50 more things to do on a Sabbath

Ideas for how to take a day a week to remember that God is the creator, sustainer and redeemer of life, so that you remember all the days of your life.

Maybe you’re already in the habit of taking a day a week to remember that God is the creator, sustainer and redeemer of life. You might already have a list of ideas of how to do that, like the one here. Here are some more ideas to help you avoid things that involve you achieving, acquiring or controlling, so that you can focus on what Christ has achieved, can live with less stuff and with less anxiety about stuff, and can remember that God has sovereign control over the universe.

  1. Go for a walk at dawn. Head east. Watch the sky change colour with the sunrise as you walk. When the whole sun has risen above the horizon, turn round and walk home with the warmth of the sun on your back.
  2. Put your phone in the microwave, like they do in the political thriller movies when they don’t want to be tracked. Put a sign on the microwave that says “out of order”. Leave the phone there all day.
  3. Cook breakfast for someone you love (but not in the phone-filled microwave).
  4. Say “yes” when someone younger than you asks you to spend time with them.
  5. Get creative in your conversations. Spend a whole day without using the words “busy” or “coronavirus” or “have to”.
  6. Make a boat out of some leaves and sticks and float it down a creek.
  7. Set a timer for five minutes. Sit still until the timer goes off and count how many breaths you take. Thank God for your lungs. And for oxygen.
  8. Eat a piece of fruit in a different way from the way you usually do. Take time to notice its texture, colour and smell.
  9. Read John 3:14-15. Read Numbers 21:4-9. Thank God for providing an antidote to the poison in your system.
  10. Go walking in the rain. Stop at a puddle, pond or lake and watch the plops as rain drops hit the surface.
  11. Teach someone something they want to know.
  12. Hold the hand of someone you love and count the freckles on the back of their hand. Marvel at their skin, and yours.
  13. Give away something you haven’t used since this time last year. Resist the temptation to replace it.
  14. Use cookie cutters to bake some cookies. While you are cutting the cookie dough, remember with thanks that God has not created us using a cookie cutter. Think of someone different from you and pray that God will continue to shape them to be like Jesus (not like you).
  15. Download an app that will help you follow Jesus more closely.
  16. Delete an app that you know is not helping you follow Jesus. Don’t reinstall it. If you can’t tell the difference between a helpful app and an unhelpful app, seek advice from a friend who follows Jesus keenly.
  17. Read a book to someone. (Check first that they’d like to listen to you read!)
  18. Remember the best teacher you ever had. Thank God for them. If you have contact details, be in touch and tell them you appreciate what they did for you.
  19. Watch a spider weave a web.
  20. Throw something so someone else can catch it. Marvel at the fact your body can do that, without your brain needing to know the formula for parabolic motion.
  21. Look deep into the eyes of someone you love and say, “God loves you, and so do I”.
  22. Jump online and donate some money to a good cause you’ve been thinking of supporting but haven’t got around to. Then read 2 Corinthians 9:7. Be radically generous – give the same amount again, immediately, before the greed that is idolatry takes hold of your heart. Give twice as much as you were thinking of. Smile at the way God has softened your heart. Ask God to continue to free you from the love of money.
  23. Learn how to say “Jesus loves you” in a language you don’t already know, just in case it comes in handy down the track.
  24. Play with an animal.
  25. Light candles at a mealtime.
  26. Write out your favourite Bible verse in calligraphy (or at least the most beautiful handwriting you can). Stick it up somewhere you can see it every day. Better still, give it to someone else for them to stick it up where they might like to. Resist the temptation to be offended if they don’t value it as much as you’d like.
  27. Let someone else have the last say in a conversation.
  28. Cancel a subscription that leads you to do things you know are not good to do. If you’re not sure what things are good to do, try reading Philippians 4:8. If still in doubt, think about the sorts of things you would do if your mother and grandmother were in the room, and the sort of things you wouldn’t.
  29. Do something that brings a smile to the face of a baby.
  30. Stand in one spot. Slowly do a 360-degree rotation. Take your time. Rotate really slowly, with your eyes open. Count the number of different colours you see as you do. Thank God for the amazing range of colours you have just seen.
  31. Think of something you can thank your church pastor for, and thank them. Do it today. Don’t hesitate. Do it now. Don’t delay.
  32. Brainstorm names used in the Bible for God. When the storming has ceased, search and find some more names in your Bible. Remember them for the next brainstorming session.
  33. Eat something that has been cooked really slowly.
  34. Get on someone else’s level. Literally. Find someone really short, the sort of short you haven’t been since you were under ten years old, and get your head down to their height. Stay there for a while to see what the world looks like from a child’s perspective. While you are there, ponder what Jesus meant when he said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”. Share your thoughts with the short person.
  35. Listen to the sound of rain on a metal roof. Thank God for the rain, and the roof.
  36. Find a cross on a church or a flag or somewhere else. Stop to look at it. If you can’t find a cross, make one out of twigs or two pieces of wood. Take as many minutes as your age in years to focus on the cross in front of you and contemplate the enormity of Jesus’ willingness to die on a cross for you.
  37. Get your hands dirty, with real dirt. Let them be dirty for longer than necessary.
  38. Listen out for some birds. Try to guess what key they are singing in. Try to make the sound they are making. Realise how great God is to have made all the different kinds of birds and bird songs. Read Psalm 148 and determine to be part of the choir of praise that includes birds.
  39. Wrap a present.
  40. Have some friends over for a Bible read-athon. Provide food and drink. Settle in for half a day and read the Bible together, taking turns to read out loud. Discuss. Jot down thoughts as you go. Discuss some more. Read, mark, learn and inwardly digest God’s word. Let iron sharpen iron. Spur one another on to live well.
  41. Watch someone do something you can’t do. Be amazed, without being envious. Think about what you might be able to do for someone else that they can’t do. Offer to do it. Do it.
  42. Swap one of your good books with a friend’s good book. Start reading.
  43. Look at some old photos of you. Remember how good God has been to you in the past. Use that as the basis to thank him with confidence for what he has planned for you in the future.
  44. Scratch someone’s back, without expecting them to scratch your back in return. (Make sure it’s someone who wants you to scratch their back.)
  45. Write a paragraph on the theme of “Jesus and the coronavirus”. Show it to someone. Ask them what they think about this theme. Listen to their answer. Add some more value to the conversation by reading this short article or this article on Christians and pandemics, or this longer article on thinking theologically about the current situation.
  46. Identify a person you know who’s been following Jesus for a lot longer than you and ask them to spend time with you. Agree on a date and place to meet in the near future. Write down some questions you want to ask them. Expect to hear something really helpful.
  47. Go somewhere you’ve never been before. It doesn’t have to be far from where you are now. Look around. See what you can see that would please God. Choose something in what you have observed that you could incorporate into your life in the places you spend time most days. Decide how you will incorporate it over the coming week.
  48. Thank God you are able to read this list. Be thankful you are literate, and be thankful for technology.
  49. Decide to do some of the things on this list on the other six days of the week as well.
  50. Pick one of the things on this list and do it once a day for the six days between now and the next Sabbath.


