Winning the Marathon

Every year at Wesley International Congregation, Thank You Lord Sunday is a special event. On that occasion, a special offering is collected as an expression of our thanks to God for his goodness and love towards us.
When I first accepted the position of Senior Pastor, the total given was in the vicinity of $30 000. Within twelve months we had set a target of $40 000. It took us two years to reach it, but we did. So we lifted the goal to $50 000.
If I remember rightly, I set this target myself without actually consulting anyone. I announced it on Sunday morning hoping that no one would object to my unilateral action. No one did.
Not that anyone was likely to be upset about it. The elders could hardly complain if the offering increased. And if it didn’t, we were no worse off – unless, of course, the offering went down as a protest against my asking for too much.
But all was well. We didn’t actually reach the target but we raised more than we had done previously – well over forty thousand.
So the next year, 2007, I proposed a $50 thousand goal again. During the week, one of our members suggested I was aiming too low. ‘What’s wrong with setting a target of $100 thousand?’ he asked.
It was all right for him – he didn’t have to face the people. But when I stood on the platform that Sunday morning, I found myself saying, ‘Our target today once again is fifty thousand. But it has been suggested to me that we should go for double that amount. Could we believe God for $100 000?’
We have a bright, lively multi-cultural congregation of over a thousand people, mainly of Asian origin, although all English-speaking. They have always been generous, but, and possibly because of, their Asian heritage, they also tend to be astute with their handling of their finances, and reluctant to waste money. When they give, they do so thoughtfully.
As it happened, the brother who suggested doubling our expectation put in 50 thousand dollars himself! And our total offering was $95,000.
The following year, I decided to preach more openly on giving. Two Sunday services were planned for this and the date was set. But then we had the opportunity to include two missionary speakers in our program and this meant re-scheduling. Easy enough.
But a week before Thank You Lord Sunday, trouble emerged.
Every year in Sydney, there is a Sunday Marathon race in which tens of thousands of runners participate. It’s a great event and it draws international interest. But it also means that the CBD is largely closed off to anyone else. As Wesley Mission is located right in the middle of the city, this always creates problems for us.
A week before Thank You Lord Sunday, I learned that we had programmed it for the day of the Marathon. People were going to find it hard to get to church. We examined our program, but found that to shift it now would create significant difficulties and clashes with other long-planned events. We decided there was no choice but to proceed.
So I went ahead and preached on first fruits – the Old Testament concept of giving the first of the flock or the herd or the crop to God – and tithing – systematic, sacrificial and honest giving to the Lord. I also told them how that in Scripture, offerings were for two main purposes – to support the ministry and to care for the poor. Wesley International Congregation was doing both as the previous financial year we had given 200 thousand dollars to overseas missions and 300 thousand to the work of Wesley Mission with the poor and needy. We wanted to do even better this year.
The next weekend, on the Saturday night, I downloaded a map of the Marathon route. It was worse than I thought. The whole city was encircled by it and entry to the CBD was well nigh impossible. I was desolated. I could see our congregation going down by half – and the Thank You Lord offering with it. ‘We could lose tens of thousands of dollars,’ I complained to my wife. ‘This is a disaster.’
Somehow I managed to sleep fairly well but when I woke that Sunday morning, I was not my usual buoyant self. I love Sunday mornings. I look forward to being at church. Our services are exciting and inspiring. People are warm and friendly. We have a strong pastoral team who work together cheerfully and well. There is a great group of young people and young adults. The singing, the fellowship, the spirit of faith and joy, the brotherly love, the involvement – these are all inspirational. I always finish the day weary but uplifted. But on this occasion I was tense and concerned.
Because of the inevitable traffic congestion, we thought of taking the train, but we had invited folks home for lunch and needed the car as they had no transport. So we left early and hoped we would find a way through. All the way as we were driving, we thought and talked about the situation.
At that time, there were huge problems with the American economy – two of the nation’s largest mortgage financiers were in trouble and some banks had been forced to close. The ripples were being felt in Australia as well and there was growing alarm about housing, employment and superannuation. There was no doubt some people would be experiencing increasing financial stress. This was an added concern.
In my preoccupation with these questions, I missed the exit from the motorway and had to detour across the Harbour and back again which added nearly half an hour to our travel time. This was not a calming experience. Finally, we managed to get within three blocks of the Mission. It was impossible to get any closer. We found a parking spot and walked the rest.
