“Two roads diverged in a wood and I – I took the one less traveled by.” Robert Frost

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It’s been quite the while since I’ve written something. Partly because I’ve taken on a few new roles but also because I’ve encountered new struggles and dilemmas to ponder and overcome.  At times I thought I’d come to a conclusion or solved some of them, then I’d start writing and realise I hadn’t. But in time I’m sure I’ll come to understand these things better, if not completely.

I’ve just returned from a month gallivanting around the United States with my family. It was an amazing trip but it also presented massive challenges. Being with your family and only your family for an entire month is tough. I have to admit that for the most part we were waking up early and busy doing things all day. I found it hard to stop, sit down and dwell on God’s word and pray. It taught me the value of putting God’s word to memory. Many times bringing a verse to mind and meditating on it was all I felt I had the energy and time to do, and I found it most helpful.

I was also blessed with a letter a week from my boyfriend, who wrote me a devotion in each one. Each brought me to pray and pointed me back to Christ. One in particular helped. We were at the point in our trip where we were all at each others throats and patience and kindness was sorely needed on my behalf in the least. It was Luke 20:19-26. The chief priests, who are constantly following Jesus around looking for a fault, question him about whether or not to pay taxes. Jesus asks them whose image the coin bears. And they said, “Caesar’s”. Then Jesus said:

“Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s”. (v25)

But what bears the image of God? The answer is that you do. I do. We all do! So we should give ourselves to God. This reminded me that my family are also made in the image of God. They are precious, loved and saved by Him. Bought with the blood of his own son. So I need to treat them like that, giving myself to God and serving others selflessly.

I was also reading Little Women at the time. It might sound silly, but I’ve come to learn from their lessons. I was struck by how their mother lead them towards their Creator when they struggled with their faults. When Jo struggled with her temper she prayed for help to hold her tongue. When Meg struggled with a love of material wealth, she drew comfort knowing that she has a Heavenly Father that provides and loves her. When you’re around your family in close quarters for long periods of time, your flaws tend to come out. Sometimes you feel helpless to change yourself. But I drew comfort in the knowledge that I’m not on my own, Christ is working to transform me, to make me more like him. And it is through his word that we are changed. “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart”(Hebrews 4:12). I also dwelt on the knowledge that:

“He who began a good work in you [believers] will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”
Phil 1:6.

Finally, I saw so many wondrous things and some brought me to stand in utter awe at the glory, wonder, enormity and power of my God. As I stood on the edge of the Grand Canyon and flew over the Napali Coast in Kauai, I was blown away by what God had created with his very words. As I stood next to the roaring Niagara falls, I trembled at the power, it’s expanse and strength in the knowledge that my God is greater and just, but also compassionate and merciful.

There were also things that made me inherently sad. The people enslaved to their addictions in Vegas, sitting for hours in casinos fed on a false hope that grows their lust of money but never satisfies. A city plagued by prostitution and the cultivation of pleasure. Though it’s easy to blame the place, the issue is really the human heart, seeking to satisfy itself.

“Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonouring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.”
Romans 1:24

It pervades the whole earth, not just Vegas. I prayed that in their dissatisfaction they’d realise they are using the wrong things in an attempt to quench their need and that they’d find satisfaction and pleasure in God. I was really encouraged by how many street preachers and evangelists were there. Proclaiming hope to those that parade around proud of their sin. But we need this in every city.

This leads me to one of my dilemmas. I’ve struggled to understand exactly what tolerance is. Our world proclaims it as the highest of virtues and it does on the surface seem to bring peace and harmony. But does God call us to it? In Vegas, I found it so hard to be ok with people buying others for their own gratification, throwing their money away and revelling in such ‘pleasure’. But tolerance says that we’re to just leave them to their ways. I can’t just stand by and see people buy into a lie that will never satisfy, that will provide temporary pleasure but eternal pain.

It saddens me that the world preaches this as it’s highest virtue: to let people do what they want regardless of your knowledge of the consequence. I think tolerance is selfish. BUT, that doesn’t mean to disrespect, look down upon or abuse others. By all means, respect others. They are all made in the image of God, his precious creation. Love them. But is it loving to leave them to fumble around blindly looking for God? To renounce your calling as a believer?

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”
Matthew 28:18-20.

Well, those have been my thoughts the past few months. I’ve learnt so much this year even though I didn’t come to any dramatic conclusions. If you’re a believer, I would like to encourage you to continue to live differently in this world spurred on by the word of God. And if you’re not a believer, to have a read of God’s word and see what he’s offering you. It’s well worth it.

