soon. Spend time with elderly relatives or church members, or visit a local nursing home or hospital.

    I’m not saying we should form relationships with the sick or elderly merely for the sake of turning them into functional memento mori – that would be morbid. There are much wider opportunities for mutual gain in relationships between younger and older generations. However, for the young who find it hard to treat death as something close or even imminent, one way our relationships with the elderly can benefit us is to see how they treat the subject of death when it is undeniably creeping closer.

So whatever you have planned for this week, this month, this year – remember to remember that you will die. Don’t allow the dark hues of death to colour your whole life: the resurrection of Christ enables us to enjoy life now and anticipate the fullness of life beyond death. But equally, don’t live in this world as if death is not something you will have to face and face soon.

To close with the enduring words of C.T. Studd:

Only one life, yes only one,
Soon will its fleeting hours be done;
Then, in ‘that day’ my Lord to meet,
And stand before His Judgement seat;
Only one life,’twill soon be past,
Only what’s done for Christ will last.
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[1] Pieter Cornelissen “Skulls” flickr (CC BY 2.0)
[2] Dewey Wallace Spirituality of the Later English Puritans (Macon: Mercer University, 1987): 1.
[3] Thomas Watson, The Godly Man’s Picture (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1992): 207-208.
[4] You can read the poem in its entirety here: http://paulhockley.com/2016/05/24/quote-only-one-life-twill-soon-be-past-poem-by-c-t-studd/

New Year – New Creation Reflexions (2 Corinthians 5:17)

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Amazingly, the first month of 2017 is nearly over. Yet by the end of January, “New Year’s Day” seems a bit small in the rear view mirror. That’s why it’s nice that today is the first new moon of the year and thus the beginning of the lunar year: Chinese New Year as it’s commonly known amongst my circles.

My family started the (solar) year with a holiday in Northern NSW, visiting the lovely Scottish toun of Maclean upon the pleasant Clarence River and hitting the beach at nearby Yamba, before heading further south for a lovely country retreat around 45 mins in-land from Coffs Harbour – just off Waterfall Way, the road which leads to Armidale. Even though travelling with a newborn makes for a range of new challenges, we found it a refreshing way to spend the first couple of weeks of the beginning of the year.

This was followed immediately by an intense week at the always fantastic-yet-exhausting Ignite Training Conference, where I had the wonderful opportunity of training a group of local Christians in Systematic Theology. The conference topic was the especially challenging and confronting role and nature of the heart in the Christian life. Not only was it great to be reminded of the vital importance of having a “new heart”, but I was able to get a renewed perspective on certain aspects of Christian life through the evening sermons on James, which were shared by my long-time ministry mentor and sometime co-pastor Steve Nation.

On that note, as I reflect this weekend on the impending close of the first month of 2017 and a “second” New Year’s Day today, I am also conscious that it is the first weekend in 8 years (excluding extraordinary events) that there will not be a service for the congregation in which I served as a student minister and then pastor from 2011-2015.

As Steve and his family begin a new chapter of life and ministry in Canberra, and other key members of the congregation also happen to be relocating for work/study/ministry reasons, the decision was made by the church council and members to join with another like-minded congregation in the local area – rather than continue without a pastor and with serious personnel constraints.

The decision seems wise in light of where the life of the congregation was at and I’m very glad that most of the members of 5:17 Church have elected to stay together and demonstrate maturity, resilience and solidarity as they seek to integrate into a new congregation and come under the ministry of a new pastor.

But although I have not been part of regular, weekly services for nearly two years now, I was never really removed from the life of this special church and had frequent opportunities to return to preach, or even just to visit. So this weekend my fond thoughts are with those making this new journey together in a bold move to start off the year.

The name 5:17 Church existed for at least a couple of years before my involvement in the congregation, but it pointed us (and many others who asked about the name!) to the grand truth of 2 Corinthians 5:17.

“Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come.”    

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Our church sought to be a place that emphasised the radical, spiritual transformation that came through the gospel of Jesus Christ. Thankfully, people’s lives really were changed and transformed in the 8 years the church existed and many of us were able to experience the newness that comes through union with Christ, as we grew together in Him.

I remember receiving a somewhat jocular reproof from the deputy principal of my Bible College, when a student minister, that the verse from which we took our name should be rendered “(there is) new creation”, i.e. it referred not to the individual being a new creation, but to Christians experiencing the beginnings of the new creation we will enjoy for eternity when the new heavens and new earth fully come into place.  But of course, the two interpretations are not mutually exclusive.