I was to speak that morning on ‘Overflowing with Thanksgiving’. Earlier I had asked Vanessa if she could think of a good story I could use of someone who had rejoiced in time of trouble. But somehow, in my concern about the offering, I forgot to follow this through. During the pre-service prayer meeting I recalled my need for a story. Suddenly, I realized that I knew someone that very day who needed to give thanks in adverse circumstances – me! So while others were praying about the gathering, I prayed over and over, ‘Thank you, Lord, for a great offering today! I’m trusting you for an exceptional offering!’ My fists were clenched and I was lifting my feet up and down, geeing myself up like an underdog before a tennis final. The more I rejoiced in the Lord, the stronger was my conviction that we just had to go ahead in faith.
When I walked into the theatre, the view was not encouraging, to say the least. There were empty seats everywhere. Basically, those who had come by public transport were present and that was about it. Gradually people began to dribble in. They were still entering the theatre an hour after we commenced! But it was obvious our overall attendance was down. I learned afterwards that many people had been stuck in traffic for an hour or more and that some had simply turned around and gone home.
I told the people the story of my own discouragement as honestly as I could. And I also shared with them how I felt God had convicted me that whether there were one hundred or one thousand people present, it made no difference. As long as he was with us, all would be well.
Our practice on Thank You Lord Sunday was to have our regular offering at the usual time and then, after the message, to present the special offering. There would be ushers holding large baskets at the front of the theatre and while we sang, the people would bring their gifts to the front and place them in the baskets. It was always an exciting and celebratory time.
And here again, things went wrong. I had asked the song leader to choose a familiar song that people could sing without needing to look at the screen, while they came down the steps in the aisles, to the front of the theatre. But somehow or other, he decided to choose a new song that we had never sung before. Arhh, another aggravation.
So when the time came, I asked people to listen to the new song and then, when I gave the signal, to bring their gifts. But they did not want to wait another moment – they just came anyway. They surged to the front. In my flustered state, I tried to stop them, standing with my hands up like a traffic policeman. I had no more success than old King Canute who tried to stop the waves of the sea.
So I gave in and just watched the people come. Somehow, this foolish incident upset me further, as I realized I had acted needlessly and left some people confused. One woman in particular was obviously annoyed at the misunderstanding, and glared at me with frustration. Although I knew her to be easily angered, the incident took the edge off the celebration.
Later I realized that I should have been grateful that the people were so eager to give. How many pastors would give almost anything to see their people thronging like this to bring their gifts to God.
Well the service came to an end and the people gathered in the foyer as usual over their cuppa and their conversation. Some time later, one of the ushers manoeuvred his way through the crowd, approached me and asked, ‘Would you like to know the total?’
‘Of course,’ I responded.
‘Have a guess.’
‘You tell me.’
‘One hundred and fourteen thousand dollars!’ he said with a smile.
I couldn’t believe it. ‘You’re joking,’ I said.
‘Oh you of little faith,’ he responded, chiding me for my unbelief.
‘How much was it?’ I asked again.
He told me again and I continued, ‘That’s unbelievable.’
He said, ‘I’ve never seen so much money on the counting table in all the years I’ve been here.’
‘Unbelievable,’ I repeated.
I realized that there would be many people who had missed the service who would give more the following Sunday. It would be a remarkable offering for our congregation. The final total turned out to be over $136,000.
The next week, when I announced the figure that had been given, people clapped and cheered and praised the Lord. They were delighted at what the Lord had done through them.
I have no idea who won the Sydney Marathon that year. But I knew there was a whole congregation of people inside Wesley Theatre who had run a marathon of a different kind – and they were all winners.

When Are We Going to Finish?

My wife and I had just concluded a successful Marriage Joy seminar in a church on the Gold Coast in Queensland where, as the tourist brochures remind us, the weather is beautiful one day and perfect the next.
I was the invited speaker at the Sunday morning service of the host church, a young and growing Uniting Church congregation with a Methodist heritage. I decided I would speak on revival and tell some little-known stories of early Methodist revival in Australia, and in Queensland in particular.
It was a beautiful, warm morning and the sanctuary was crowded. The church was obviously reaching families as there were many children in the meeting. The program was jam-packed. There was an extensive song service. Children and young people performed items. There seemed to be endless announcements and news reports. It was a busy church with activities happening all round. This was good to see and I was delighted with the way the church was growing. But I was not so delighted with the way the program was also growing. It was time to conclude the service and I hadn’t yet said a word. It was obvious my speaking time was going to be seriously eroded.
