A Girl And Her Balloon

When you have three children under ten, there’s no point taking a vote on where to go out to eat. You’ll be outnumbered, and there’s only one option in this area that offers the triple crown of childhood meals: nuggets, toy, and balloon – it’s going to be McDonald’s. This was our reality at the beginning of 2016, so after an event in the city one weekend, we made tracks for the Golden Arches. I don’t remember the toy that day (most of those things are forgotten by everyone a few nanoseconds after we get home, only to be rediscovered later inside the couch or under a seat in the car), but I’ll never forget Rebekah’s balloon. She picked it out before the meal, carefully selecting the pink one for herself, distinct from the blue and green of her brothers. She ate next to it happily, and played with her toy. Then we got up to leave, walked out the door, and when she spotted the sky, her eyes lit up. She held her balloon as high as she could and stood up on her toes… but something was wrong. A cloud of disappointment moved over her sunny smile:

“I thought it would make me go up”

When Rebekah stepped outside, she fully expected the McDonald’s balloon to make her fly. Her disappointment at discovering the reality of gravity was profound. And when I think about it from her perspective, there is a certain logic to it: Winnie the Pooh could do it, so why not Rebekah?

Sometimes reality really does hold us down. The girl believed, but the balloon still couldn’t fly. You could say that her belief in the balloon was childish, but it seems to me that it was actually rather adultish: Isn’t it us adults who love to put our trust in politicians to save us, medicine to cure us, and systems to improve us? Yes, some politicians could (conceivably) keep their promises, some medicines could heal, and some systems could help, at least for a while. But all are limited, and no amount of extra belief on our part will compensate for their inadequacy. These balloons won’t be strong enough to lift us for long, even if we give them our complete confidence.

Still, we’re all small like the girl, and we’re all looking for something to lift us above the brokenness we see in and around us. We’re all putting our faith in some kind of system, movement, or person (even if it’s just ourselves) to help us rise above this mess of a planet we call home. But as we look for a balloon to lift us, the question should not be: “How much faith do I have in my balloon?” But rather: “Can this balloon actually get me off the ground?” Is what I’m believing really true? Does it have enough power to change broken realities? Belief alone won’t do the job, but I believe there’s Someone that can: Someone who entered our mess of a world, bore our pain, and broke the power of death itself. You may not agree with me, but the question remains:

What are you putting your faith in, and why?

How We Saved Ourselves From Fitness

A new year is upon us, and along with it the usual deluge of gym membership deals, diet programs, and wellness resolutions. Of course, many of these good intentions won’t last to the end of January, but that’s beside the point. The question is: how did we get to the place where most of us genuinely need a yearly re-focus on our own fitness? In the long history of the world, this is an anomaly. If we worked all day labouring in fields or factories, we wouldn’t need extra fitness goals. If we didn’t have a cozy car to ferry us around, we’d get more steps on the pedometer. If we did all the dishes and laundry by hand, chopped our own wood for heat, and got up early to milk the cows, we’d probably never think of making a special trip to the gym. Sure, we wouldn’t have time for it anyway!

Time. That was the whole point of all these labour-saving machines, wasn’t it? They promised us more time to do as we please. What they didn’t tell us is that all our labour-saving inventions would save us more than time – they would also save us from fitness. Many of us are now free from the really tough physical work at home and our jobs, and we live our daily lives in a level of comfort that the kings of old couldn’t have even imagined. So now we spend our extra free time (gifted to us by the machines) driving to special buildings where we pay good money for the privilege of working hard against weights and treadmills, because our bodies still need the physical labour that our machines have saved us from.

I’m not saying that I have something against taking time for exercise. I know I need to make more space for it in my own life. I just need to find the time, like everyone else, because somehow, even with all our labour and time-saving inventions, our lives are still stressful and our to-do lists are still long. Even with all our technology, all our helpful inventions, and all our labour-saving devices, we still haven’t been able to save ourselves from the realities of living as broken people in a broken world. Our bodies are still fragile, and our time is still limited. So this year, I’ll be thankful for the helpful machines around me and (hopefully) make more time to replace the exercise they’ve saved me from, but I won’t expect any of this to save me from the deeper problems that persist both in and around me. When it comes to those things, I’ll be looking up with Moses, asking for true perspective from our Maker:

“Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” (Psalm 91v12)

Beyond The Frozen Past

I’ve a treasury of moments, frozen now, and stored. A freezer full of timesicles I’ve carefully preserved. I love the smell of happiness these memories still hold, and yet I know the beating life in them can never be restored. Each moment past is frozen fast, unchanging to eternity: a monument carved in the stone face of Time, a smile, laughter, a frown. The image of life with it’s breath removed, the death-mask of vibrant Now. As my timesicle collection grows, I understand more and more why the simple act of living a few decades seems to leave humanity looking over our shoulders in wide-eyed amazement at the pace of life. The shock of seeing so many living, breathing moments frozen behind us can’t be easily shaken off. The thought of today’s warmth joining them soon, followed closely by all our tomorrows, can draw the cold air right out of the freezer and encase our hearts in icy fear.