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Beautiful, but Deadly.

Courtesy to Mathiole (DevientArt)

So many things in this world are aesthetically pleasing but potentially deadly. Brightly coloured plants, flowers and animals scatter the earth that could end our lives if we made direct contact. Often I marvel at these things in creation, beautifully and wonderfully made by my opinion.

They also come to mind when I consider the spread of the gospel. Throughout Paul’s letters in the New Testament he often warns new churches against sugar-coated messages. The genius that allows these messages to survive is that they contain just enough of the truth within them that they could be seen as plausible despite being spiritually deadly. We live in a time where “people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suite their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.” (2 Timothy 4:3-4)

I see these churches that include false messages and promises growing rapidly. People are drawn to them because they appeal to their passions. Often these churches grow faster and larger than those that preach the straight truth.

Why is that? Wouldn’t people want to hear the truth? The gospel is essentially offensive. Since “the god of this world has blinded the minds of unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel”(2 Cor 4:4) we can often be discouraged by our efforts to spread the word in light of the growth in these other churches. But Paul urges that since “this ministry is by the mercy of God, we of not lose heart. But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.” (2 Corinthians 4:1-3).

In sadness I have seen friends committing their lives to Christ in these churches that have promised things such as healing, earthly comfort and wealth and on seeing none of these fulfilled have been disoriented, discouraged and essentially lost all confidence in our Lord. So I urge you, as Paul does in his letters to “always be sober-minded, endure suffering, so the work of an evangelist, fulfil your ministry.” (2 Tim 4:5). Be aware of the teachings in your church and test them against the word of God.

As an interesting aside, if this interests you, Cole Brown has written a short and relevant account of his challenge to his church. It’s called Lies My Pastor Told Me, Cole pulls apart these lies, often common amongst these churches, using  gospel evidence. Check it out, the e-book is free to download here.

The Moon Is Round

A 14 year old girl who was slowly decaying from cancer was asked by her family to keep a journal. When she died, they found a note that said: “The moon is round.” As they read your journal they learnt that she meant that even when you can only see a sliver of the moon, you still know it is round. In the same way, she knew that even though she couldn’t fully understand what was going on, that God was sovereign.

That was an illustration in a talk over KEC 2012 that I was really encouraged by. I went back this year to yet again serve the senior high kids and they in turn were such an encouragement to me. One of them said one day, that in our busy city lives, when we look up at the stars we can’t see them. But when you strip away the busyness, head out into the country and lie in the middle of a field, all the glory of God’s creation is stretched out before you and you can’t help but marvel. I was so encouraged to not let my earthly life cloud my vision of God’s immense holiness and wonder.

As we sat together under the word of God we were blown away by the infinite becoming intimate as God transfers his holiness to us as we are made right by God and for God. (Isaiah 6:1-9). And how perceiving truly his holiness we should be driven to our deeds as we see the horror of our sin. We learnt how unfair the truth is. That Christ would lovingly save his enemies from what they deserved, so that we can have no punishment, no penalty but peace (Romans 5:1-11). So that even in suffering, we can have tears of joy, knowing we are united in Christ and that even our sin and shame can’t prevent him from loving us.

Even though God will continue to forgive us our sins, this grace is not a licence to sin. Instead, the old person that we were is crucified along with Christ so that we bear condemnation no more. We are made a new creation, born again, united with Christ in his resurrection. Our new selves are called to do things that are not to our earthly advantage, but these earthly risks are for eternal values. No longer does God dwell separate from us but instead with us, as the Holy Spirit, no longer slaves to sin, we are empowered to face and overcome sin. (Romans 6:1-14)

We have a God who is faithful to his promises, Merciful to his people and so we endure in the hope we have been given and are driven to share that hope.

As we were talking in our discussion group, someone said, “But we’re young and often I don’t feel equipped to tell people what I believe.” Someone pulled out Job 32:6-10:

“And Elihu the son of Barachel the Buzite answered and said:
I am young in years,
and you are aged;
therefore I was timid and afraid
to declare my opinion to you.
I said,’Let days speak,
and many years teach wisdom.’
But it is the spirit in man,
the breath of the Almighty, that
makes him understand.
It is not the old who are wise,
nor the aged who understand what
is right.
Therefore I say, ‘Listen to me;
let me also declare my opinion.’

Doubts, Questions, Queries, Thoughts…

Just because I know you’re out there, I thought I’d just remind you that the ‘Itching Questions’ tab still exists.