Finally, the moment came. ‘Take your time,’ the minister whispered in my ear. ‘The people want to hear what you have to say.’
Emboldened by this, I decided not to shorten my address but to share everything I had prepared. It was never easy going. The children were restless and some parents were distracted. A little brown-haired girl persistently broke away from her mother and escaped triumphantly down the aisle. A couple of small boys were playing with toys on the floor, their shirts hanging out and their hair tousled and untidy. In spite of frequent exhortations from their parents to ‘Sshh’ they continued to make car noises and sounds of collision.
A handful of teenagers sat reluctantly towards the back, doing their best to demonstrate their disinterest, slouching in their seats, with vacant expressions on their acne-pocked faces.
But I pressed on, regardless. I was about two-thirds of the way through when I came to what I thought was the best part, the story of the great Methodist pioneer minister, Rev William Taylor.
In 1876, at the young age of 31, Taylor had been appointed to the Methodist Church at Toowoomba, Queensland. Here, in this community of 4,700 people, he had found a ‘contented’ congregation of about 80 members, who were, in his opinion, ‘too contented by far.’ He managed to persuade them to shift to the local School of Arts hall for one Sunday and some 300 people turned up in the morning. The number grew to about 500 at night!
For the next 18 months they continued in that hall. By ‘a gracious and wonderful visitation of the Holy Spirit a blessed revival swept the town,’ recalled Taylor and a new church building was erected. It was Toowoomba’s ‘first baptism of fire.’
Taylor spared no energy in his pursuit of spiritual revival. In Taree, NSW, in the three years from 1879-82, he preached 463 sermons, conducted 350 class meetings, baptized 130 children and travelled nearly 15,000 miles, mostly on horseback or by rowing boat.
In one series of special services, he preached to full churches, sometimes with people standing outside. At times, he could hardly be heard because of ‘suppressed sobs and cries of “Glory!”’ There were 180 professions of faith. This was all, he said, ‘absolutely… the result of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.’
In 1884, he was appointed to the languishing York Street church in Sydney. Here he used innovative means and an emphasis on prayer to revive the flagging fortunes of the church. Ultimately, it became the Central Methodist Mission and later Wesley Mission, with its numerous congregations, its extensive welfare program and its nation-wide influence.
Taylor’s passion for revival was well expressed in a sermon he preached to the New South Wales Methodist Conference in 1912. He pleaded with them, ‘Back to Wesley! Back to the upper room! Rekindle the waning fires of the Church’s inner life! Give the Holy Ghost an opportunity, even yet, to make us the great soul-saving force of the twentieth century!’ He challenged the ministers. ‘Put fire in the pulpit, and you will soon get fire in the pew.’
I was well into this story, powering along with enthusiasm and verve, as I warmed to my subject, when a man in the congregation raised his hand. I thought he must have wanted to know something about Taylor. But his concerns were quite different.
‘When are we going to finish?’ he asked politely. ‘I reckon we’ve been here long enough.’
This was not what I had expected! I was caught completely off guard. I looked to the pastor for guidance and he had his head down as if in prayer. I glanced around the room searching for elders or stewards who might come to my rescue. No one moved. No one gave any indication of moving.
So I mumbled something about being almost through, finished my story promptly and wrapped things up.
I learned afterwards that this man had never attended the church before. He had come for the first time that day looking for some spiritual encouragement. Furthermore, his wife had just had a baby and he was anxious to get away from church so he could visit her.
I thought later of George Bernard Shaw’s line in his play Major Barbara that you can’t talk religion to a man with bodily hunger in his eyes. And how that Prince of Preachers, Charles Haddon Spurgeon advised his students that it was no good preaching long sermons to farmers who had cows waiting to be milked.
Less sometimes is best. Or putting it differently, genuine ministry addresses the whole personality, not just the soul.
I don’t know what the congregation learned from me that day but I learned something from them. A man whose wife has just had a baby does not want a long sermon.
What’s that? The same applies to stories as well? OK. Point taken. I’m through. Amen.

Getting my Feet Wet

Many years ago, at a Christian camp site in the Adelaide Hills, I was chairing a meeting of a couple of hundred Pentecostal pastors from various denominations. In a rash moment, I announced, ‘I want to suggest that we do something different tonight as an expression of our unity in Christ. When the service is concluded, why don’t we go back to our rooms, collect a towel, and return to the auditorium so we can wash each other’s feet?’