Don’t give in.

The cold fingers of Time may lock up the past, but that doesn’t mean we have to hand him the future early. The warm breath of living Now is here beside us, chest heaving with all the wonder of this moment. Yes, our time here is limited. Yes, our lives are framed like a painting by the hard lines of birth and death. Eventually the art we leave behind will be completed, for better or worse, to hang frozen and unchanging in the gallery of history.

Will anyone see it there?

Do our frozen lives even matter?

Yes. The builder of this gallery carefully selected the exact wall and space for your painting, chose the colours you would use, and the size of the canvas you would create on. Your life is one work in a massive collection that is the magnum opus of the original Artist, shaped together out of millions of parts to tell the story of the universe with every possible colour, shade, and dynamic included. Yes, the past is frozen. Frozen like a statue of a warrior in his moment of triumph, reminding the world of his victory over all the forces of evil. Frozen with the weight and shape of the glory of God, revealed through time and climaxing in the only death that could conquer the power of death forever. And someday, when history itself has run out of breath, the gallery will stand complete and God’s children will roam it’s halls, admire its intricate detail, and finally understand how their own framed and frozen brushstrokes fit in the master plan of the master Artist.

…and live on in the power of Jesus’ resurrection to spend eternity in living, breathing, creating Now.

The (Lost) Art Of Contentment

We’re not supposed to be content. We’re told that what we really should be is busy, productive, and eager to buy the next life-changing device offered half price on Black Friday. The busier the better as we keep pushing forward, improving our station in life, and not letting anybody stand in the way of our dreams. No room in all that for talk of contentment. We’re well entrenched in the habit of waiting for something else to happen before we can settle in and enjoy life – before we can let ourselves be content. Even after we cross the finish line for a big goal, it doesn’t take long to realise that we’re still not content. So we try again, looking for another finish line to aim for, pushing ourselves to the limit to achieve it, and then finding out that it doesn’t satisfy us, either. The cycle continues, and we’re not the only ones caught in it: even the massively successful rich and famous seem to live in the same spiral of goals, achievements, and discontent. Ultimately, it doesn’t even matter if we are successful or not, the underlying discontent with the reality of our lives is there either way. Failure is devastating. Success is empty. Is contentment even possible?

It is. But we won’t find it by looking over and over again in the same tired places. That’s okay, though, because it’s already been found. In a letter written roughly 2,000 years ago, a man named Paul gives us his treasure map with an “X” on contentment:

I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.

Philippians 4:12-13

Needs or not, poverty or plenty, Paul has learned a secret that lets him live in any situation with calm contentment. Doesn’t that sound amazing? To be able to look poverty in the eye – real, cold, hungry poverty (which Paul lived through multiple times) – and say: I know how to accept you and still be happy and secure. And then to be able to look at the jewels dripping off glittering prosperity and say confidently: your gold can’t change who I am. I can take it or leave it. I’m content. Paul said all of this in the face of prison, beatings, death threats – and also prosperity.

So what is this secret that can give us the ability to live so far above our circumstances that we can be content no matter what? Paul says: “I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”

How does Paul face the ups and downs of life so calmly? He’s not living for this life. His main purpose in life is not to get the most he can out of life. If it was, than any downs he faced would be devastating because they would be defeating his main goal, and any ups he gained would never be enough because there would always be something greater he could get for himself. The evidence is all around us: there’s no level of human achievement that can actually satisfy us as humans. In the face of this, Paul’s secret is that he is not looking to get something in his life that will satisfy him. The ups and downs have lost their power to throw him, because no matter what, he’s already satisfied. He is content because he has a foundation to live from that is solid and steady in poverty, prosperity, good, bad, and even death itself.

Paul’s secret is that he is secure. He is confident that God has accepted him because Jesus paid for his sin and gave him the right to be brought into God’s family as his child. No amount of money or goodness could buy that confidence, and no loss of anything in this world can take it away. It’s there, firm enough for any hurricane of circumstance or windfall of fortune.

Contentment is not weakness or laziness, it is a solid security strong enough to look life in the eye without flinching. It’s a treasure, and we are poor in our lack of it.

“Godliness with contentment is great gain.”

Hannah’s Funeral

It’s taking too long. That’s how I know my world is crumbling. The midwife can’t find what she’s looking for. She keeps trying, but every new effort is the ringing of steeple bells tolling a funeral. Not a formal, prepared, eulogised, dressed-in-black funeral. No, this is an impromptu affair, with no time to think, and no black shoes to look at as I stare at the floor. But I can’t just stare at the floor, people are talking to me. I have to concentrate to keep looking at them. I have to focus. It’s not their fault. They’re trying to help. I need to be polite and listen. What about my wife? She must be feeling the same as me. No, she must be feeling worse. After all, Hannah is still inside her. Hannah who we weren’t even sure was a girl (but we knew). Hannah who was a world of new life and dreams. Hannah who we have the little dress waiting for at home in a room right across the hall so we can hear her if she cries…

Now my wife is crying. She is beside me, looking at the floor. She’s not wearing black shoes, either. I don’t think she’s even trying to listen to those nice people who never, ever stop talking about helpful things I can’t hear. I just want to go somewhere where no people are talking so I can look at the floor and let the whole world be as black as it should be. How can the sun not be ashamed? Why do people in the waiting room keep chatting and laughing as if the whole world hadn’t just fallen to pieces? Turn off the lights. Let all creation mourn.