Every person at our church who experienced the grace of God and forgiveness of sins through Christ’s work on the Cross was being renewed by the Spirit of God continually. The spiritual regeneration that caused each of us to come alive in Christ was surely the first taste of the resurrection we will experience when we begin to enjoy God in all His fullness in the new creation. The experience of gradually eroding ethnic, social and other barriers and the practice of forgiveness and love were surely signs that the Kingdom of God was in and among us and we were enjoying the beginning of a Christ-centered society: an imperfect but nourishing and encouraging picture of the one we’ll participate in for all eternity.

As the gospel was faithfully preached, studied, applied, internalised and obeyed, we continued to become new creations and enjoy new creation, all the while being pointed forward to our ultimate hope of God’s complete new creation.  And now as we reach the end of one chapter – the life of a congregation – we must engage every new challenge as God’s new creations.

2017 is a new year that will bring many changes, for better or for worse. But it also means “our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed” (Rom 13:11) – the fullness of new creation is closer at hand than it was in 2016.

Jesus Christ is constant – the same yesterday, today and forever (Heb 13:8) – but we are being changed from glory to glory as we are transformed into His glorious image (2 Cor 3:18). This season sees some things end and others begin, but those who have begun to taste the new creation press on towards it, however many or few days and years they have ahead in this present age.

[1] craig. “Moving on” flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

2016 Rearview Review

The year being such as it was, I felt it would be almost remiss of me not to reflect upon what 2016 has meant for me.

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I’ve already hijacked Dicken’s opening line from A Tale of Two Cities once this year, but for my wife Helen and I, a more apt phrase could scarcely be composed to summarise the last 12 months than the immortal “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

We began the year with the expectation that it might be the last full year we spent in Brisbane, before heading to Japan as missionaries in 2017. January was busy with training conference delegates in Systematic Theology and preaching on the theme of Godliness in 2 Peter (derived partially from my research thesis work). I was saddened to hear of the death of David Bowie (certainly the only artist to die this year from whom I have a dedicated Spotify playlist), with no prescient idea that the remaining 11 months of the year would not only bring a seeming deluge of celebrity deaths, but that the relevance of any given one of them would soon be eclipsed by death much closer to home.

From what little I remember of February and March, they were busy too. We had been excited to learn in these early months of the year that we would be expecting a child before the year was over and had plenty to do with visiting churches and building partnerships in the gospel in preparation to head for Japan. We spent Easter in Warwick at their annual convention, sharing about Japan and mission opportunities and meeting lots of brothers and sisters from the Darling Downs and beyond.

We returned to Brisbane on Monday 28th March. Helen’s mother passed away tragically and completely unexpectedly on the evening of Tuesday 29th and we learned of it late in the morning of Wednesday 30th. The shockwaves of this event have been felt throughout the rest of the year until now and would be the defining feature of our 2016, if not for the fact that we can attest to the goodness and grace of God sustaining us in the months since.

I am yet to make a serious attempt to recount what occurred after Easter and how it’s affected our lives: perhaps I will at a suitable point in the future. But suffice it to say that when the death of someone close to you comes out of nowhere, the shock and grief is immense, long-lasting and carries with it a complex array of unwanted side-effects. At the end of the year, I must thank God again for the way he moved the hearts of family and friends to care for us during this terrible time in our lives. Things would have been immeasurably worse if we did not have the support we received then and in subsequent months.

How does one “get on with life” when such a profoundly traumatic event has rocked your world? We certainly tried in the following months and I was able to slowly return to my research work, while together we resumed our church ministry involvement and continued to press on with preparations for Japan and church partnership visits. As our baby’s due date approached, I think we crammed as much as humanly possible into July and August in anticipation of a mandatory slow-down following her birth. I was quite badly affected emotionally by the death of my last living grandparent (“Poppa”), partly due to his rejection of the gospel over the years and partly because we had planned to visit him in New Zealand around this time or early next year to introduce him to his great-granddaughter.

When our little girl did arrive in September the joy of her birth, in no small way, salvaged 2016 from feeling like a year of devastation and desolation. She is a most precious gift from God that brings us great delight, even as we struggle to adjust to the challenges and demands of first-time parenting off the back of the difficulties that were already present in our lives during the past year. I cannot regard 2016 as a truly bad year – even though it has been an incredibly hard period, because I can never view the season my precious daughter entered the world in such a negative light.

I’ve reflected on some of the spiritual lessons of early parenthood here, and I could and possibly should add a considerable number more to another installment in the future. But having a child is not simply about reflecting and growing – it brings a unique kind of enjoyment that I relish amongst my daily struggles with sin, stress, selfishness and sadness. Thanks be to God for His wonderful blessing of a healthy, growing baby girl this year!