Falling Asleep

Falling asleep is not the same as dying, of course. And contemplating death—inevitable for each of us—with no hope of life beyond death is different from facing death with hope.

“Colin, can you hear me?”


“I sensed a twitch there a minute ago. Did you fall asleep?”

Well, let’s see, I’ve been lying on my back under a warm blanket, with a comfy pillow under my knees, for about 30 minutes, with no obligation at this point to do anything else, and listening to a rhythmic humming sound that Jungian psychologists would probably say brought back subconscious memories of the ebb and flow of blood I listened to in my mother’s womb for a few months over half a century ago.

Is the pope Catholic? Of course I’d fallen asleep!

“Please try not to fall asleep. I thought that image might have been blurry because you twitched, but it was okay. Try to stay awake for the next two images”.

I focused on keeping my eyes open for the next ten minutes before being released from my soporific surroundings, having my cannula removed, discarding the flimsy hospital gown (do you feel more exposed with the opening at the front knowing what people can see or the opening at the back wondering what they can see?), getting dressed, waiting to receive some big, plastic, black and grey images to show the urologist, then negotiating the hospital corridor maze to find the exit and pay enough money to keep the MRI machine running as well as receptionist, nurse and radiographer employed for a couple of hours each. At least one of those four is costing the hospital a bomb.

The last time I fell asleep with a plastic moulded roof as close over my head as the top of the MRI machine was in a capsule hotel in Tokyo – the sort of place you stay when you’ve missed the last train home and need cheap accommodation for half a dozen hours. Each capsule is a moulded shell about 80cmx 80cm x 1.8m that you crawl into from the end. Like the inside of the MRI machine, it too felt a bit like a coffin. Particularly when the earthquake struck. I’ve experienced earthquakes a number of times—they always make you feel utterly helpless and small. But when the building starts to shake and you’re in a crawl space made to fit your body pretty snugly, you can’t help feeling that maybe you’ve been prepackaged for your imminent demise.

At least on the MRI bed I had one of those emergency call bells in my right hand in case I felt panicky. But as I worked on staying awake, that bell got me thinking about what I’d heard about being “saved by the bell.”

The expression was first seen in a newspaper article about a boxing match in 1893, when a boxer “on the ropes” was given a temporary reprieve by the bell signalling the end of a round. But the other theory is that “saved by the bell” comes from the safety coffin, first patented in 1868. The design left the coffin resident with a call bell, just in case they’d mistakenly been buried alive. If a person came to from a comatose state and realised they’d been buried after being inadvertently pronounced dead, they could pull the bell rope and their relatives and friends who hopefully were still grieving graveside would hear the tinkle of life, have their mourning turned to joy, and raise the person from their grave. Depending, of course, on how good relationships were between the deceased and the graveside bereaved. Right when you pulled on your emergency bell rope would not be a good time to discover that your chief mourner, wealthy old Uncle Ted, about whom you’d frequently verbalized your wish for his early death in anticipation of receiving a share of his inheritance, wasn’t really deaf, but all these years had been pretending not to hear when it suited him.

Falling asleep is not the same as dying, of course. Having an MRI scan on your prostate is not the same as a death sentence. Being released from mistaken burial is not the same as being resurrected from the dead. And contemplating death—inevitable for each of us—with no hope of life beyond death is different from facing death with hope.

Facing death with confidence that it’s as temporary as my time in the MRI machine, rather than the permanent end of everything you hold dear, makes a difference. For those who hold the hope of life beyond death, death holds no more fear than an MRI scan. I entered my first ever MRI experience with confidence I would come out the other side. I trusted completely the medical staff to get me through—I really had no other option. I entrusted everything I had taken into the hospital to the nurse and entered the MRI room sure I would be coming out. I accepted that the staff were doing all they did for my good, and that they knew what they were doing. I trusted that if I called for help they would respond.

I’m trusting God, the giver and sustainer of life, to bring me out the other side of death, whenever it comes. I’m trusting him completely to get me through—there really is no other option for meeting death. That means entrusting to God everything I have with me in this world. It means accepting that the Creator of the universe knows what he is doing and works all things for the good of those who entrust themselves to him. It means trusting that he is not Uncle Ted with selective hearing loss, but the God who responds to those who call out in need. That’s good for anyone to bear in mind when health concerns emerge, and even better for each of us to take on board before facing the certainty of death sooner or later.