This was a surprising thing for me to do as I am actually rather conservative. But every now and again I experience a rush of blood and before I know it, I am out on a limb. Anyway, it was impossible to retreat now. I had committed myself and I had to follow it through.
I had first experienced a public foot-washing service in a Slavic Pentecostal church in the early 1970s. Stepping inside their building was like being instantly transported into a church in a Russian country town. The hall was plain and simple, with high, painted concrete brick walls. Because of the large windows, the morning sun shone generously through the glass and it was as bright as day inside. The long benches were crowded, with the men sitting on one side of the centre aisle and the women on the other, although there were some young people at the back who broke the pattern.
They sang Russian songs with Russian instruments – accordions, guitars, mandolins and I think at least one balalaika – and they responded fervently to the preaching. I still remember clearly the loud, deep-throated ‘A-meen’ of the men as, with solemn faces, they affirmed the Word in unison; and the enthusiastic ‘slava gospidu’ (‘praise the Lord’) as they thanked God for his blessings.
Many of them had escaped dramatically from oppressive Communist regimes in long treks across Siberia or through China. Some had been led by prophecies which had warned them to avoid certain areas where they might have been arrested, or to travel by night for safety. They had a deeply-ingrained faith that was born from the pain of persecution.
It was their custom each month to practice foot-washing as a sacrament. They wrapped towels around their waists as Jesus did, and with plastic bowls of warm, clear water, they knelt to wash one another’s feet, men to men and women to women. If there had been any kind of disagreement or broken fellowship between brothers, this was the time to set it right.
Of course, they used to joke about the fact that they would wash their feet very well at home before they came so their feet would be clean enough to wash at church!
Most churches don’t practice foot-washing as a sacrament. Certainly, unlike baptism and communion, it offers no clear depiction of the passion of Christ. But it is one way of expressing submission and servant-hood, and for these Slavic saints, that was enough.
At the camp, my suggestion that we should wash each others’ feet was greeted with mixed response. Some pastors looked at me shocked, their eyes wide with surprise and in some cases, dismay. Others greeted the suggestion with furrowed brows of disapproval. Some looked quizzically at their neighbours as if to say, ‘What!’ Some smiled in an embarrassed sort of way. Others just shook their heads in disbelief. A few nodded in a manner that seemed to imply, ‘Mm, good idea.’
But the suggestion had been made and the deed was to be done.
At the conclusion of the service, we collected some bowls and buckets from the camp kitchen and re-gathered for the foot-washing ceremony. Or, I should say, about half of us re-gathered. A number were conspicuous by their absence.
My memory of everything we did that night is rather hazy. But I clearly recall that somehow I finished up sitting before Andrew, a friend who was then the Superintendent of his denomination in Australia.
‘Barry, let me wash your feet,’ he asked kindly.
If I felt diffident about washing his feet. I was well out of my comfort zone when he asked to wash mine. I was not used to people doing personal things for me. My mother had died when I was young and I was pretty independent. I felt embarrassed and unsure.
One of the Slavic young people once told me that while the act would evoke in her a sense of unity and servant-heartedness, there were also feelings of awkwardness, vulnerability, exposure and humility. This was how I felt.
But I was the one who had suggested the whole thing and I could hardly refuse to participate. So I removed my shoes and socks and placed one foot in the bowl. He cupped his hands in the water and gently poured it over my foot. Then he wiped it with the towel. I placed my other foot in the bowl and he repeated the action.
Now it was my turn to wash Andrew’s feet. Afterwards, we prayed together.
In the thirty years since that time, I have on occasion initiated foot-washing services in other places. Once or twice at retreats for Bible College students and once at an elders’ meeting in our church. Every time I felt uncomfortable. I know right now that if I were in a meeting where someone else were to spring a washing of feet service on me without notice, my natural inclination would be to escape while I had the chance, like those ministers at that camp so many years ago.
But I hope I would have the courage to humble myself and to break the foolish conceit that tempts me to believe that my reputation is important and that people’s opinions matter more than God’s. Sometimes it does us good to step outside our boundaries, especially when it means doing something that has the potential to make us feel embarrassed or ill at ease. What is embarrassment but an expression of our stubborn pride? And what is pride but the very thing that took Jesus to the Cross?
Jesus said, ‘You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you’ (John 13:13-15, ESV).
Aw, what the heck. Let’s just do it.