Four months on, we are grateful for her and for God’s grace to us, but exhausted in nearly every way imaginable. It was difficult to return to research again at a reasonable pace after yet another major life event within such a short space of time. And the adjustments we are trying to make to life with an infant have required probably more energy than we’ve had left. We have found it impossible to resume partnership building activities since our daughter’s birth and as a result have needed to put our preparations for Japan on hold while we try to refresh and recuperate over the next few months.

We have enjoyed recent opportunities to be with family and friends who know us well as the year closes and reflect on the great, eternal truths of Christ revealed in the Christmas story. 2016 was a year that stretched us at least to our personal limits and perhaps even past them – but we’re reminded as it slowly fades into history that there is no time like now to “Give thanks to YHWH, for He is good and His lovingkindness endures forever!”

Postscript: I had intended originally to make some passing remarks and reflections upon world and national events that coloured 2016, but have run out of time and space to do so. Obviously events such as the election of King Kong Donald Trump as U.S. President; the Brexit vote; and the election of a wafer-thin Turnbull government in Australia will all be events that continue to affect the unfolding of history and social issues in 2017 and beyond. They will no doubt appear in the pages of The Lion & Phoenix, should God permit me to continue writing in the coming year(s).

The parliamentary defeat of the proposed plebiscite on same-sex marriage will unfortunately not bury the issue in the coming years. And the re-ignition of abortion as a social issue in Queensland by the actions of Rob Pyne MP and others will need to be engaged with hard in the early months of the new year.

The terrorist attacks on Nice and Berlin will unfortunately become distant memories, replaced in the public consciousness by more recent attacks by Islamic extremists. And while I sincerely hopes that 2016 will be the last full year of the Syrian Civil Way, it would be foolish to hold one’s breath while waiting for its definitive conclusion. The one truth that must guide our perspective as this tumultuous year comes to an end and its unpredictable successor begins is that: “Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today and forever.”

“”You, Lord, laid the foundation of the earth in the beginning, and the heavens are the work of your hands; they will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment, like a robe you will roll them up, like a garment they will be changed. But you are the same, and your years will have no end.” (Hebrews 1:10-12)

[1] Alan O’Rourke Year_2016_Navy (CC BY 2.0)

Early reflexions on parenthood

A week ago my beautiful little girl was born into the world and my wife Helen and I entered the ranks of fully-fledged parenthood. It has been a life-changing experience to say the least – somehow simultaneously joyous to an incredible degree and overwhelmingly challenging.

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While our life routines have become exceedingly erratic (something we hope to straighten out at least somewhat in the coming weeks and months) and made things like our regular, daily Bible reading difficult to keep up with to the same degree – there have been some good opportunities for me to reflect on rich biblical and spiritual truths through a new lens over the past few days.

Here are a few of those reflections:

I’ve begun to appreciate the Fatherhood of God in a new light 

Love

The natural love I feel towards the child I now have is a great encouragement of God’s love towards me as His child. Because I’m reassured that if my love for her is this strong – His love for me and His children, around the world and throughout history, must be so much more, monumentally greater.

Jesus spoke of the Father in these kind of terms to His disciples and the Jews:
Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matt 7:9-11, ESV).

Now I grasped this at one level as a son – my earthly father loves me enough to give me help and make provision for me when I need it, instead of giving me something that would harm me instead. But Jesus addresses fathers specifically in these verses and as a new father, I can better grasp the truth that God’s love towards me must be immeasurably greater than my love for my daughter as a depraved sinner.

Patient graciousness

Parenting requires greater patience than I actually possess. But not only does this push me to depend on God to change my heart and refine my character – I can also catch glimpses of how patient He is towards us. When my newborn baby doesn’t behave the way I’d like her to, she isn’t to blame and shouldn’t yet be held accountable for her actions or answerable to my expectations. On the other hand, I am so inclined towards behaviour that doesn’t please God, while being so slow in becoming like His Son and yet He bears with me – one who should know better and is fully accountable.

Wisdom and Omniscience

The gap between my knowledge and practical life experience and my daughters seems virtually infinite at this point in time. At just over a week old, she is constantly learning and yet knows practically nothing – especially how to look after herself and do even the most basic things to survive. Yet, while I am years ahead of her in learning and wisdom, there is every possibility she will have more knowledge and wisdom than me when she reaches my age. The chasm between my knowledge and wisdom and that of the Omniscient God is incalculably greater than that between father and newborn child. At nearly 30, I still know barely anything about the deep and profound truths of God, life and the universe and I scarcely know what’s really best for me, how I should live and what I should do. I need God’s infinite wisdom to survive every day, far more than my daughter depends upon mine for her survival.