50 things to do on a Sabbath

We want to spend Sabbath in ways that help us remember that God is the creator, sustainer, and redeemer of life.

A Sabbath is a gift from God. It’s for the purpose of remembering that God is the creator, sustainer, and redeemer of life. So we want to spend Sabbath in ways that help us do that. If we spend a day not doing things that involve achieving, acquiring or controlling, we increase the likelihood that we will focus on what Christ has achieved, will learn to live with less stuff and less anxiety about stuff, and will remember that God has sovereign control over the universe. Here’s an incomplete list of some options.

  1. Take a walk and feel the largest muscles in your legs working. Thank God you are not just dry bones. Thank God for the gift of life.
  2. Read the Bible alone.
  3. Read the Bible with other people. Have a conversation about the good things you’ve read and all the good things God has done in the past week.
  4. Play with children for as long as they want to play. Take your eye off the time. Relax and enjoy doing it. Remember that you are a child of God (John 1:12).
  5. Eat outdoors. Notice the sky and remember that creation is made to display God’s glory and power (Psalm 19:1; Romans 1:20).
  6. Eat with friends. Remember to thank God for food and for friends.
  7. Gather with other believers to encourage and be encouraged by worshipping God together. Remember that Jesus has promised to return (Hebrews 10:25).
  8. Write a list of the ways God has blessed you.
  9. Read an edifying book. Or at least part of it.
  10. Phone a friend. Better still, phone someone who doesn’t have many friends. Listen to them more than you talk.
  11. Invite a friend over for a beverage and a chat. Better still, invite someone who doesn’t have many friends. Do it without anticipating a return invitation.
  12. Soak up some low-angled sun.
  13. Lie in the shade of a deciduous tree. Do it with someone else and simultaneously do at least one other thing on this list.
  14. Give someone you love a massage.
  15. Pray. Learn something about people who are worse off than you, then pray for them. Pray for someone you know who doesn’t know God. Ask God for what you need.
  16. Write a letter. Put it in an envelope and stick a stamp on it. Walk to a place where you can post it. Post it. Walk home.
  17. Visit someone in hospital.
  18. Enjoy a meal with a lot of other people and remember that God provides all good things.
  19. Leave the chores till tomorrow. Every chore you notice or can think of that needs doing, write down on a piece of paper. Put the paper in a drawer labelled “tomorrow”.
  20. Make some water splash – in a pool, at the beach, in a bath tub, in a puddle.
  21. Make someone laugh by sharing a good joke that doesn’t put people down.
  22. Read a whole book of the Bible, without getting up from your chair, and without taking notes. Read it again. Then take notes if you want to. Start with Obadiah, Philemon, 2 John, 3 John, or Jude, then on the sixth Sabbath graduate to something a little longer.
  23. Read your Bible in a different way from the way you do on other days of the week.
  24. Go outside (at night!) and count as many stars as you can see. Recall God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 15:5. Sing “Father Abraham…I am one of them” and be thankful. Read Genesis 15:6 and Hebrews 11:8-16 and think about how you could be more like Abraham. Decide on something you’ll do differently from this day forward so that you are more like Abraham. Start doing it.
  25. Go out of your way to express appreciation to someone you don’t normally thank.
  26. Kick leaves.
  27. Kick a ball in a non-competitive way.
  28. Walk past the pile of washing or ironing, remember that it will wait till tomorrow, and thank God you are not a slave now or in ancient Egypt. Read Romans 6:15-23 and be doubly thankful that you have been set free.
  29. Go to bed early. But first read Psalm 127:2 and Psalm 4:8. Thank God your life is in his safe hands.
  30. Get up early. Read Psalm 3:5 and thank God that you have woken up, yet again. Thank God for the gift of sleep, even if you didn’t get as much as you would like on this occasion.
  31. Watch the sunrise. Remember how good God is that he makes the sun rise on both the good and the bad (Matthew 5:45).
  32. Blow some bubbles and look for rainbows in them. Remember God’s promise never again to destroy all life on earth (Genesis 9:12-16).
  33. Eat a cooked breakfast with your best friend. Remember that Jesus cooked breakfast for his friends (John 21). Thank God that Jesus calls his followers friends and reveals all truth to us through his Spirit at work in us (John 15:15; John 16:13-15; 1 Corinthians 2:11-12). Find a copy of an old song called “What a friend we have in Jesus”. Sing it if you know it. Learn it if you don’t.
  34. Put the advertising junk mail straight in the recycling without looking at it.
  35. Fly a kite. Feel the wind on your face. Notice your muscles at work holding the kite against the wind.
  36. Invite your church minister around to your house for a meal to help them celebrate Sabbath with the rest of God’s people, not on a different day of the week.
  37. Increase your heart rate a little doing a physical activity that you enjoy, not just one that you think you should do.
  38. Paint a picture on a rock. Or even use two rocks! Give your artwork to someone.
  39. Smile at a stranger, because it can’t hurt. Remember that while you were still estranged from God, Christ died for you (Romans 5:8).
  40. Pick some flowers and decorate your house. Better still, pick some flowers and decorate someone else’s house, with their permission.
  41. Shoot a friend a verse from the Bible that has encouraged you this week to spur them on in their Christian living (Hebrews 10:24).
  42. Stay back after your church service to chat to people. Chat about the good things from the service. Chat to someone you’ve never met before and ask them about God. Learn from them. Be thankful for the community of God’s people.
  43. Write down on a piece of paper some ways you’ve rebelled against God in the week just finished, then throw the piece of paper into a fire and be thankful God forgives those who confess their sin (1 John 1:9). Today or another day, read all the mentions of “fire” in the Bible and make some notes on what you learn.
  44. Stand outside in the rain and be thankful God is the giver of life. Dry off before your skin goes wrinkly.
  45. Stop and smell some flowers and notice some birds. Notice the colours of the flowers and the freedom of birds in flight. Remember that you are more valuable to God than they are and be thankful for the way he provides all that you need. Worry less (Matthew 6:25-34).
  46. Lie on your back and watch the clouds scudding across the sky and get a tingle up your spine when you think about Jesus coming back one day on the clouds of heaven (Matthew 24:30; Acts 1:9-11; Revelation 1:7). Tell someone about the tingle.
  47. Pat a pet. Better still, take your pet to visit someone who doesn’t have a pet so they can have a turn. Check their allergies first.
  48. See how long you can go without looking at your phone. Set a new record.
  49. Go barefoot – on grass, or sand, or well-worn wood, or cool tiles or the warm spot where an animal was lying. Wiggle your toes. Watch them wiggle. See if you can turn your big toe up at right angles to your other toes. Whether you can or not, realise how fearfully and wonderfully made you are, that you can read this page and watch your toes wiggle. Read Psalm 139:14. Jump for joy.
  50. Sing as if nobody is listening except God. Dance as if nobody is watching except God. Do both at the same time. Do one or both of them with at least one other person.
  51. Bake a cake just because a cake is a good thing to eat with someone else. Eat some of the cake with someone else. Invite them to bake the next cake with you. Lock in a cake bake date.
  52. Watch water flow. Thank God for water and for Jesus’ promise to provide living water that comes from the very throne of God (John 4:13-14; Revelation 22:1-2).
  53. Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things (Philippians 4:8).
  54. Give thanks that there are more than 50 things to do on the Sabbath.
  55. Each Sabbath for the next year, choose to do one of the first 52 things on this list.

