Author Archives: ottozhang

Spiritual High – what do I make of this?

Reflections on spiritual or ‘camp’ high

Spiritual high

I want to talk about a phenomenon known as a “spiritual high”.

Last weekend, I went away to a quiet, bushy place called Yarramundi, along with a hundred or so high schoolers from North Sydney Girls & Boys. This was the annual camp run by the Christian group, called ISCF. We spent a weekend hearing talks from the Bible, playing crazy high-energy games, chatting in discussion groups, learning from workshops, eating mediocre camp food, hanging and having late night chats, and just having a great time. Maybe you’ve been on some sort of Christian camp or conference before, or maybe, if you are reading this, you were even at camp with me last week.

Now, camp is one of the things in the ISCF calendar that everyone looks forward to. For many people, it is a highlight of their year. I know it was definitely a highlight for me back in high school. Around April each year, NSGB ISCF is “keen for camp”, and if you’re really super excited, a “keen bean”.

I think there is a trend here.

Christians (and non-Christians too) absolutely love their camps and conferences. It excites us. There is something about camp which thrills us, which stirs us – something that is so deeply enjoyable and satisfying about going on camp. You might know the feeling, friend. You spend a few days constantly talking about particular things, doing particular activities, around particular people. You are saturated with teaching which bears words of truth that have an eternal and infinite significance, which convict us and makes our hearts soar, and remind us of a good, great, cosmic reality. You are surrounded by your brothers and sisters, a community which so unconditionally loves, a community which shares its joys and burdens with such unity – and it is really a safe, and warm, and loving place to be. Camp is an awesome place to be.

And by the end of you camp, you feel like you are on fire. You have tasted the sweetness of God. You have experienced the reality of true and loving community. You want to love Jesus with all your heart, soul, strength and mind – you want to live for Him. You are so encouraged, and so warmed, and you are on fire for God.

This feeling, my friends, we sometimes call a “spiritual high”. Some of you might call it a “camp high”. And it feels really great.

It’s funny – I was hearing from my sister that on the first week back to school, the entire population of year 10 girls who came to camp (an astounding 20-30 people) all came to lunchtime ISCF that week! The group has never been that big at lunch, and wow – the leaders needed to quickly reshuffle things so that they could fit everyone into a group. This really shows that camp does set us “on fire”. We are excited and so moved.

But…

No matter how great it feels, the spiritual high inevitably comes to an end sooner or later. You might have experienced this yourself before. The daily rhythm and hustle-bustle kicks back in – things get busy, perhaps you have exams and assignments, friendships to enjoy and deal with, things to do and think about… and the spiritual rush you had from camp slowly wears off. God isn’t on your mind anymore. He doesn’t excite you… or at least, you don’t think too much about it. Maybe you stop going to church, ISCF, youth, or whatever it might be. There are other things to do now. You’ve lost that “rush” that you felt at camp.

What do we make of this?

Am I less of a Christian now? Why aren’t I feeling excited? Why is God so distant now?

I often thought about this, particularly when I first started growing as a Christian. I would ask the question “how do I keep this spiritual high up?”. Maybe you are asking this question too. I tried and fought really hard to keep this passion, to keep being “on fire”, to keep up the passion and excitement I had for God.

But… there would always come a point where it died down.

And this is perfectly OK.

I would like to share with you a really nice illustration, inspired by C. S. Lewis, which helps me think through this issue. [1]

Picture in your head a newly married couple. Can you imagine the story behind this? The two people meet, they fall in love, start dating, and then they get engaged, and then bam, they get married. And now they are on their honeymoon, maybe somewhere fancy on some tropical island or somewhere cool like Europe or America. Imagine what they are feeling. They are completely in love – the emotions overflow, and they are so, so excited, and very ready to spend the rest of their lives together. Maybe you can relate – at least, with the feeling of “being in love”. Can you imagine that rush of emotions? Of affection? Of love and adoration for the other person?

But we all know that no marriage stays in the honeymoon stage forever. Maybe in a few months, or a few years down the track, life completely settles and it becomes… “normal”. There’s no rush of emotions, or any of that “being in love” feeling anymore. But here’s the question – does this mean that they no longer love one another?