I absolutely love questions. Even when I can’t answer them, they open an opportunity for thought.

Don’t be intimidated because I don’t know anywhere near everything and I never will.

Don’t be afraid because my aim isn’t to cut you down but to draw light on your questions/thoughts from the Bible.

Don’t hesitate because you might learn something you didn’t know before.

Don’t hold back because getting into the depths of the Bible is something I find fascinating and I can guarantee it’s worthwhile.

So there, hopefully that’s reason enough to just ask away.

Yet another Fresh Start…

For the past two years I’ve ended the year and started the new year on beach mission, finishing and beginning with actively proclaiming the word. Mission is a great opportunity that I would encourage you to embrace. This year it really reminded me of the urgency with which I should be telling others what I live for and the hope it offers them too, particularly those close to me.

Living for 2 weeks amongst an amazingly encouraging group of people, determined to serve and build each other up was a truly a taste of heaven. We spent solid time in the Bible and in prayer, learning and growing together.

As we built relationships with the community in the van park, I was really struck by how little they knew about what Christ did for them! Having grown up in a Christian family, I think I grew accustomed to some dangerous assumptions. To me it is by Christ that “all things were created…..and he is before all things and in him all things hold together.” Colossians 1:16-17. It just struck me that this is so foundational to reality that everyone should know it too! It is Christ who made peace by the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1:20). Not only is Christ creator and sustainer but also Saviour.

A few people that I got to know over mission had lost faith because of suffering that they couldn’t make sense of, which is something that I haven’t really yet faced. It reminded me of the brokenness of the world now and the perfection of the life to come, promised only in Christ. Giving up on Jesus in times of suffering is not the right response, because it is in him that we have hope for a time when it will no longer be there. Suffering is a reminder that the world isn’t right, but as a believer I “rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith – more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire – may be found to result in praise and glory and honour at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” 1 Peter 1:6-8. So I’ll keep those people in my prayers, that as they come across these struggles that they’ll come to find satisfaction in Christ.

Another thing I was challenged by on mission was the idea of glory now or glory later. That in “whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord.” Colossians 3:23-24. I’m so conscious of other people and what they think of me, it’s so easy to fall into the trap of a selfish attitude of self glorification. Over mission I was struck by how our team worked so hard to serve each other, not for their own glory, but purely out of love and a desire to serve God.

So there’s my super quick ramblings on what I learnt over mission. As much as people think they can just make “a fresh start” at the beginning of every year, the only true fresh start comes when you give up your old self and take on a new identity in Christ (Colossians 2). I hope and pray that my year will be one of transformation as Christ continues to teach me his ways and I continue to entrust myself to him.

Life, Death and Everything in Between so far…

I’ve just come back from serving a church alongside a group of students from uni. During those few days, a number of us shared how they came to know Christ and how God has been working in their lives. It made me realise the value of testimonies to reveal the power of God in your life. I’ve never really thought about my testimony, and when one of the team members asked me about it I decided it would be valuable if I had a go at it. Most people when presenting their testimony centre it around a certain period in their life but I’m just going to give it a go.

To begin with I think I’ve always been a Christian, I grew up in a Christian family and many of my extended family are also believers. There has not been a moment when I would deny having faith. I asked my Mum this morning if she remembers if there was a time in my childhood when I came to trust Jesus. She said that as early as three years old I told her I was friends with Jesus. So my story is one of periods of growth rather than massive leaps in understanding.

Through my early days Jesus Christ was my friend, I learnt about him and I prayed to him. I understood him as my protector and someone who loved me. My father had a significant role in the youth group programs at our church so I tagged along and hung out with the big kids, some of which I’ve run into in recent years. We moved when I was about 5 so I could start at a Christian school. At this stage I ignorantly assumed that everyone knew Jesus and I distinctly remember being confused that one of my friends in my class didn’t believe in God.

Moving into high school I was confident in my faith. I changed into the public system and confronted many things I hadn’t really been aware of before. Most of my friends had broken families, some had alcoholic parents. God really used me in these early days, I started high school without any friends and as I made them I brought them along to youth. I have to admit I invited them partly because there were few people in my age group but now I can see the transformations God has made in these people. I became so confident in my faith that I started inviting people to church that I would normally never speak to. In Christian Education classes I had noticed some of the ‘popular’ girls were asking hugely profound questions so I gave them John Dickson books and invited them to youth, although none of them came I prayed that they’d read the books.