The Weapons of Our Warfare

Let me tell you about my mate John. John is a bit of an eccentric. He has a Ph D from Cambridge, four kids, a long beard and a depilated crown, which he protects from the elements with a tweed cap. One of his favourite tricks is to pull his whiskers up over his face and head and then don a pair of sunglasses. He looks like a genial troll.
I seem to recall him wearing a tie once or twice, but with his spreading beard, it is hard to tell. When he speaks, it is with deep, mellifluous tones that sound more English than Aussie. When he dons his academic gown and velvet hat and stands at a lectern, he looks for all the world like a sixteenth century Reformer. One almost expects him to start denouncing the papacy as the antichrist and the very furnishings to tremble at the sound of his resonant voice.
My first encounter with John took place some years ago at an Anglican church where, as Principal of Tabor College, I had been asked to teach a seminar on the ministry of the Holy Spirit. The hall was crowded with standing room only. Came question time and things were going along in a friendly fashion when from among those at the back, John raised his hand. I couldn’t help wondering who was this bearded bloke with the polished pate.
I don’t remember exactly what he asked but I do recall that as soon as he spoke, many in the assemblage turned his way and regarded him with a kind of reverential awe. Obviously he was a significant personage among them. I also recall that although he smiled amiably, there was a cutting edge to his words and the hint of mischief in his eyes.
Time went by as it does and several years later, somehow or other, John finished up doing some visiting teaching at the College and ere long was invited to join the staff. The chairman of the board, together with another board member, who was helpfully Anglican, and I, visited his home to interview him.
His house had been built on the side of a hill and the driveway was steep. We parked in the safety of the street. Because of the slope, there was room under the house at the back for a carport. John had converted most of it to a study. There was a desk and a chair, piles of cartons (he had not got around to unpacking everything since moving back from the UK) and over-stacked bookshelves, all resting on a plain concrete floor. It must have been as windy and chilly in winter as a monastery cell, but on summer evenings, a cool breeze tended to meander and dance its way up the valley and tip-toe through the carport-come-study under the house. It was a pleasant place in which to ponder.
However, I am getting ahead of myself. On this occasion, we were ushered into the dining room and served a pleasant morning tea. There was a comforting chaos about the place. I suppose everything had a place, although whether there was a place for everything was a justifiable question, and it was safe to assume that John and his wife and children knew exactly where to look for whatever they might have needed. For strangers walking in, however, the challenge was to locate convincing evidence of intelligent design.
Still, the refreshments were exceptional, the interview was successful, and John became part of the Tabor team. At that time we had two city campuses and he finished up being head of one of them while I was at the other. This meant substantial communication by email.
John proved to be a scintillating correspondent. You had to read every word – including the contact information at the end which, except in extreme cases, no one usually reads. For you never knew how John would sign off. He could be ‘course coordinator’ but he might be ‘coarse coordinator’. He was actually a ‘lecturer in Church and Society’ but he might sign off as ‘lecturer in Church impropriety’. He might identify himself as ‘academic dean’. But he might also be ‘Full-time assessor of undergraduate outpourings’, or, ‘Part-time teacher, cleaner, coffee-maker, librarian and maintainer of pot-plants’.
Several times he concluded an email to me with ‘Warm regards, John 0{8-)=====+.’ To this day I haven’t the faintest idea what that means.
He does have a way with words. He once wrote of a church leader who released a statement that turned him overnight ‘from pinup to pariah.’
John is innovative and creative. His classes were highly interactive and he tended to let students nut things out for themselves. Then he enjoyed chatting with them over coffee. Of course, they all loved him. And he is the perfect gentleman.
Having soared in the upper atmosphere of Cambridge, John had glided through clouds that I, with my less-exalted Macquarie University degree, had never penetrated. His area of expertise was Karl Barth’s Theology of Joy. Mine was Australian Pentecostal history. Alternately, John could give you a lengthy study on the writings of Jeremiah as an example of Hebraic prophetic lament. I preferred David’s, ‘This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.’ And when it came to baptism, we sometimes found ourselves immersed in the subject, but never to the same depth. On one occasion he commented, ‘I expected that Baptists would fade during the drought, but God is truly gracious.’ Anglicans, of course, would have had no problem.
In the course of my work, I had written a number of study manuals for undergraduate students, among which was a set entitled Spiritual Warfare. John never said anything, but I have a hunch that he would like to have seen more references to Barth and less to Bonnke. In any case, he was more interested in postgraduate work.