For some more ideas like these, check out 50 more things to do on a Sabbath.


Chest Stubble

The nurse who shaved my chest didn’t complain about the damage to the environment of using multiple disposable razors. The damage to my credit card half an hour later would more than cover the cost.

I have chest stubble at the moment. It’s in circles, like those alien circles you see in crop fields, where the crop stands tall except for where, supposedly, an extraterrestrial visitor carved out some circular patterns to communicate something to earthlings.

Like crop circles (maybe), the bare patches on my chest appeared for the sake of sending messages. Electrical signals from my heart travel better from electrode to electrode for an electrocardiograph (ECG) reading when the journey’s not so hair-raising, so last week I was shaved in preparation for a cardiac stress test on a treadmill.

I’m not the hairiest guy in the world, but I will say that for me towelling down after a shower is like trying to dry a shag pile carpet. The nurse who shaved my chest for the ECG took a fresh razor, and then another, to get the job done. She was quite nice about it. Didn’t complain about the damage to the environment of using multiple disposable products. The damage to my credit card half an hour later would more than cover the cost, as well as come near to giving me a heart attack.

The nurse was chatty, and undoubtedly experienced in comforting worried patients. She took my pre-treadmill blood pressure. 172/115. Not so good, and well above my normal readings. “That’s alright,” she said, “lots of people have high pressure because they get a bit nervous about the treadmill.”

Hmmm. I run regularly, and had come to the cardiology clinic prepared with a pair of shorts in my bag, figuring I might end up on the treadmill. Had even omitted a morning run in anticipation that the treadmill session might do for the day. So the idea of anxiety about running on a treadmill didn’t explain the blood pressure reading. My wife was with me, and of course she can get my heart going sometimes, but not when we’re sitting in a medical centre with doctor and nurse coming and going, seeking an explanation for why I blacked out in the middle of an indoor soccer game the previous week.

“I’m not feeling stressed about the treadmill,” I said.

“Aah, you might be used to running, but have you ever been on a treadmill before?” I have, in the occasional gym visit. “Well this one’s different from any other treadmill. It gets faster and steeper every three minutes. You might find the first two levels easy, but you’ll find it hard from there. Only elite triathletes make it through the 21 minutes. I want you to keep going until your heart rate gets up to at least 85% of your predicted maximum.” Great – no pressure there at all. “Rest your hands on the handles, but don’t hang on to them. Don’t move your torso too much, or I won’t be able to get good readings. Don’t stop moving forward. I’ll give you a ten second warning before each increase in pace and incline.” Apart from that, enjoy the run!

The cardiologist glanced at the pre-treadmill ECG reading and commented “Your p-waves are upside down – that’s interesting.” When a medical professional looks at information about your body on a document he doesn’t show you and says, “that’s interesting,” you could be forgiven if your blood pressure and heart rate were to go up. But all I could think about was the boys in my class when I was in primary school drinking as much as we could at recess then holding until lunch time before lining up at the urinal to see who could get his pee wave highest up the wall. I masked my thoughts, in case the cardiologist asked me what was funny. There were too many options in mind for how primary school boys might produce upside down pee waves.

For over half a century I’ve been blessed with good health. My heart’s never been a problem before. Maybe I’ve dodged a bullet so far. My parents between them have racked up a triple heart bypass, atrial fibrillations and blackouts, an arrhythmic heart beat, seven stents, and two pacemakers. Even more dramatic was my paternal grandfather’s instantly fatal heart attack.

But blood pressure of 240/101 at the end of the treadmill session after satisfying the nurse’s demands was more worrying to the cardiologist than the inverted p-wave was. More than “interesting”. Redressed and back in his office across the corridor, I heard that ominous phrase, “I’d like to do some more tests.” And so, I learnt about some things I didn’t know. I used to think a Holter monitor was called a halter monitor because you wore it around your neck, like a halter top, but I don’t any more. And echocardiogram was new vocabulary. But no need to worry about the “echo”, a noteworthy example of Australian slang shortening terms to make them seem more accessible and friendly. The echo won’t happen for a few weeks. Not till after the CT scans of heart and aorta.