Absolutely not! Whilst “being in love” is what might start a marriage, it isn’t what a marriage is built on. Marriage is built on a promise (that’s what they do at a wedding, hey) – to love and cherish one another, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, til death do us part. This first thrill of “being in love” is replaced by a more steadfast, lasting kind of love. The husband and wife love each other, no matter what happens, even if they don’t feel it. And there’s something really genuine and real about this kind of love – it’s more than just an emotional feeling. Rather, their love is an unwavering, joyful commitment to one another.

I think our spiritual lives are often like this. Our spiritual high is a bit like being spiritually in love. It’s a rush of feelings and emotions. It’s not a bad thing – no, enjoy it! It’s a good gift to be enjoyed. But we know that this first thrill won’t last. Rather, it transforms and becomes a more steadfast and lasting kind of love. It becomes an unwavering, joyful commitment. This is what we call faithful Christian living. So, friend, know that it is OK that your spiritual high will eventually wear off.

My encouragement to you is this: in your spiritual high, make the “promises” needed to give you that steadfast and lasting kind of love. In the good times, make habits that will last through the bad times. Right now, when you are pumped up and on fire for God, make a commitment to keep seeking God.

What does that look like?

Keep going to ISCF, or church, or youth – and commit to this. There’s nothing better than getting a steady diet of God’s truth along with your brothers and sisters. Go even when you are busy and have heaps of exams and assignments. Go even when you don’t feel like it. It’s easy to go when you are pumped up right now. But what about later? Make it a commitment, and a habit right now, so that it will last when aren’t on fire. This is what faithful Christian living is like.

Keep reading God’s word – and commit to this. Find a time and a place that works for you each day. Maybe it’s in the morning when you wake up. Maybe it’s on the train to school. Before you sleep. When you get home from school. Wherever. And let yourself keep it up even when you aren’t on fire. This is what faithful Christian is like.

Surround yourself with Christian brothers and sisters – and commit to them. Encourage them, and let them encourage you. Continue to love them, and continue to encourage one another to seek God, even when you aren’t on fire. This is what faithful Christian living is like.

When the spiritual high fades away, you will still have God’s truth and promises, and you will still have your brothers and sisters. These are the things that will not fade. And it is beautiful, steadfast, lasting. =)

“Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” Hebrews 10:23-25


[1] Check out C.S. Lewis’ book “Mere Christianity” – in particular, the chapter on “Christian Marriage” (Book 3, Ch. 6).

Heaven, Hearts, Home | ISCF CAMP 2017

Reflections on ISCF Camp 2017

ISCF Camp

There really is nothing like being home again – sleeping in the stillness of your own room and your own bed. Funny, because the topic for NSGB ISCF camp was “Heaven – the Home for our Hearts”. And yes, whilst I didn’t get a whole lot of good sleep during camp this year, camp was a reminder of where our home and hearts should truly lie. It was my fifth ISCF camp, going back for the second time as an ex-leader now, and still, it never ceases to warm my heart and stir my spirit. ISCF has always had a special place in my heart – yet somehow, being back this year was especially heart-warming. Coming to camp as a weary uni-student, I was shocked, absolutely astounded, and refreshed by how God so faithfully works.

One of the most encouraging things I witnessed was seeing my little brothers and sisters who I led in year 7 and 8 grow up – and oh how they’ve changed, grown and matured! It makes me so, so happy. I remember how the little rascals I led in year 7 scripture which would make me lose my voice every Tuesday afternoon, as I tried to contain them from running around the room to no avail. I remember the tiny kids who came to ISCF because their friends did and because it was the cool thing to do, and then shyly huddle in their little group during the bible study. And I remember getting little year 8 Geoffrey to do the bible reading every Friday lunch because it was so cute and entertaining HAHAHA.