Goodness + Sovereignty 

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. (Rom 8:28, ESV).

I’ve often remarked that God’s sovereignty over all things is only a comforting doctrine when it is combined with the reminder of how good He is. I have felt this in a particularly strong way in the last week. My fears and anxieties about something going wrong with my baby girl – perhaps even fatally – while I fail to prevent it from occurring have at times been acute. Belief merely in God’s sovereignty in those times is of little comfort – as I can easily imagine scenarios where God permits horrendous things to happen to my family, for reasons and designs known only to Him. It’s God’s goodness and trustworthiness that I’m tempted to doubt in those dark hours – the very divine attributes Satan cast doubt on in the Garden as part of his plot to destroy the relationship between God and humanity.

So while I struggled with horrible fears in the delivery room, I found myself needing to repeatedly confess the classic refrain of the Old Testament. I give thanks to You Yahweh, for You are Good and Your steadfast love endures forever. In the time of fear and trial, I can hold onto the truth that my Heavenly Father always works good towards me because He is good and because His steadfast love extends to me constantly. He will take better care of me and my family than I ever can.

I’ve been able to ponder child-like faith in a new way 

 And said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. (Matt 18:3, ESV)

Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation—if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good. (1 Pet 2:2-3, ESV)

It’s a simple reflection really, but I’ve been struck by the fact that in many ways the first lesson a newborn learns is how to draw nourishing, life-giving milk from their mother’s breast (or from other sources provided by their parents). The child is completely dependent on the mother and what she offers, for his or her life. It’s been a wonderfully analogous reminder that the fundamental lesson of Christianity is that we need what God offers us in Christ in order to go on living (‘eternal life’) and that we need to draw upon it (by faith) in order to receive what he offers us.

“‘It is delightful to the mother,’ says Chrysostom, ‘to have her breasts drawn; so it is delightful to God to have the breasts of his mercy drawn.'” – Thomas Watson.

I’m humbled by the fact that I once was as my baby is now – and so was the Lord Jesus 

When I look at my little girl, I’m amazed not only by the miracle of life I see  evidenced of in her, but that not so long ago I was that small and dependent myself. But even more incredible is the humility shown by our Lord Jesus in becoming not only human, but entering the world as a tiny baby. The first song I sang to my daughter was In Christ Alone, and  perhaps at no other time have I been able to ponder the line so deeply – “In Christ Alone, who took on flesh, fullness of God in helpless babe.”

O what a Saviour we have – that the most immense and weighty Being in existence would condescend to become a small, vulnerable, naked baby boy covered in amniotic fluid. All so that He might fully participate in the reality of humanity, in order that we may participate in the life that comes from knowing and being sustained by His divinity.

 

 

 

Slain 100 years ago

JL Smith                                    Lt. John Lyall Smith M.C. Born c. 1886 Died 29/07/1916

Today marks the centenary of the death of the closest relative I’m aware of to have died in an armed conflict. Lt. John L. Smith was my grandfather’s uncle, the eldest son of my great-great grandparents John and Jessie Smith of Aberdeen, Scotland. The family came from Scotland to Queensland, when he was around 25 years old in 1911 and settled in Ayr, one hour south of Townsville (which I had the pleasure of visiting last year). John had worked as a stonemason (following in the footsteps of John Smith Snr) and had served in the Gordon Highlanders infantry regiment and Scottish Horse regiment in the British Army whilst in Scotland.  

Only a few short years into the family’s new life in Queensland, World War I broke out in July 1914. John enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force in early 1915 and left Queensland from the Port of Brisbane aboard the HMAT Aeneas in June of that year. He was made a Regimental Sergeant Major upon enlistment (presumably due to prior military service in the UK) and arrived at Gallipoli in the later stages of the famous campaign. While he did not take part in the legendary Anzac Cove landings, he most certainly saw action against the Ottoman Turkish forces – as attested by his promotion to the rank of 2nd Lieutenant in November and receipt of the Military Cross for “gallant services.”

John L Smith group (C)
Regimental Sergeant Major J.L. Smith – front row, centre position

His service record indicates that he was afflicted with jaundice from late 1915 until the end of January 1916 and that he convalesced in Cairo during this time. On 19th March, 1916 the 25th Infantry Battalion of which 2nd Lt. Smith was a part became the first Australian battalion to arrive in France to join fighting on the Western Front. According to the Australian War Memorial, their first major battle was at Pozieres, commencing on 23rd July 1916. John was promoted to the rank of 1st Lieutenant during this battle on 25th July.