It could all be made to sound a bit like a heart-warming recipe. Take one measure of treadmill, throw in a p-wave once you’ve put it through an inverter, then whip together with two measures of CT and a sounding of echo. Let it sit for 24 hours in a Holter, and remove the heart only if necessary. Present on a sterile medical tray. May be consumed using scalpel and tweezers or other implements of choice. Serves one.

I’m done for the moment playing the balloon-in-a-box game my haematologist put me on to a few months ago. We still don’t know why my platelet count is low. But, on the upside, if my heart decides to stop pumping the blood, nobody will be interested in counting platelets any longer anyway. Kill two birds with one stone, so to speak.

I owe thanks to my haematologist for referring me to a top cardiologist. And to her desk staff, who negotiated their way into an urgent appointment for me. And to generations of medical researchers who plugged away at finding solutions to medical problems. And to an extraordinarily good God, for creating an extraordinarily discoverable world, and for keeping my heart beating this long.


Blood Tests

“There are some full blood count issues,” said my doctor. That would prove to be just my first new vocabulary item.

I have a good doctor. He recently sent me for routine blood tests. Everything came back in perfect order. Well, almost. Just one area of exception. “There are some full blood count issues,” he said. That would prove to be just my first new vocabulary item. “Problems with your platelet count and white cell count,” he continued. “Your neutrophils and lymphocytes are low.” I’m always keen to learn about new words , so I asked: “What causes them to be low?”

“Probably leukaemia.” No elaboration, and a dead pan face. Leukaemia. Not a new word. Don’t need to ask what that means. Immediate thoughts. People die from leukaemia. After going through painful chemo, and having all their hair fall out. Well, at least that will put paid to my “male pattern hair loss” appearance. Must search for where I put that will I wrote a few years ago. My wife’s got another week before she comes home from visiting family overseas. Might let her enjoy the week without burdening her with this news. Besides, he just said “probably,” so no need to worry her unnecessarily. I know she’d like to know, and she’ll kill me when she gets home and I tell her I didn’t tell her. But, hey, at least it will be quick and won’t involve chemo! Pity about the down side of dying at the hands of a loved one instead of in the arms of a loved one.

“Probably leukaemia,” isn’t the sort of thing you’re supposed to say with a dead pan face and no elaboration. “Bananas have gone up to $3.99 a kilo,” you say with a dead pan face. Or “The game’s cancelled because of the rain.” Or maybe “Here’s that document you were looking for.”

Back to the pathology clinic within the week for more blood tests, and then back to my doctor for some more new vocabulary. Fractionations. Immunoglobulins, IGM, and IGG. EPG. IEPG. Paraprotein. IEF immune marker. Too many to ask about. The name of a haematologist. She works at a “haematology and oncology” practice. Great, she’s an oncologist – they’re the people who pronounce death sentences. Lock in an appointment for a few weeks away. In the meantime, consult Doctor Google. That’ll guarantee a dead pan delivery of all the information I want! My regular desire to know stuff rises to new heights. If I know all about it, I’ll be able to fix it, right? Yes, I’m male.

My wife insists on accompanying me to the appointment with the death doctor. More vocabulary that doesn’t regularly feature in fun conversations with friends: “peripheral markers”; “bone marrow biopsy”; “upper abdomen ultrasound”; “remove your spleen”.

Dr Death wants to do her own blood tests. “About ten vials.” I cross the corridor to the conveniently located pathology clinic. “You’ve come from across the corridor?” “Yes.” “Yeah, she likes her blood tests – she’s a haematologist.” Thanks for the reminder. Then an appointment for an upper abdomen ultrasound. Plus a take home fun activity involving blowing up a balloon, packing it in a box, taking it to the nearest pathology clinic and convincing them I really, really did follow all the explicit instructions including fasting, then taking the yellow pill (a choice of the red pill or the blue pill would have been more fun), drinking the right amount of water out of the little paper cups that came as part of the fun package, waiting for the right amount of time before filling the balloon, then recording the exact time the fun was over (10.38am). The wary staff are finally convinced, and agree to forward the balloon-in-a-box, presumably for Dr Death or one of her minions to prick the balloon and let all the air out. Somehow seems like a metaphor for what’s going on. Life’s generally a fun activity, but it can all end in a hurry.

Second appointment with the balloon burster. At least she’s friendly. I’d buy bananas from her even if she said they were $3.99 a kilo. My exhaled air (Did I remember to brush my teeth before filling the balloon? – I guess if she’s seen inside my upper abdomen my bad breath wouldn’t worry her.) has given her the information she needs. Not leukaemia for now. Nothing sinister in the ten vials or the ultrasound, but I do have record breaking numbers of “helicobacter pylori” in my stomach. Now, there’s a fun fact to spice up the conversation while you wait for the desserts to come next time you’re out for dinner! And keep the term in mind for your next trivia night. Leave the little critters to their own devices in your stomach and they’ll eat their way through the stomach wall, as well as whittle away at your platelet count.

So now I’m taking a yellow pill every day, that tastes like one of those banana lollies I used to eat as a kid. Twice a day. As well as a pink tablet, and a double dose of red and yellow capsules. I get to play balloon-in-a-box again in a couple of months, then visit the blood test lover again to see if we’ve successfully killed off the stomach bug.

Don’t know who came up with the balloon-in-a-box thing, or who thought of the trivia-winning name for the stomach bug. But grateful that the world is the sort of place where medical research works. An ordered and reliably predictable world, able to be investigated by the best human minds to come up with ways of keeping people alive. Thank God for the world he made, and for the people he made who know about vocabulary I don’t. And that he is a good God, even if I do have cancer. And for my wife.

Ball tampering – make no mistake about it

How do we avoid the corrupt behaviour that springs from corrupt hearts? Calling the behaviour a mistake is deceitful and won’t help.