But man… now I see them eagerly questioning and seeking God with all their hearts and minds. Now I see them thirsting for life-giving gospel truth. Now I see them bring their friends along because they really want them to know Jesus. Now, I even see some of my little brothers and sisters lead from the front. I am so moved, and I am so proud :’) But in actual fact, it is a testament to how God works so faithfully time after time. It has been several years since I’ve left high school, and yet God is still working in the hearts of ISCF, still growing his people, still leading his flock, still maturing the saints, still bringing his glorious and good kingdom. Coming back and seeing these guys in the flesh… it brings me so much joy to see how they’ve grown, and I really am excited to see how God will continue to work in them.  There is something so genuine and so beautiful about the way God’s word has changed these guys’ lives.

Another really awesome thing which warmed my heart was seeing all the ex-leaders again. These guys were my family back in high school, and now, I don’t really get to see them much at all. But being back together with them over this weekend, and more than that, serving together and building God’s kingdom – man, it’s a feeling that’s difficult to describe with words. It was almost like old times in high school, yes, but now there’s also the knowledge that we have all grown and matured since. There is just so much joy in the kingdom of God, an unquenchable blood-bought unity, knowing that we are working for something that will never fade nor perish. I loved how we could pray together and look out for one another as we went about the task of growing God’s kingdom here at ISCF camp.

Camp this year was also a humbling lesson in learning to rely on God. I won’t lie, or be subtle about it, but camp certainly was one of the most exhausting things I’ve done. Surviving the first day on three hours of very low quality sleep was a challenge (I’m blaming year 11 boiz HAHA). I think at times, I was bummed out that I couldn’t have as many conversations or catch up with as many kids as I wanted – I was just feeling sluggish and low-energy, and wasn’t able to do as much as I would have liked. At times, I looked at some of the other ex-leaders during free time and saw how hard they were working, and I remember thinking ‘dang I wish I could be as helpful and servant-hearted as these guys’. But it was indeed a humbling and reassuring reminder that the task of growing God’s kingdom wasn’t on my shoulders. God has this in His hands. And we can carry one another’s burdens as the body of Christ. I needed to remember that it was OK to not be able to do everything I wanted, and it was OK to receive God’s grace of rest. God is faithful, and He continues to grow his people regardless. 😊

ISCF camps were always a highlight back in my high school days, and hey, I think nothing has changed. I know I’ve said this ten million times, but again, it’s just such a powerful testament to how God is working faithfully in His children. Camp is a little glimpse into heaven. We long for heaven; for the eternal and good rule of God to be established. Yet, at the same time, heaven begins now. In the way we are transformed by the spirit, and in the way we live our lives centred around God – heaven is breaking into earth this very moment.

It is a good day.

Reflections on Good Friday.

Cross

On this day, two thousand and so years ago, our Lord was crucified. It was a good day. And today, it is still a good day.

It is a good day, because it is a restful day. Yes, restful, because it is a public holiday and we have a little more time to sleep and rest. But more than that, it is restful because on this day, eternal rest was secured. On the cross for which good Friday is so well known, it wasn’t just Jesus that was crucified. All our brokenness – everything inadequate and unsettling and disgusting about us was crucified there with him. The nagging debt which all of us owe was paid that day. And the blood which flowed and dripped off that cross washed us so that we were white as snow. No longer were we at unrest with the God of the universe. No longer did we need to work to be right with Him. We received the truest rest that we could ever receive – the rest from self-justification. With one last breath, Jesus said “It is finished.” His work was done. Our work was done. There is now rest. And the king, hanging broken on that cross, invites us to join in his rest. It is a good rest. It is a good day.

It is a good day, because Jesus is declared king. Pilate nailed an inscription onto the cross, declaring that Jesus was the King of the Jews. Yet, little did he know that this act of mockery proclaimed the most glorious and important truth, the identity of the man Jesus: King. The Jewish authorities asked Pilate to take the sign down – but he refused, for his word was final. On this day, the earthly authorities had declared the kingship of Jesus. Not just king of the Jews, nor the Roman Empire, but of the whole creation. Of the rocks which bore the metal for the nails, and the trees which bore the wood for the cross. Of the executioners who flogged and killed him, of the crowd – you and me – who wanted blood and shouted, “crucify him!” This is our king. Though we killed him, by his blood we are cleansed. He invites us to be a part of his kingdom. He is a good king. It is a good day.