The map and description of the Battle of Pozieres below come from the Australian Government’s WWI Western Front History page:

Pozieres[1]

In mid July 1916 the three Australian divisions of 1st Anzac Corps marched to the Somme. On the night of 22/23 July the Corps was committed to the third phase of the Somme offensive in which the only successful attack was 1st Australian Division’s capture of the village of Pozières. Over the next few days the Australians extended their hold on the village as the Germans made determined but unsuccessful attempts to retake Pozières. In this period, at the end of July 1916, the Australians also suffered from the worst shellfire they ever experienced. By the time 1st Division was replaced by 2nd Division, it had lost 5000 men, mainly to artillery fire.

Some 500 metres north east of Pozières was a windmill on the highest point of ridge. The 2nd Division was brought forward to capture the OG lines (called by the Allies Old German line 1 and 2), which ran along the crest of the high ground past the windmill. Australian artillery observers stationed on this ground would then be able to direct artillery fire on the German rear areas up to 10 kilometres to the east in the direction of Bapaume.

On the night of 28/29 July 2nd Australian Division attacked the OG lines. Rushed planning resulted in failure, except on the Division’s left, where 6th Brigade captured a length of German trenches beyond the Pozières cemetery.

It was during the mostly failed attempt to make gains on the Old German Lines (O.G. Lines) on 29 July 1916 that Lt. John L. Smith lost his life – only a few days after receiving his last rank promotion. According to eminent War reporter and historian C.E. Bean, John was struck down – probably by German machine gun fire – “…while directing [his] men to sections where the entanglement [i.e. barbed wire] was sufficiently broken…” (Bean, The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918 Vol. 3, p. 634). Elsewhere, Bean is reported to have said that Pozieres Ridge : “is more densely sown with Australian sacrifice than any other place on earth.” (wikipedia). 

Tragically, John was missing in action for quite some time and his family at home appear to have learned of his disappearance from the newsreel at the local theatre in Ayr. His death was not confirmed by the A.I.F. until around October 1916. His distressed and elderly parents (my great-great grandparents) were naturally deeply grieved by his death. There is a long, painful correspondence between them and the Australian Military Command in Melbourne requesting both their son’s personal effects and the Military Cross medal he was awarded. Reading these letters has allowed me to sense some of the grief my ancestors felt at the death of their eldest son during the very bloody war. The records do not contain evidence that the matter of the Military Cross was ever fully resolved – though it appears that they would have received it from the Governor General in due course.

Today I reflect on the death 100 years ago of a young man – probably the same age I am now – in one of the most horrendous and bloody conflicts of human history.
That he lost his life in France is a sad testament to the fact that he died as a result of proud empires jockeying for Continental and even global dominance. War can be fought for just causes – such as the defense of innocent peoples and nations in the face of aggressors. But war is always the byproduct of human evil like pride and greed.

But Lt. J.L. Smith fought for King and Country and appears to have served bravely and admirably as a soldier. He made decisions and faced situations that I will probably never have to face. He gave his life in the course of a battle that arguably contributed significantly to the weakening of Germany to the extent that they would later lose the war.
Whatever we may think of WWI and its causes – every Australian who has lived since has benefited at least indirectly from our victories in both World Wars. The death of John L. Smith and thousands of others was anything but meaningless. He made a noble sacrifice on a battlefield with a tragic cost of human lives.

And so on 29th July 2016 – 100 years on – I remember the violent end of this young man’s life. Though I’m not a big fan of our national Anzac mythology, I nevertheless find myself commemorating this familial link to that terrible conflict and the suffering of so many on the field and of their bereaved relatives at home. Lest we Forget. 

  

What’s at the end of Satan’s Rainbow?

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What’s the Go with Pokémon? Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past week, you’ll probably be aware that the release of Pokémon GO has caused the beginning of a global sensation. As droves of young (and perhaps not so young) people walk around with their smartphones out like they’re going to take a photo (but are really trying to capture animated monsters that first caused waves around the world 20 years ago) – pop culture seems to have entered a new era.

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Almost the real thing…[2]

Of course, the prevalence of Pokémon GO is naturally going to bring discussions about video games to the fore of Christian conversation once again. Already I’ve had a brief discussion with a brother about the common Christian responses to Pokémon back in the 1990s and I’ve seen people linking to old articles on Facebook about the apparent evils of the popular game franchise. Pokémon games certainly aren’t the only video games that some Christians find objectionable for one reason or another. There are many more worthy contenders on the market for our disapproval  in response to the content of games. But some Christians are anti-games altogether. So what are we to make of it all?