When I was 6 years old, I made two mistakes in one day at school. We had a spelling test. I spelt girl “gril” and with “wiht.” I’m reminded that they’re errors because I’ve had to override the autocorrect to keep them in this post. They were mistakes. I didn’t intend to write the words incorrectly. I didn’t premeditate and then choose deliberately to use unorthodox spellings. I made two errors. Simple. Never forgotten. Never made since.

There’s a difference between a mistake and a deliberate choice to do something wrong. Spelling errors are mistakes; texting an abusive message is not. Hitting the accelerator instead of the brake and smashing into another vehicle is a mistake; using your car in a smash and grab robbery is not. Forgetting to take a towel to the locker room is a mistake; stealing a towel from a person’s locker while they’re in the shower is not. In cricket, misfielding a ball is a mistake; the recent ball tampering incident in the Australian team is not.

A mistake is when we act with intention and integrity, but fail to achieve the intended outcome. When we act without integrity and get caught, calling our action “a mistake” is, well, no mistake. It’s a deliberate attempt to influence others to excuse, or ideally accept, the action by dressing it up as something it’s not. The choice of vocabulary smacks of trying to evade responsibility. Wriggling out of responsibility has been around a lot longer than the game of cricket—check out an early account here.

This distinction between mistakes and deliberate wrongdoing seems to have been lost in a lot of the discussion about the recent cricket cheating scandal. The coach, Darren Lehmann, said “They’re good young men and they made a mistake.” No, they didn’t. They deliberately did the wrong thing. They did not miss a goal; they erected their own goalposts and expected to gain an advantage by doing so. Their behaviour became a public issue because someone noticed. If they did make any mistake (that is, tried something but got it wrong), it was that they were careless enough to get caught.

“Mistakes have been made that have damaged cricket,” said the alleged chief culprit, David Warner, in a prepared statement. Notice the avoidance of responsibility: Not “I’ve done wrong”; nor even “I’ve made a mistake.” Mistakes were just “made”, as if by some invisible hand. But using “it just happened” language to avoid responsibility is a whole lot older than the game of cricket, too. You can read about that as far back as here.

Michael Jensen has helpfully pointed out that the problem is that we want to say there is no problem. But at the same time we know that in fact there is one, and it needs to be sorted. So let’s stop calling a calculated, rebellious action a mistake (as even Jensen’s article lapses into doing at one point). Let’s call it what it really is. Then let’s indeed, as Jensen suggests, be ready to reflect the nature of a forgiving God to those who acknowledge they’ve done wrong.

But let us also be alert to the words that are used. The prepared statement of Cameron Bancroft, the one caught red-handed, included expected words about disappointment and regret. But when he went off script, he said that he is heartbroken. By what? “The thing that breaks my heart the most is the fact I have given up my spot in the team for someone else for free.” Not that he has let down kids who looked up to him. Not that he has done something wrong. Not that his actions have exposed his real values. The worst thing is that there is enough moral backbone in the institution that employs him for there to be financial and career consequences for his action. Unstated, but unmistakably present, is the idea that Bancroft would have had no regrets if he had not been caught.

Coach Lehmann said “We need to change.” The thing is, when you make a spelling mistake or two, you don’t need to change. That is, you don’t need to change you. You just need to change the way you spell. When you act deliberately to gain an unfair advantage for yourself, it is actually you that needs to change. Not just your behaviour, but you. At least on that, Lehmann got it right.

A former team official who understands the stress elite sportspeople face has made the suggestion that we have to work out how to make sure this sort of thing doesn’t happen again. Great idea. But how do we avoid the corrupt behaviour that springs from corrupt hearts, when, as Jeremiah put it, “the heart is deceitful above all things?” Calling the behaviour a mistake is deceitful and won’t help. Telling those involved that they’re actually good people who had a momentary lapse of character that they needn’t worry about probably won’t help either. Acknowledging that all behaviour is in fact symptomatic of character, rather than excusable as a momentary exception to it, might. Recovering a willingness to acknowledge the darkness of human hearts and the danger of idolising sports stars might in the long run help by reducing pressure on elite athletes to win at all costs.

This is a good time for a reality check. Ball tampering, it has been said, is just not cricket. But the truth is darker than we like to think. Ball tampering clearly is part of the reality of cricket at elite level. And there are other distasteful truths we need to acknowledge as well. Behaviour actually does reflect character and values, contrary to what Bancroft said in his press conference. The human heart really does have a dark side. There really is need to acknowledge our wrongdoing. There really is something more to ethics than the question, “Will I get caught?” How we live really does matter, whether anyone sees or not.

When freedom goes feral

Our society now values the exercise of freedom in pursuit of self-centred hedonism even above family. We are born to be free. But we are not born to be feral.

What would you think if you were to hear the following statements? “People I love were catastrophically blown off the planet by me doing what I did.” “I trashed their expectations.” Would you think the person speaking might be about to apologise?

You might be surprised to hear, on the contrary, the following. “It was something I just couldn’t control.” “I was just caught up in a maelstrom of emotion.” “This is what I needed to do.” “I couldn’t put it on hold.” If a man used statements like these to defend his actions in raping a woman, what would you think? Would you accept these as valid justification for his action?

And what would you think if in the same conversation you heard these? “It’s not any reason to have a cataclysmic bust-up.” “Everyone has to accept this.” Would you think the person speaking were trying to diminish the significance of what they’d done? Might it sound like they were suggesting that people who had had their expectations trashed so badly they were “catastrophically blown off the planet” shouldn’t make a big deal of it, but should just get on with life?

You can watch a true story, an Australian story, where all of these things were actually said here. And the response from our society and the television producer who framed the story? Celebration of the actions of the perpetrators.