It is a good day, because we are no longer thirsty. But at what cost? On the cross, Jesus knew that all things were now drawing to an end – and he said, “I thirst.” Jesus once said that he was the source of living water. Whoever drank this living water would never be thirsty again. Yet, Jesus was the one who thirsted. The second person of the triune God thirsted – so that we don’t have to thirst. He was needy, that we might be full. As his blood flows and washes us clean, so does his grace flow into our cups, overflowing and overflowing – whilst his body was broken, hanging dry on the cross. He gives us living water that our thirsts might be eternally quenched. It is a sorrowful day, yes – he is the man of sorrows. Are we to mourn? His sorrow secures for us joy. We are satisfied for good. It is a good day.

Reflections on Maitland Alive 2017

mission

It’s been a day since I returned from mission, and I already miss it! But as Chewy said, it’s a good thing that not every day of the year is Maitland Alive. Just as church on a Sunday is a little taste of the new creation – of how life is really meant to be – mission week is a reminder of the new creation for the entire year. Can you imagine the feeling after a long, intensive work out? Your body aches in exhaustion, but you know that you are being made stronger. And though it was painful, there is a joy in the experience. Mission week has felt like an intensive spiritual workout. I feel like I’ve been pushed hard spiritually this past week, and I’ve grown and learnt a lot. I honestly did not expect to grow so much, and so I’m so, so thankful for how God has worked through this week.

To start off on a down-to-earth, tangible note, mission was interesting because I had never worked with kids before. I don’t think I’ve had a serious conversation with a primary school kid since I was… a primary school kid. And so, before mission began, I had no idea how to relate to these kids. As the days rolled on, I gradually got more and more used to it, and discovered that you needed to approach kids with high levels of energy and a healthy dose of silliness. Many things on mission were scary, purely because I had not done it before. Things like playing with kids. Taking kids to the bathroom. Disciplining kids when they were acting up, and comforting them when they weren’t feeling well. Even trying to teach kids the gospel in a way they could understand. From experience, I’m very comfortable having intellectual conversations with quiet Asian-Australian youth, but not with rowdy, white primary-school aged kids. Being forced to “step up” in many ways, by the sheer fact it was uncomfortable doing something for the first time, really challenged me to be courageous and take initiative as a man of God.

One thing I really, really loved was singing kids songs! Again, it’s been a long while since I’ve sung a kids’ song – complete with actions and all. But really, if these truths are good enough to teach children, then they are good enough for us old people. And the songs, in all their simplicity, really get to the heart of the message. As an adult (and especially as a uni student), I love to think about theology and philosophy and how the big ideas of the Bible all coalesce and shape our lives. But… the very, very basic truths which we should functionally live by? They are very easy to gloss over. And so, the kids’ songs get to the truths that we should trust and hold to heart. Oftentimes, I found myself singing the songs to myself as a reminder of the truth during the stressful and tiring day, and they really did refresh me! Some of my favourite lines:

“And He’s known me and He’s loved me since before the world began. How wonderful to be a part of God’s amazing plan!” (Our God is a Great Big God!)

“Well it’s been slow going, but there’s a knowing – that someday, perfect I will be!” (Little by Little)

Mission was an undeniably high-intensity and draining week and half. From the early wakeups, to the high-energy program, visitations, spending large amounts of time with people, section meetings, late nights to bed – it was unbelievably tiring. And the team knew this. Inevitably, there would be times when we would be tired, and weak, and upset, and unappreciated, and peopled-out. Yet, because of this fact, everyone in the team was all the more intentional in loving one another, taking care of each other, and being an encouragement. And Christ shone so, so brightly. I feel that back in our normal lives, there is no explicit “need” to be so intentional. But on mission, we are forced to take an active role and stance in loving one another. It’s all good to be teaching the gospel to kids… but we also needed to live it out in our lives. And I could really see this happening during the week. One of the mission ‘values’ was that we were to be people-centred and not program-centred. These few words made a world of difference in the way I approached things during this week. Stressed? Tired? Lots of things to organise and do? The most important thing is to love one another. Getting the perfect program can wait. Living the gospel in the way we treated one another was much more important.