One summer evening, he was sitting at his desk in his under-house-study marking assignments or something and enjoying the evening zephyrs as they gently caressed him and ran their long fingers through his bushy beard. Pausing for a brief time of relaxation, he gazed absent-mindedly into the garden. It was a beautiful evening and he savoured the moment.
Then, out of the corner of his eye, he spotted a movement on the floor, a shadow, a slight thing. But there, creeping towards his bare feet, probably seeking a mate or perhaps the safety of the darkness under the table, was a large, black, sinister Funnel Web spider, one of the most venomous spiders in the world. Its inch-long body gleamed in the reflected light from John’s desk lamp. Its two fangs protruded with menace. It was centimetres from John’s right foot.
He felt a spasm of fear race through his veins and froze momentarily with alarm. Then he grabbed the first thing he could find – a substantial A4 study manual of some 200 pages. He swung his arm high, his eyes flashing above that prolific prophetic beard, and brought the book down with a loud smack on to the spider.
He lifted his weapon carefully but there was now no danger. The evil enemy was dead, pounded and flattened on to that rock-hard concrete floor. John breathed a sigh of relief. It was only then he checked to see what it was he had actually used for a weapon. It was a copy of my volume Spiritual Warfare.
Later when he told me what had happened, he emitted a deep, resonant chuckle. ‘Looks like your stuff on spiritual warfare works after all,’ he said.
‘Very funny,’ I replied.
But on reflection, I thought of the words of Scripture – ‘You will tread on the lion and the cobra; you will trample the great lion and the serpent’ (Psalm 91:13). The Psalmist doesn’t precisely mention Funnel Web spiders, of course, but the principle is no doubt the same.
And when I wrote those many pages on cosmic conflict, I wasn’t thinking about Funnel Web spiders either. But when it comes to our combat with Satan, the enemy of our souls, I’m sure there’s a parallel somewhere.
The weapons of our warfare are not carnal; they are mighty through God to the bringing down of spiritual strongholds.
Although even carnal weapons may be effective. At least with spiders.

The Things You See in Church

Usually, when I am preaching, I am well prepared, I have clear notes, I know what I am doing and I am generally in command of the situation. But there was one occasion when I nearly did lose my way.
I was speaking one Sunday morning in Bethel CRC Church in Papua New Guinea. I was well into my message when I noticed a young woman sitting in full view on the end seat of the third row breast-feeding her baby. But that wasn’t what put me off. I guess I expected that sort of thing to happen in a place like Port Moresby.
It was when she reached down into her string bag and pulled out a bottle of Coke, raised it to her lips, pulled off the crinkled metal cap with her teeth and began to drink, with the baby still suckling at her breast, that I confess I did find it difficult to concentrate.
The next week, in a village congregation, the missionary pastor next to me was praying with a dear older woman. He laid hands on her head, his eyes closed as he prayed. The woman began to cry. So she just grabbed the bottom of her tee-shirt and pulled it up to wipe away her tears. It would have caused a stir in church in Sydney.
On another Sunday at Bethel, I was asked to speak on giving. After I had finished the message, and we were singing a song of praise, I felt that even though we had already had the regular offering, we should now have another. I leaned over and whispered to Barry Silverback, the Australian missionary who had pioneered the church, what I was thinking.
‘If you hadn’t suggested it, I would have,’ he replied.
He organised a couple of the deacons to bring some large plastic buckets from the kitchen. They found half a dozen and placed them across the platform.
‘I believe it would be good for us to give again today,’ I announced. ‘I think God has spoken to us all about being generous. So I am going to ask you to leave your seats, come forward and place your offering in one of these buckets.’
I knew that many of the people had no more money in their pockets – to be honest, some didn’t even have pockets. They were not a rich congregation. So I continued, ‘You may not have any money here today or you may not be able to give for some other reason. If that is the case, will you just come forward anyway, hold your hand over the bucket and open it as if you were dropping something in. In this way you will be saying to God, “Father, if I had something I would give it. This is my act of faith that you will provide so next time I can give.”’
The following few minutes were deeply moving. The people crowded to the front. Many of them did give. Others just did as I suggested – they simply held an empty hand over the bucket and acted as if they were putting money in. They were giving spiritually if not materially. It was an exceptional offering in every way.
I heard later that throughout the following week a stream of people dropped into the church office with extra gifts and that some had drawn out significant amounts from their bank accounts to do so.