Some people would object to the use of the word “perpetrators” in the context of this particular story. You might, too. But the language used above speaks for itself. It is the language of freedom gone feral. Feral freedom says do whatever your desires lead you to do, and if people get hurt, well that’s regrettable, but unavoidable. Feral freedom says actions resulting from your exercise of freedom are beyond criticism. The voice of feral freedom will brook no limits on its own liberty, but ironically denies freedom to any voices that might object to the way feral freedom has been exercised.

Our society now values the exercise of freedom in pursuit of self-centred hedonism even above family (the nearest thing to a god for many). We now no longer care about the “so long as nobody gets hurt” tag on the end of “We are free to do as we please.” We express regret for hurt, but not for wrongdoing. We demand acceptance of our actions, which are considered beyond censure, but don’t seek forgiveness for our actions, which would entail acknowledgement that they are beyond acceptable.

And if actions are criticised, there’s always the get-out clause of helplessness. “It wasn’t my desire, it was what I had to do.” This is the language that denies personal responsibility and justifies any action in the name of a greater cause. It’s the language we expect of military or political PR spin doctors explaining the latest campaign. Military strategists refer to the human carnage resulting from single-minded focus on achieving an objective as ‘collateral damage’, a price worth accepting for the greater good of achieving the objective. We hear the same from political leaders when they speak of the compulsory acquisition of a family’s home – their castle – as a regrettable but necessary sacrifice in order to build a new runway.

So what was the objective in this true Australian story? Protection of the weak? Development of infrastructure for the good of many? Neither of the above. Just the pursuit of personal happiness with disregard for the wellbeing of anyone else, in a display that points to a self-centred view of the universe, an absolute lack of character, and merciless rejection of prior commitments made mutually in good faith.

Human beings are made for better than the inconsiderate pursuit of our own happiness. We are born to be free. But we are not born to be feral.

We are to take responsibility for our actions, not avoid responsibility by blaming circumstances or the siren call of our own desire. We are different from wild beasts, who act without restraint because they have no moral compass. We are free agents, not victims helpless to resist emotional urges.

We are called to be free, but we are not to use our freedom to indulge ourselves (Galatians 5:13). We are to live as free people, but we are not to use freedom as a cover-up for evil (1 Peter 2:16). True freedom is not unfettered. True freedom is offered by Jesus, who said, “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:34).

The Lord your God carried you, as a Father carries his child

True love unrequited! Is this how God sees me?

Engagement ringA few weeks ago I went for a walk with my 22-year-old daughter, who has just announced she is engaged to be married. We talked as we went. It reminded me of something I wrote to her twenty-one years ago…

Meditations of a one-year-old father

My first born child,

I spoke to you when you were still in the womb: “This is your father speaking.” But you did not know my voice, and just kicked out, as if in retaliation at my desire to have you come out of your world of darkness which seemed so comfortable and right. Did I disturb your peace? What was that rumbling from beyond the confines of your universe? How dare I intrude!

And then you were born, and the joy! The joy that all around me shared, that you had come forth from that dark world, and were with us. But how fragile did your life seem in those first few moments. So vulnerable, so in need of protection. And how everyone wanted to keep us apart until you had passed all the tests that would satisfy them that you had indeed been born successfully, where I could see (and hear) that you had indeed been born. There was no further test than this—that you had come out of the darkness into the light of day. And of the truth that you were of my flesh and blood, no further test was needed than that mere minutes separated from you seemed somehow unjust.

one year old Madeleine

Even as I write, your cry breaks my concentration and I go to see what it is that disturbs your sleep. A mental note that no teddy or toy, no blanket or bedclothes calm you like the voice and caress of your father. When you are grown, may it be so with your true Father.

But after the excitement of the addition to our family came the shocking truth. You were, to be sure, my child—irrevocably. Nothing could change that. But you did not know me! Had you still been in the dark you could hardly have responded less to my overtures of love. Your instinct was unchanged—you seemed to crave the familiar darkness and found solace only in your mother’s breast. Who is this other, the hairy one who longs to comfort you to no avail? The vacant stare betrays your lack of recognition. True love unrequited! My heart has never known so deep a wound.

Slowly, the signs of awareness of your new environment appeared—but ever so slowly to one impatient to relate. The eyes took in your surrounds, began to focus, move with purpose, follow. And still there was no recognition, save only of this being a different place from that from which you had come. Try as I might, I could not solicit your love. No joke, no game, no trick; no act of caring, of protection, or of love; no soothing touch or song or word; nothing would satisfy my desire to see you draw near to me. That shattered pride of one rejected for a rattle, a mobile, or a noisy gong—mere trinkets and titillations. Was it for these that you were born?


father and child silhouetteAnd then the first smile. (The “experts” call it wind until six weeks at least, but to one hungry to relate, it matters not what the experts say.) Bliss! Ecstasy! Leaping and shouting and praising God! And endless repetition of the same technique so long as you had energy enough to smile. And disillusionment when a stranger did the same thing and your eagerness was betrayed as a response to the gift and not the giver.

Little by little you began to reach out and explore your world. I longed for the day (still do) when you could walk and talk and travel by my side. What new skill would you master today? Rolling? Rolling back? Sitting? Feeding on solid food? Crawling, instead of howling in frustration at looking the part but going nowhere? Crawling forward? Going up the single stair from living room to dining room? Going  down, without using your face as a brake? Getting the plug back in the bath drain hole after you had pulled it out as soon as you got in? Standing?

And now you stand, a little wobbly, but independent.

And tomorrow, your first birthday. Yet still you do not speak to me. Okay, cannot, I know. How many times have I walked with you, held you close, longed for you to tell me what is wrong, as all else is blocked out of my world by your scream of pain, or of discomfort. And I would have attended your every need had I but known what they were. “Sshh, sshh,” is the best I can offer as I gently move with you in my arms. My heart aches that you are unable to let me ease your pain. Is this how He sees me? My mind collapses like a dying star under the weight of life, and yet I do not speak to Him of my need, but only cry out in rage and pain, wondering why He does not answer the questions I have never put, but only hugs me to Himself.