I remember there were moments on mission when I was extremely discouraged. In these times, I was especially tired – the long days and heavy interactions with people were draining. The hot weather didn’t help either. There were also times when there was some friction within our section – understandably, as most people were tired and stressed. In these times, Satan was whispering in my ear “Disunity! Disunity! Disunity!”. These moments honestly did feel like poop. But I know they weren’t poop. God used them to teach and sanctify. I’m so thankful that during these times, I could receive the grace of rest – to catch up on sleep back in the room, to have a warm shower, and to be refreshed and reminded of the truth and goodness of God in edifying conversation. Yes, we were tired and discouraged at times, but God’s grace was enough.

Whilst we spent a fair few hours each day with the kids – the program went for about three hours – we spent a lot more time together as a team. Twenty-four hours each day together. And this really, really was the thing that stuck out. If we think about our personal growth in terms of the head, the heart and the hands – reflecting what we know, feel and do – there are some places where you really grow in terms of the head and heart, such as AnCon where there are heaps of amazing bible teaching and talks. What about the hands though? I felt that mission was a place where I really grew in terms of the hands – in actually, physically, living out as the body of Christ. The gospel was in action. And I could see this through the team – everyone was so servant-hearted, so humble and gentle, so real and genuine, so eager to seek the good of others. And everyone acted with such joy – there was very little grumbling or complaining. Even in the most menial and mundane of tasks – washing up the dishes, cleaning the toilet, cutting up bits of paper for craft – everyone was so ready to serve and love one another through their actions. And no glory to themselves, but all glory be to God. It really is refreshing living with Christians that you don’t usually hang around with, and seeing them live, and being built up by their words and actions.

However, one thing I became increasingly aware of over mission was my own sinfulness and brokenness. Especially in moments of tiredness, being drained after a long day’s program, I really saw how much darkness there was in my heart – moments where I’d taste the pride, or the self-centredness, or the bitterness and hurtfulness that came so naturally. I guess this was the result of being vigilant and constantly checking myself in this high intensity environment. But one thing that I had really come to appreciate on mission was hearing the word preached (especially at team time in the morning), and being wrecked by it. The talks always felt so real – there was always an immediate need to apply it in the intense environment of mission. And often, the talks would be very painful to listen to in the rebuke it brought. It’s difficult coming to terms with your sinfulness, yet it’s so liberating to be able to face it and repent. Nick said something which really stuck – “You hear it, and it’s so painful, but it’s so good.” Having the word of God slice into you and incisively cut away the sin in your life – it really does hurt, but it’s a good pain, because you know you are growing.

Man… there’s a lot to say, and a lot that I can’t put in words. It was an edifying experience. Whilst mission is over, life goes on. And whilst it was quite sad to see mission come to an end, it really is a beginning rather than an end. My prayer is that I’ll take what I’ve learnt and experienced and grown over the past one and a half weeks, and that it would charge me up for the year ahead. I pray that I might continue to walk faithfully, and encourage and love those around me. Because mission continues wherever we are, and wherever the Lord places us.

“With man things are impossible, but not with God. All things are possible with God.” Mark 10:27 (Oh yeah!)

mission-2

Book: Mere Christianity

mere-christianity-image

Mere Christianity, by C. S. Lewis

C. S. Lewis has an extraordinary ability to take what you already know – or what you think you know – and make you think about it in ways in which you have never before. When we wake up every day and live out our lives, there are so many things working in the backgrounds of our minds which help us make sense of our world. Very often, we take these things for granted, and for the most part, we hardly even notice them. In Mere Christianity, Lewis directs our attention to these unnoticed aspects of our daily experience with grace, wit and razor-sharp logic, and uses this to present an endlessly fascinating account of how Christianity works. What I have found particularly refreshing is that Lewis starts with nothing, and builds his case from the ground up. There are no assumptions. He begins with what we all know, and experience, and feel in our day to day lives – and then he goes from there.