As I reached mid high school, I was on fire for God. I revelled in his word and often shared it with others. I read it with people at school in recess times and prayed with people when they struggled. When my friends, even non-Christians, faced issues such as abortion and family struggles they’d come to me and ask me what my God said about it. I prayed for them.

When I was in year 10, I was at a stage where I felt most stable and established in life. I was getting amazing marks, I had a great group of friends, I had just been elected into the prefect team for the following year. Life was going amazingly. I was counting down the days to my 16th, when reality reared its ugly head.

I remember distinctly sitting in a meeting about our prefect induction, I was totally pumped about my birthday that weekend when my friend turns to me and tells me the news. All morning people had been talking about a car accident a few suburbs over, but she told me that it was one of my friends from primary school that had died in it. At 15, I had confronted death before, but only that of my grandparents which in a sense is more natural. It was one of those surreal moments when the news became a reality. So often i would let these tragedies just roll
over me but now when i hear them. i think of the effect this had on her family and friends and I pray for those affected.
This was someone who was the same age as me, who I knew, who I had grown up with and was just like me, I had learnt to ski with her and holidayed with her. She was someone who trusted Jesus just like I did.

I spent the rest of the week struggling with the injustice and the fragility of life. I was confronted with the concept that all the plans I had for my life could be thwarted just as easily. Her family all followed Christ, she had followed Christ, so why did she die? I didn’t go to school but instead I searched through my Bible and read every passage on death and eternal life. And one that stayed with me and I meditated on for hours was Job 1:21:

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb,

and naked I will depart.

The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away;

may the name of the Lord be praised.”

I came not just to know but to deeply understand what was valuable in life. The life I had built up around me and the achievements I placed value in meant nothing in comparison to the eternal value of salvation in Christ. The death of my friend brought to light all the things I took for granted and the fragility of life on earth but also it revealed what is important in life. Every year on the day that she died, my best friend and I pray together and thank God for her and what He has taught us and we praise Him for what he has blessed us with. It’s a constant reminder that I’m not in control of my life but He is. That by his grace I am alive in this world and I should use that life to glorify Him instead of building up my own empire.

As I entered my senior years I was well aware of my desires to do really well and set a goal to keep going to youth, Bible Study and church regardless of how stressed I felt. The HSC year was one of the hardest for me. I’m one of those people that places pressure on themselves to get high grades, so when teachers started using their scare tactics it lead to a number of emotional breakdowns. During that year, my relationship with God fell into a routine that fit in between my study, instead of being the centre of my life, it became the peripheral that calmed my breakdowns.

When I reached the end of the HSC I realised how I had compartmentalised God. He was still a part of my life but I didn’t entirely trust him with everything, and I had been seeking approval and respect from my peers through my grades. I started to struggle with bouts of guilt which plagued me throughout my first year of uni as well. During this time I was really challenged by Pauls attitude in Philippians:

“But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ-the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.”
Philippians 3:7-9

I noticed how my Bible readings had become shallow and so I started this blog, where I planned to post things that forced me to reflect on the word of God. The funny thing is, I started this blog with selfish intentions – to enrich my personal relationship with God, to feel that fire I had in my early years of high school. It was about satisfying myself. But then, a friend of mine started asking me questions about my beliefs, I began the “Itching Questions” tab for him. And as he questioned me, I had to do research of my own and I came to learn and understand that my purpose in life was not to merely satisfy myself, but to find that satisfaction by seeking to glorify Jesus Christ and through that I would find fulfillment and all that I needed.

Late last year, my Nonna grew very ill. She had a heart attack and miraculously survived but still with great suffering. She was a faithful follower of Jesus but a hater of the medical industry. She refused to get help so as a family we took turns looking after her. During that time, I prayed really hard and often for her. She was someone I really loved and respected, she had always seemed strong and invincible to the extent that her heart attack at 92 came as a surprise.

For months, all my aunties and uncles took turns babysitting her. She often had difficulty sleeping and would often wake up crying out to God to stop her suffering. It was a great time of tension and conflict with many family disagreements and regrets. Just when she was looking better she had her second heart attack early this year. I spent many hours by her hospital bed. I read her Psalms and sometimes we’d sing her hymns. She moved in and out of consciousness. Even through these times she cared more for her kids and grandchildren than herself. She would asked me if I was hungry or wanted something to drink even if the breathes it took to say the words caused her pain and energy. In her struggles I was shown a woman who through her own suffering, continued to be self-sacrificial, placing the well-being of others before her own even on her death bed.