Not long after Pokémon first burst into the world, Brisbane alternative rock band Regurgitator released a catchy tune called Black Bugs. It somehow manages to act as both a tongue-in-cheek nod to the literal demonisation of video games by some sections of the community  and a cautionary tale about the unending, addictiveness of gaming.

I got killed by Black Bugs on my video game
Then although to myself it doesn’t mean that much
I keep dying and dying over and over again
And now I feel I’m alive so I’ll just pretend

What’s at the end?
What’s at the end?
What’s at the end of Satan’s rainbow?

Turn off the TV to low now and I’m not the same
I’ve got to remind myself that it’s just a game
It’s getting harder and harder to get to sleep at night
I think I let them shoot me so that I can die

What’s at the end?
What’s at the end?
What’s at the end of Satan’s rainbow?
What’s at the end?
Tell me is this the end?
What’s at the end of Satan’s rainbow?

The song’s hook is a vivid description of addictive gameplay as a colourful “rainbow” used by Satan to entice someone to embark on a quest for the treasure that they anticipate will lie at the end. The trouble is, the best games are either never-ending – or at least require scores of hours of immersive play to complete. Equally problematic is whether the sense of achievement, virtual reward or limited social glory gained from beating a game or getting a better score than others is really that satisfying in proportion to the time and effort that has gone into it. Thus the golden refrain: “What’s [really?] at the end of Satan’s rainbow?

Many conservative Christians would be happy to identify certain games as satanic – either due to their content or the aforementioned addictiveness and side-effects they might have on players.

The main charge levelled at Pokemon has tended to be that it features monsters that have occultic connections (especially the ghost and psychic types) and that these things are not spiritually neutral – having more in common with demonic forces than with godliness. Other games, such as fantasy role-playing-games like World of Warcraft are likely to receive the same kind of reception. Other games again, are seen as immoral, inappropriate (and therefore, perhaps by extension, satanic) for other reasons, such as graphic violence, sexual content, coarse language etc; (games in the Grand Theft Auto and Mortal Kombat franchises come to mind as reasonably recent examples).

But is it a helpful approach to label all or some video games as being “of the Devil”? Does such a declaration promote godliness in our churches and protect our young people from harmful influences, or does it cause more problems than it remedies?

I think the issue has been too contentious and super-charged with emotion and vastly differing perspectives for us to ever see a consensus amongst evangelical Christians on this issue. But I think the dangers of legalism are themselves a satanic, corrupting influence that we must be on guard against in our churches. Thus, making morally-binding, blanket-statements on issues the Bible doesn’t address directly is often a risky practice. Therefore it seems wise for churches not to attempt to guilt their members out of playing video games in general. A rules-based, guilt-based or fear-based approach is not conducive to sanctification, but encourages external morality and self-righteousness instead.

However, when it comes to content and side-effects, no Christian should be encouraged to game without discernment. God does care about what we view with our eyes. He cares about which desires we choose to feed. He cares about whether your gameplay amounts to innocent relaxation and recreation or interferes with your devotional life and your commitments to family, friends, neighbours and work.
Dare I say, God cares if our thoughts are constantly immersed in an imaginary world, when there is a real, present world He has called us to live godly lives within. He cares when our hearts inhabit a virtual la-la land, to a greater extent than they look longingly for the eternal reality that has been promised to us in Christ.

But while video games may be the vehicle by which some people embark on a vain pursuit of temporary pleasure and elusive satisfaction, they are by no means the main or only means of doing so.

You see, I think the question, “What’s at the end of Satan’s rainbow?” is a good one, precisely because it applies to so many areas of life and potentially futile pursuits. Some people might waste hours of their lives playing games that keep leading them on an endless quest – not realising that there’s little more than the carrot on the stick they’ve been chasing waiting for them at the end (if indeed it ever comes). And yes there can be something deceptive and perhaps even sinister or satanic about this addictiveness.

But when I look around at the “real world”, I see plenty of people chasing satanic rainbows that are just as illusory and just as unprofitable at the end. Millions of people sell their souls to a career in order to chase a rainbow leading to happiness in material wealth. Family, ethics and the glory of God are ignored to reach the dream of financial success – but there’s a disturbing lack of reward at the rainbow’s end. People selfishly chase the rainbow of fame – thinking that a great name and popularity will be worth all the risks and hard work. But while this rainbow promises greatness, adoration and a sort of immortality at the end – personal insecurity, popular fickleness and eventually death and relative obscurity are what actually awaits.

Even in the church, Satan can offer us promises of influence, honour, recognition, applause, acceptance and social security if we deludedly chase a rainbow of respectable religiosity. We can spend hours acquiring Christian knowledge, doing Christian activities and seemingly serving others, all the while being motivated by the promised reward of greater status in the eyes of others and a greater sense of self-fulfilment.