Let’s put things in context. The year is 1942, and Great Britain is at war. The front line is at the doorsteps of the civilians themselves, as planes bombard this small island nation each night. C. S. Lewis is called to deliver a series of radio broadcasts on BBC on the Christian faith, and these speeches were eventually gathered into a single volume and printed. See, Mere Christianity was not originally a book. It was a series of radio speeches to a broken and war-weary nation.

Here are some of the nuggets of truth and insight I have gleaned from Mere Christianity:

1. The reality of the moral law. “Hey, that’s not fair!” – “Come on, you promised…” – what occurs so naturally to us is that there is some sort of standard of behaviour which we expect other people to follow. Yet, this standard, or ‘law’, is very peculiar if you think about it. Consider the idea of science for a second. Science is able to observe the world around us, and tell us how the world works. It can provide ‘laws’ which describe the world – Newton’s laws of motion, Mendel’s laws of genetics. But the ‘moral’ law is different – it doesn’t actually describe anything that we are doing. Instead, it describes what we should do. In fact, many times what we are actually doing is contrary to this moral law. So, this moral law is very real… but at the same time, it isn’t really “real”. It’s a thing, but it’s also a not-thing. This is something that we can’t learn from external observation. We can observe humans, but unless you were actually a human – you wouldn’t experience, and thus understand, this idea of a ‘moral law’. Where does this experience come from? What lies behind this ‘moral law’? Our experience of the moral law raise many questions, and it is in this context which Christianity starts to speak.

2. The person of Christ. We look for something to help explain our ‘moral law’. Enter first century Palestine, and we see a man – Jesus of Nazareth – make the preposterous claim that he is able to forgive sin. This phrase – ‘forgiving sin’ – is a phrase that we have difficulty understanding. We throw the phrase around often, and we don’t realise the scandalous implications of what it actually means. Consider this. Let’s say you punch me, I forgive you. Or you steal my money, I forgive you. But let’s say you hit me, and a stranger off the street – completely irrelevant to our situation – comes up to you and says, “I forgive you”. You would make him out to be a fool. “Get out of here”, you’d say. So, we see Jesus acting like he’s the chief party concerned in any offence. And if you think about it carefully, Jesus is claiming to be the power behind the ‘moral law’ I spoke of above. He’s the one who sets what is right and wrong. He is the one who you are offending every time you break this moral law. And so, what can we conclude something about this man, Jesus of Nazareth? He is a lunatic. Or, he is a liar – a really great actor. Or, he is God himself. How do we approach the person of Jesus?

3. The root of evil. Lewis spends an entire section of the book talking about Christian ‘virtues’ or ‘values’ – ways in which Christians should live and behave, and how to make sense of them. There is so much good stuff here I cannot possibly write it all down, I may as well quote the entire book! So, if I was to draw attention to one thing which really stuck out to me, it is what Lewis calls the centre of Christian morals: “the essential vice, the utmost evil – Pride”. Pride is the vice that leads to every other vice, and is the complete anti-moral, anti-God state of mind. We aren’t proud of having something, but rather, we are proud for having more of it than the next person. See, the very essence of pride is competition. Once we take away competition, there is no pride. Pride, as Lewis says, is enmity. I’ll keep quoting Lewis (I can’t think of any better words to say): “For Pride is spiritual cancer, it eats up the very possibility of love, or contentment, or even common sense”.

4. Heaven and Longing. This idea of ‘heaven’ is central to popular views of Christianity – “I want to go to heaven” is a popular sentiment. Whilst this idea is common misunderstood, I think there’s something quite important and insightful here. Here are a few things that Lewis says. “Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither”. Or, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” Interesting.