As her hours grew short, we were given a private room. Most of the extended family were there – and there’s a lot of us – a classic Italian family. Each of us were permitted to speak our last words to her alone. It is one of the most vivid memories of my life, trying to form the words to say what she meant to me. Instead, I held her hand and watched her short breathes, praising God for blessing this world with such an amazing woman and prayed that I could learn her self-sacrificial ways. Her death came as a comfort for me, because she loved Christ and her life was given to serve him. It is amazing the comfort in death Christians can have even to the extent that Paul struggled to choose between which was better, life or death:

“For me to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.”
Philippians 1:21-24

Heading to University was the next stage and joining the Christian group there has lead me to realise that I had placed God in a grid and as I read his word I squished, twisted and folded it to fit what I wanted it to say. This year as I reflect on what I’ve learnt, I realise that the people I have met have challenged me to read God’s word for what it has to say, not what I want it to say.

After the conference I attended just a few days ago, Rory Shiner forced me to come head to head with my bouts of guilt. I had been struggling with the idea that I continually fail and don’t deserve God’s grace. I had fallen into the trap of trying to deal with these things thinking that it would make Christ accept me.

Rory preached from Romans 6:15-23. I realised that in Christ I am no longer a slave to sin, but a slave to righteousness. I had been freed from sin, but I had become the slave that still responds to her old master even though sin no longer owns me. Christ bought me at a price and freed me from sin so I no longer have to respond to it. Such a burden off my shoulders! So there’s a brief rendition of my testimony, I hope you are encouraged by the way God has worked in my life and I encourage you to think about your own testimony too.

Offered not Earned

One thing that is common among us, is the belief that we were generally good people. A lot of people say, ” I’m sure that if God is so loving, he’ll just see I’m pretty good, most of the time and be happy with that.” It’s a common assumption.

Matthew, the guy that wrote the first gospel and was a disciple of Jesus, lived in a time when his people were ruled over by the Romans. He was a tax collector, and not until recently have I understood the significance of this. Tax collectors were rejected, despised by the people. His job was inherently corrupt, he collected tax for the Romans but with his authority he was capable and permitted to extort as much as he wanted from the people. And in order to get as much money as he could, he inspired fear in the people.

To the Jews, this was the least of his problems. To become a tax collector, you had to purchase an office from the Romans to live in, which means selling your portion of the land God had promised and divided amongst the people. Like prostitutes selling their bodies, tax collectors sold themselves to Rome and corruption.

Not only were there tax collectors, but also, Pharisees and Saducees. Pharisees were self-righteous religious leaders, they patronised the community while living off donations to the temple (despite there well known hypocrisy). The Saducees on the other hand, openly showed their corruption, they had come to the decision that Israel was owned by Rome and nothing was going to change. If they fought against Rome, they’d get crushed, so they just went along with them. Exploiting the people to stay in the good books with Rome.

So within this climate, Jesus walks onto the scene. Any Pharisee expected that if a Messiah were to come, hid first stop would be at their house, glorifying them for their triumphant maintenance of righteousness. Expecting him to knock on their door, give them a wink and say “Thanks for watching the flock for me”.

What’s weird is that he does the complete opposite. He spends his life having dinner parties at tax collectors’ houses, at healing the outcast and forgiving prostitutes. So while at Matt’s place, our tax collector, the Pharisees have huddled together watching the going on’s with their beady eyes and confront Jesus disciples about it: “Why does your teacher eat with the tax collectors and ‘sinners’?” Matt 9:11

Jesus gets up and replies to them himself: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” (Matt 9:12). The Pharisees assumed they were healthy, they were righteous. Jesus said this with an element of what we’d call sarcasm. He’s here to save people, but these people think they are already saved so why come to the doctor?

Jesus then went on the quote an Old Testament passage that they would be well acquianted with : “I desire mercy, not sacrifice”(Hosea 6:6). Basically, God prioritises grace over sacrifice. And finally Jesus reveals his mission statement: “I have come not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matt 9:13)

Think about it. Grace is inviting to the unrighteous and threatening to the self-righteous. Grace cannot be earned, but it is instead given. It’s given to those that recognise that they need it. As awful as it sounds to say this, no-one is ‘good’ enough to be in God’s good books without grace. No matter how many charities you donate to, how many children you adopt, how much volunteering you do, how many people you help, none of it amounts or will ever amount to the perfection you need to achieve eternal life.

You can only get there through grace.