Appearing to “serve God” but doing it to seek our own glory and advancement instead of His is a much older and more dangerous satanic rainbow which we should be more wary of than we are amusements like video games. And calling yourself a Christian, while the trajectory of your life is aimed at achieving something other than the glory and enjoyment of God, is all too easy to do. And there are hundreds of ways to do it.

And so, whether you game lots, sometimes or not at all is a question of fairly minor consequence. The real question is: which rainbows are you chasing. And if the things you’re chasing and the promised reward you’re hoping for at the end are independent of the gospel of Jesus Christ, maybe it’s time to ask: “What’s at the end of Satan’s rainbow?”

 

[1] joinash “Rainbow” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
[2] Sadie Hernandez WILD PIKACHU APPEARS! (CC BY 2.0)

Death knocked three times…

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Once upon a time, Death knocked three times at the door of my family. It was 2002, I was a teenager, still in high school and hadn’t experienced the death of any close family members thus far in my young life. Then just before Easter that year, I came home to find my family in the throes of grief. My paternal grandmother, “Nanna” as we called her, had succumbed to death as a result of breast cancer. It came as a shock – I’d been aware she had cancer but had no idea her health had been in decline. This first, cruel intrusion of death had a big impact on my family.

A few months later, our beloved family dog Ranger, who we’d owned since I was 3 years old also died. While losing a pet is not the same as losing a grandparent, it was another taste of death, another round of grief and noticeable, daily absence from family life.

Another few months passed and my maternal grandfather, “Granddad” passed away from a coronary episode. I knew him better than my Nanna, as he had lived much closer to us and I’d spent much more time with him growing up. This was in many ways the biggest personal loss of the year – the death of the most important male figure in my life after my father – but by that stage I was well fatigued from all the grief and mourning and found it difficult to express my sorrow with my emotions so drained.

That was when death knocked three times – by far the darkest season of my life with the greatest sense of loss I’d experienced. But unbeknownst to me, death would knock three times in a short space of time once again, many years later.

Towards the end of 2014, I found out simultaneously that I had fathered a child and that the child was in all probability already dead. It was a shocking experience, as I only had limited, rather removed, second-hand knowledge of miscarriages and a child dying long before it was due to be born. There will always be a sense of sadness for the loss of the baby who would have been approaching his or her first birthday around now, had they continued to grow and develop healthily within their mother’s womb.

A year ago today, my maternal grandmother, “Grandma” passed away a few days after her 92nd birthday. Although her death at that age was by no means unexpected, it still had a profound sense of grief attached to it, as she was the grandparent I had the closest attachment to out of all four. She had been part of my life, almost weekly, from the earliest times until well into adulthood and now suddenly she was gone. I wished I had seen the signs more clearly at the time and recognised that she was in fact about to die – but she had come back from poor health so many times before that it was too difficult to discern whether another comeback was around the corner instead of deterioration to death.

Then, just three months ago, my wife’s mother died suddenly and unexpectedly. The way she died and the way we found out about it were both quite traumatic. There remains to this day, things we will probably never know about what led to the circumstances surrounding her death. It has affected me significantly as a son-in-law seeing his mother-in-law lose her life without any warning and as a husband trying to do the best to comfort and support his grieving wife who lost her mother without any warning. Once again, there is a hole in our lives because Death knocked again.

These three deaths differ in detail and are tragic in different kinds of ways. But each one has stained the last three calendar years of my life with the shock and pain of death. Once again, I find myself in a dark period, where my family has been visited too many times by that most unwelcome intruder.

Here are my reflections during this season when death has knocked three times:

1) I hate death

Death is the greatest reminder that there is something profoundly wrong with the world. As a Christian I have to acknowledge that humanity deserves to suffer at the hands of death – because our rejection of God and His goodness is so wicked and ungrateful that we all ought to be left to Death as its playthings. And yet, at the same time, death is bad. I hate what it is and what it does. I long for a world where it no longer exists. You can probably only hate death when it’s come close enough for you to stare into its wretched, ugly face. It has for me and I hate it in truth.

2) We all must face the death of loved ones – and it’s a terrible reality

Sometimes it’s hard to truly appreciate the impact that the death of a loved one has had on someone else when we see it happen to them. We’re sad for our friends, co-workers or acquaintances when we see them mourning, but often we’re sufficiently removed from the situation to not feel the power of the emotional shockwaves they’ve been hit with. But even those reading this who’ve never lost someone who was an important part of their lives will have to experience it personally one day. That’s the terrible truth that faces us when we love people in a world that’s tainted by sin and death. It’s sad because it means that in all likelihood I’ll see many more people go through what I’ve gone through in the last couple of years, before too much time passes.