5. Life and transformation. The last thing I want to say, and probably the most profound thing I have learnt. We say that ‘Christ has come to give us life’. Hold on, aren’t we alive already? Why do we need to be given life? So, Lewis makes a distinction between natural, biological life, called ‘Bios’, and Spiritual life, called ‘Zoe’. Imagine bringing a tin soldier to life. This is what it’s like bringing a being from Bios to Zoe. When we put our faith in Christ, we aren’t just committing ourselves to follow another set of rules, but rather, we are being given life and being transformed into a timeless, spiritual being.

What I’ve written so far is completely inadequate in capturing the spirit of Mere Christianity. There are so, so many nuggets of insight strewn throughout its pages – so many little word-bites that get you thinking long after you’ve read them. If you haven’t read it before, I must recommend it. This is definitely a book which I’ll be revisiting again and again.

When is a paintbrush most like a paintbrush?

paintbrushes

Consider a paintbrush.

Just a wooden handle with bristles at one end. It is, however, an extraordinary thing. This humble paintbrush is able to produce the most beautiful works of art.

It’s simple. It transfers paint from palette to canvas. Yet, in doing so, the paintbrush builds a window. We don’t just see the paint. We see beyond it, and into it. And through it, we can gaze and catch a glimpse of a world much like our own, a vista which thrills the heart, a pair of wings on which our imaginations are lifted that we might see the view – mere paint on canvas commanding our attention, and ultimately, our response…

“Wow… that’s beautiful.”

We can see beauty by the work of the paintbrush.

There’s something missing here, though.

“Hmmm…?”

It’s not the paintbrush that does the work. It’s the painter, of course. Only in the artist’s hand do we see art revealed as the paintbrush is moved over the canvas. The artist is the one who provides the creative spirit and the vision needed to actually produce a beautiful painting. Without the artist, the paintbrush is nothing. Yet, in the hands of the artist, we see magic happen.

The moment the paintbrush is in the artist’s hands is the moment where it is truly a paintbrush. It is being what a paintbrush should be. It is doing what a paintbrush should do. It has attained the most paintbrush-esque state a paintbrush can attain. And beauty abounds.

Okay. Let’s imagine for a moment that paintbrushes could talk.

“Actually, I’m sick of this artist guy. I want to express myself and be who I truly am.”

“Well, if that’s what you want… so be it.”

A momentous occasion. We celebrate! Independence! The paintbrush is finally free – free from control, and from slavery, and from relying on other things and peoples – and it can finally be itself, and express itself, and be who it truly is and achieve the things that it was really made for and …

… And it lies neglected, on the storeroom shelf. It dries up, and it gathers dust. And it wasn’t like old times. Nowadays, it doesn’t produce any beautiful paintings.

“Hold on…”

Yes… In this moment of independence, the paintbrush isn’t really fulfilling the mandate and purpose and proper place of a paintbrush. In fact, it’s much less of a paintbrush on the storeroom shelf than when it is in the artist’s hands. Apart from the artist, the paintbrush isn’t really a paintbrush.

So… “When is a paintbrush most like a paintbrush?”

***

“Why the paintbrush story?”

Consider God. A being who is self-sufficient in and of himself. He is the source of all things, and furthermore, all good things. When God creates, whether it be the plants, or the animals, or the world, or human beings, their existence and goodness are derived from God.

God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. Genesis 1:31

Where else would their existence come from? There are only three things – things which exist because they are God, things which exist because God gives it existence, and things which don’t exist.

Where else would their goodness come from? There are only three things – things which are good because they are God, things which are good because God gives it goodness, and things which are not good.

Human beings only exist, and are only good, because of God. Furthermore, it would make sense to be in relationship with God – because he is the source of all good things. If you try and get away from Him, if you try and sever the link, if you try and cut off the relationship between you and God – it might seem like a good idea – but the only thing you’re doing is severing yourself from the source of all good things. The right and proper state of man – his purpose and his function – is to enjoy and exist in relationship with God, because in doing so, he is in relationship with the source of all good, and this is the greatest possible good you can be without being God himself.

Apart from God, man is nothing. He is like a paintbrush on the shelf. Yet, in relationship with his creator, like the paintbrush in the hands of the artist, he flourishes. Beauty abounds.

Human beings find their true self when in relationship with the creator.