The precious body is too small to bury. There will be no prepared funeral. Only this horrid, sunlit, incessant chatter and brown shoes. But the dress… The little dress is still in the room across the hall at home, waiting for the precious body that is too small to bury. If my wife sees it, she will cry. I have to put it away before that happens. I have to put it somewhere deep in a wardrobe, somewhere dark where there is no sunlight and all the clothes look as black as they should be. This is the funeral. The burial of my dreams. The flowery dress is the casket, as empty as my heart. The wardrobe is the grave, with darkened coats standing in for mourners. And when the door is closed, my world is forever changed.

And now I begin to understand. I understand why the sky turned black and the earth shook in heaving grief as you breathed one last ragged breath from your place on the cross. Except it wasn’t your place. You were innocent. Creation was right to mourn it, as I mourned for Hannah. The world is broken by sin, and death is the result. I know that. But it wasn’t Hannah’s sin, so why should it be her death? Neither was it your sin, so why should it be your death? She didn’t have a choice, but you gave up your life willingly. You did it because you knew that only your wrongful death could break the power of our sin once and for all, and begin to undo the horrible result of our sin – making death itself begin to work backwards for those who belong to you. So you died our death. And when you walked out of the grave, the world was forever changed.

Now I understand why Easter is the birthday of hope for humanity. Hope for precious bodies that are too small to bury. Hope for broken fathers and mothers. Hope for liars and thieves and sinners. Hope for good people who can never be good enough. The steeple bells are tolling again, but not a funeral: a resurrection!

Hope is alive because you are.

 

this article describes events that happened 13 years ago, and was originally published in 4you magazine

The Coals

If you want to take a picture of a big impressive fire

If you want to post it up online and likes are your desire

Be sure to take your photo when the fire’s just been lit

When flames are leaping up so high it’s sure to be a hit

But then, if warming up your hands or cooking are your goals

You’ll have to wait and let the fire burn down to its coals

For epic Insta-pictures and 1,000 Facebook likes

Won’t be enough to warm you up on dark and stormy nights

Sometimes the unimpressive things are better than the show

Sometimes the things you wait for are the best things you can know

Heaven Isn’t A Place On Earth

This week our family boarded a plane to head home to Ireland after some weeks in America. The airports along the way were full of holiday-makers going this way or that, some just setting out, others returning sporting deeper tans and new sunglasses. Eventually, whenever they all get to wherever it is they call home, they’ll be met by a welcome party of work, school, and responsibilities that have been patiently awaiting them. As the tan lines fade and sunglasses collect dust, the desktop background picture of big smiles in the sand may seem increasingly like a taunt. Or maybe like an impossible invitation: “If only I could live there all the time, I would always be that happy!” The invitation seems to be proven more and more with every holiday. But the invitation is a lie. The holiday-makers going both directions on our airplane are proof: if one side of the ocean was the perfection of bliss, why would they feel the need to take their holidays on the other? If we actually did follow the invitation and move ourselves permanently to the dreamiest beach on google images, what would we find there? More sunshine, more sand, and more people who are not so very different to the people we left behind. We would also find more bills and to-do lists, grocery shopping, schools, and government tax offices – all remarkably similar to the places we know, once you get behind the regional architecture. Now, I’m not saying that every place is exactly the same. There are significant differences between life in North Korea and life in Kansas. But good citizens of Kansas, with all their Wal-marts and BBQs, still feel the need to take holidays in the Caribbean. And people in the Caribbean still take their children to Disney World in Florida. And I know a former Disney Princess who took a holiday in China.

God himself was the first to take a holiday when he rested on the seventh day after creating the cosmos. In doing this, he set the pattern that those made in his image are not invented to be constantly running work machines. In the Bible, Hebrews 4 tells us that God also uses these days of rest to point us beyond this broken world to the ultimate rest won for God’s adopted children through the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Until then, the kind of rest we’re longing for can only be found in tantalizing tasters. Belinda Carlisle may sing about how “heaven is a place on earth”, but good luck trying to find it. There is no secret corner of this world where life is always good, people are always kind, bugs never bite, and governments are always benevolent. We get just enough to dream of it, but never enough to be satisfied. The whole planet is broken. All the holidays in the calendar can’t change that. And yet, for those who put their trust in Christ, holidays can point our eyes forward to his promises: This life may be a work week full of frustration and pain, but Sunday is coming!