At certain times it can be quite daunting when I reflect on this truth in light of other relationships in my life. One day I will have to face the death of my last living grandparent. One day my own father and mother will be the ones that die. One day I may have to say goodbye to the most precious companion I have in life – my beloved wife. I may survive a number of my friends and relatives and perhaps even some of my own children. Grimly, the only thing that will prevent me from experiencing the deaths of those I love will be if I myself die first – leaving them to experience bereavement at my passing, instead of me being left to mourn theirs.

Perhaps the most sinister aspect of Death knocking several times is the part where it leaves the calling card, promising to visit again at another time.

3) Death can strike at any time (even in a technologically advanced, sanitised, first-world society)

My experiences have been a poignant reminder that death doesn’t follow a predictable schedule, it can come without warning and can strike at any time of life. The death of our unborn child was a confronting taste of Death taking away a life that had barely begun. The shock of learning of death before I even had time to appreciate that there was life, showed me precisely how abrupt Death’s intrusions into life can be. The death of my grandmother demonstrated that even when someone has been blessed with a very long life and you know they can’t go on living forever – Death can still approach like a vicious, stealthy predator – undetected until it’s too late. The death of my mother-in-law was both harrowing and surreal in the way it emerged out of nowhere – to the point where three months on it still doesn’t feel as though it should have happened. And yet it has.

In the 21st century, developed world, we’re pretty good at delaying death and preventing it from punctuating our lives quite as frequently as it did for our ancestors. We’re masters of ignoring it as we go about our lives doing hundreds of things that seem so important, as long as we operate on the assumption that we and everyone we love will still be here tomorrow. Yet Death is the star of the nightly news almost without fail – reminding us that it’s out there and warning us that it could visit our home anytime, just like it did for those poor people all the way out there in a distant land.

4) Caring for the vulnerable

The three deaths I’ve been describing make me want to reinforce the value of caring for the vulnerable – especially those who are particularly vulnerable to death. My child’s unexplained death in the womb helps me appreciate how precious the lives of all unborn children are. We should mourn their deaths and strive to protect these most vulnerable members of the human race.

Grandma’s death from old age tells the story of those who are vulnerable to death at the other end of the human lifespan: the elderly. Older members of our families and communities are precious – that’s why we grieve when they are taken from us. We should care for them and treasure them while they remain among us.

My mother-in-law’s death is still shrouded in uncertainty, but it seems most likely that it came about as a result of the mental illness she was cruelly afflicted with for many years. Those who suffer from different kinds of mental illness are often vulnerable to death in their own way. They are precious and in need of our care and love too. We may not be able to do anything to stop death from taking them from us – as has been the case for us. But we can enrich their lives and they ours, for as long as God permits us to remain in one another’s lives.

5) Jesus knocks death on the head for me (more than three times!)

Perhaps the only real source of comfort when Death knocks multiple times is the fact that Jesus has knocked death on the head for me and will do so again in the future.

Because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the sin in my life which brings the sentence of death upon me has been dealt with; life has triumphed over death; the fatal blow that will kill Death itself has been inflicted. Even though death still takes lives every day – the age of death is now coming to a close. The coming, Eternal Age of Life has begun to swallow it up.

Because God has kindly allowed me to hear and believe the gospel – I have passed from death to life. I have died with Christ in his death, I live with Him in His resurrection. Through the Holy Spirit’s gracious application of Christ’s work to my soul, Jesus has knocked death on the head for me personally and I’ll never experience the eternal death I deserve.

Because Christ will draw me to Himself when I die, He’ll knock death on the head when it attempts to imprison my soul in darkness without hope to await judgement. Though my body will die, this will simply be the transition that commences my enjoyment of Jesus in a heavenly state that is free of sin, corruption, distraction and misery. Remembering this truth empowers me to face death without fearing its power to deprive me of the things I love in life.

Because Christ will raise my body again and unite it with my soul to live forever at His coming, He will have knocked Death on the head definitively by reversing fully its effects. But this will be the ultimate Death of Death, when the Age of Life is fully ushered in and Death is judged and thrown into the Lake of Fire as a sign of final judgement. Millions will be raised to life. Creation will be renewed. Death will burn forever, while Life reigns.

I know Death will knock again. It will once again be painful to endure when it does. But thanks be to God that Jesus dealt death its own fatal blow and will give it a knock so hard it that it will never come back again.

[1] Delete “Death” (CC BY-NC 2.0)