I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. John 15:5

 

 

Brief Reflections on First Year

“Wow I can’t believe our first year of university is over already!”

What do you mean? Of course, you can. Time passes. Is that anything new?

“It’s just surprising, don’t you think?”

Yes, I do think so. It’s been a tremendous year. I’ve learnt a lot, and have grown a lot, and I probably have a lot of things I’d like to say and reflect upon. But since it’s all a big, grey mess in my head, and also because I’m quite tired and just want to get on with the holidays already, it almost amounts to having nothing to say and reflect upon at all… haha. Though, it wouldn’t do justice to not say anything at all, right?

The mind is a stage, and performances come and go. Thoughts and feelings change. The spotlight never stays in any one spot for too long. I have found this particularly so this year. I spend one moment thinking about one thing, and the next contemplating something completely different. I feel passion and zeal and uncontainable jubilation one moment, and dull, lifeless, existential despair the next. The mind is a stage, and performances come and go. Now, in reflecting, I could zone into any one of these momentary performances – I could talk about university life, academia, or friends and relationships, or ministry, or how my view of the world has changed over the course of the year. But since my thoughts and feelings about these things are constantly changing, I’m finding it difficult to find something concrete to write about. It’s all mist. And sure, I could comb through the annals of my mind and slowly squeeze it into words – but, do I really have the energy for that? Too much effort required. So, why don’t I just pick out some things that I want to remember, write those down, and just get on with my life?

“Yeah that sounds like a pretty good idea.”

Thanks, I think so too. Sorry for reflecting about reflecting before actually reflecting about the year. Anyway, so moving on. Here are two things that, at this point in time, I want to say to myself.

Firstly, I am supremely grateful for the people that have been placed in my life. I cherish the very small, brief moments – the conversations on the trains in the mornings and afternoons (especially when we cross the bridge over the Parramatta river and admire the dulcet tones of the sunset rays on the clouds), the smiles and greetings and silly things that have been said in passing one another. I cherish the intentional time spent with others, wrestling with truth from God’s word, thinking about how to spread good news. I cherish the friends that I’ve made this year, the relationships that have slowly grown – all interweaved through the daily hustle bustle, the daily laugh, the daily tiredness. The encouragement, the rebuke, the jokes. The way people lived, and the words they spoke. All these have shaped me and transformed me and grown me over the year, most likely in ways that I don’t even notice. And I’ve come to see that these relationships manifest themselves in the most ordinary things that we do, and I’ve come to realise just how important these relationships are. This year – my first year at university – was tough, but it was filled with growth. And this growth didn’t come from myself, or from studying, or from the new lifestyle. It came from the people around me. I am so grateful for this, and it is my hope that I will continue to invest my life in the lives of those around me.

Secondly, I realise that… time flies. Not that the passage of time is a bad thing. However, I don’t think it’s time passing quicker. I think it’s the fact that so much happens in the time we have. We can look back and think ‘wow – we’ve done so much and seen so much and have come a long way since’. And it’s true – so much has happened this year, and that is something that is really, really awesome. But there’s another reality lurking in the shadows. It’s that this blissful, carefree, exciting time of university won’t last forever. First year is already over. Only two more years until undergrad is over. Time keeps moving, and that’s not something we should ignore or become complacent about. Right now, it is a season where we can be so free with our time and our thoughts and the way we live our lives. And that’s an absolute blessing. However, it won’t go on indefinitely. Soon, life will change, and we will have to readjust – and that will be a new season for new things. I feel strongly that we should make the most of our time, to enjoy it and to embrace this season of university life for what it is.

“Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” Psalm 90:12

Our days are numbered, and we shouldn’t forget this. But if we recognise this, and know that there is a season for everything, and that seasons don’t extended forever, and that we only have so many days – we become wiser. We gain a heart of wisdom. This year, I’ve really learnt a lot about wisdom by spending time studying the book of Proverbs. And wisdom allows us to live better – to better make use of the time and energy and thoughts and blessings that have been given to us for this season. So, at the end of first year, which has passed by quickly, I say – let us number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.