What are human beings, that you care for them?

If the immensity of the truth that God cares for us is not a jaw-dropping reality, perhaps we have not quite understood it.

Last week I spent four days camping with 14 fourteen-year-olds. It was a week of rain and more rain. Heavy rain; rain in big drops; torrential rain; angled, driving rain; fireside chat-ending rain; tent-penetrating rain; shoe-soaking, toe-wrinkling rain. Canoe-filling rain.

Image result for wet camping trip

We paddled one morning on a day when the weather forecast was “90% chance of 5ml of rain.” The 5ml had fallen before breakfast, which we ate under a tarp. After breakfast we donned personal flotation devices that had been “drying” outside overnight, and paddled for four hours upstream, in the rain.

The 100 millilitres that had fallen in the catchment area the previous day was flowing at us. The tide was against us. The rain was in our faces. As the water level rose in the canoes, we resorted to bailing by hand. Backpacks in the bottom of canoes became waterlogged, all the heavier to carry on the scheduled afternoon hike. The river stretched long and straight before us. We sought respite for aching muscles by rafting up while hanging on to overhanging branches of trees on the river bank, so as not to be swept back the distance we’d covered. Four hours were spent cajoling pre-growth-spurt Year 9 boys to keep paddling, preferably with a bit of steering that produced something closer to a straight course than regularly alternating visits to each bank.

But for those with capacity to notice, the banks were a delight to behold. Towering tree-crowned cliffs rising up out of deep and mysterious looking waters. Scurrying water dragons. A side inlet leading to a serene billabong teeming with birdlife. Bubbles plopping on the water surface as rain and drips from riverside vegetation intermingled their percussion notes. Gnarly gums lured us from midstream for a closer inspection. Hidden waterfalls beckoned the curious with their siren call. Curvaceous caves told the story of the river’s history. Extraordinary, palette-stretching hues of green, and the long and the short, the thin and the thick, and the flat and the rounded leaves of the Australian bush bore testimony to the marvellous variety of creation. Reflections on the water at times pulled our gaze way beneath the surface.

Being in such a setting, surrounded by things that dwarf me and my strength, warranted reflection on the wisdom of 3000-year-old poetry. The futility of our attempt to prevent the rain from the skies soaking all we possessed reminded me of the magnitude of those skies. The feat of paddling eight kilometres or so against the elements seems worth crowing about, until we compare that distance with the 40 trillion kilometre distance to the nearest star. And that’s just the nearest one! Even without understanding how far away the stars were, the poet David expressed his awe of God, “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?” (Psalm 8)

How astonishing indeed that the creator who can make widespread rain fall at will would care for a creature utterly helpless to stop the rain in even one place! If the immensity of the truth that God cares for us is not a jaw-dropping reality, perhaps we have not quite understood it. When we do understand that immense truth, it is cause for confidence when we are faced with experiences and obstacles that threaten to make us feel helpless and overwhelmed. We can respond to such feelings by echoing an ancient declaration:  “Where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.” (Psalm 121)

In all your ways acknowledge Him

Not worrying is a possibility, but only if we trust that God is in charge. The question is, do we?

It’s the time of year when university classes begin. I’ve been challenged this week by a conversation with a student who is contemplating how to leverage the present to get the best out of the future. That’s not a bad thing to be contemplating. Jesus’ parable of the shrewd manager found at the beginning of Luke chapter 16 offers pretty strong support for the idea of planning for the future.

Without deliberate planning and acting about the future, I would never have married, would never have been employed, would never have taught well, would never have worn any clothes. All of those are good things that require forward thinking and planning. The Bible is clear, though, about the need to acknowledge that we aren’t in charge of our own destiny.  When we plan for the future, the danger is that we succumb to the false idea of human autonomy that’s reared its ugly head ever since the events of Genesis 3. James 4:13-14 puts us firmly in our place by reminding us we don’t run the show.

Now, if you don’t run the show, you might be tempted not to bother about anything. Better off to seek the easy life than to wrestle with worrying about things beyond your control, you might think. But self-centred irresponsibility and self-centred arrogance are both problematic. We have neither the power to make all things happen nor the authority to disclaim all responsibility. The delusion of control and the temptation to disengage are equally deceptive in offering to free us of worry. Both are temporary anaesthetics for the pain that can accompany the privilege of choosing about the future. They might mask the pain, but cannot deal with it, leaving us only worry-bound after all.

Is it okay to worry? Jesus says don’t, because it can’t lengthen your life, which is in God’s hands anyway (Matthew 6:25-27). Philippians 4:6 tells us we are not to be anxious about anything. It would be odd if we were to ignore the commandment not to worry, or were to suggest that it’s really okay for Christians to worry because it’s unrealistic to expect never to worry. Not worrying is a possibility, but only if we trust that God is in charge. The question is, do we?

We are liberated from worry neither because we have all the power to make things happen, nor because we have no responsibility. What liberates us is the great freedom derived from knowing that God will guide the next step of the way after we have taken the one immediately in front of us. Remembering that, is the recipe for worry-free, careful, God-honouring preparation for the future.

God is an extraordinarily generous guide, who lights the way as we go. As Psalm 119:105 says, let his word be a lamp to your feet and a light to your path. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will direct your path (Proverbs 3:6). The rest is mere detail. He uses our choices, the good and the bad, to shape us into the people he wants us to be. Looking back, I can see that he has done that in my life, even as I have taken wandering, tottering, false steps along the way. I am sure he will do the same with you, no matter what choices you make, if you seek to honour him in all things.