There was a principle there that can be applied to other situations as well. For example, if we don’t feel loving but we need to show love, we act as if we are loving, and wonderfully, that’s what we become. If we don’t feel joyful, but realise our need to rejoice, we rejoice anyway and joyful we become.
A week later, I noticed a man in church who had grotesque and ugly swellings all over his face and arms. I don’t know what they were but some of the lumps were as big as golf balls. Others were more like marbles. I shivered involuntarily and wondered if it was contagious and whether physical contact with him could be risky.
Later, during communion, Barry Silverback invited us to serve each other with the bread and the cup. This required us all to leave our seats, exchange both our glasses and the small piece of unleavened bread we held in our hands. As soon as he said this, I knew I had to go to that man to serve him – and to be served by him. This would mean drinking from the cup he grasped in his malformed hand and eating the bread he held between his diseased fingers. My natural reaction was to shrink back from him. Surely I could serve one of the missionaries or one of the better-dressed and healthier people? But the Spirit’s leading was clear. It was this man and only he.
I stepped down from the platform and walked directly to where he was standing. There were no words between us, just a simple act of sharing bread and wine. It was a memorable moment.
Looking back, I suppose it was a small thing to do, but at the time, given his terrible affliction coupled with the health risks that always face international travellers, especially in less developed countries, it seemed difficult enough. (It never occurred to me to wonder if I might pass on some infection to him!) As it happened, I suffered no ill effects. And neither, I hope, did he.
This divinely foolish incident was a reminder to me once again of the wonderful love of Jesus. He, too, stepped down, a lot further than I did. He emptied himself, the Bible says, left heaven and took the form of a man. He shared much more than food with us. He took upon himself our sinful humanity, with all its deformities and blemishes, and carried it himself, in order that we might no longer bear the infection and septicity of our sin, its corruption and corrosion removed forever. It was as if in some wonderful way I could have deliberately taken that man’s affliction and knowingly made it mine so that he might forever be free.
I don’t remember what I preached on that day. But I vividly remember what happened. It was a sermon without words. And it was preached to me.

Pickles Takes a Pill

Have you ever tried to feed pills to a cat? Probably not. It isn’t easy.
We used to have a beautiful, white, fluffy cat called Pickles. How she came to have such an unusual name, I can’t remember. I’m sure it was a family decision, but my daughter tells me forty years later that it was I who chose it and that she still thinks it was a horrible choice. Still, you have to agree it is distinctive.
Pickles came to us as a tiny kitten that no one wanted. We all fell in love with her. She was Gorgeous. Cute. Cuddly. Playful. Bouncy. The kids adored her. They wanted to take her to bed with them. They played with her in the lounge room. They found toys for her. They hugged her. They tugged her. And she seemed to enjoy it all.
Of course, they didn’t want to look after her. But they were kids.
The months went by and it was not long before Pickles the kitten became Pickles the cat. No longer so cute or playful. No longer so tolerant of childish touching and clutching. But she was still beautiful.
Her long white fur was shiny and smooth. She walked, as cats do, with a stately, unhurried gait. She began to take on the superior manner of the feline species, choosing where she would sit or lie, answering our call only if it suited her, expecting the door to be opened for her at her behest, sleeping through the day like a spoilt heiress.
People thought we must have paid a lot of money for her. But she was still just a stray that we had taken in and if she had wandered off, while the children would have been sad, it would have made little difference. We could always find another kitten as later in fact we did – several times – courtesy of Pickles herself.
Around that time, I was preparing to preach somewhere on a text from Peter the apostle’s first letter:
For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect (1 Peter 1:18-19).
I needed a really clear illustration to bring home the implications of what Peter says here but I was struggling to find one. I decided to put it to one side, hoping that by the time I came to preach I would have found something relevant. But I didn’t. And after a while I more or less forgot about it.
One day Pickles became ill. A vet prescribed some pills and it became my task to feed them to her. Naively, I assumed this would be a simple task. I took her in my arms, prised open her mouth and forced a tablet in.
‘Pht!’ Out it came.
I tried again.
‘Pht!’ Out it came.
I decided to be more cunning. This time, after I inserted the tablet, I grasped her jaw and held her mouth tightly closed. She squirmed and struggled but I held firm. She settled down and after a couple of minutes I let go.
‘Pht!’ She spat it out again.
This was now a battle not only of strength, but of wits.
Again I took her in my arms. Again I opened her mouth. Again I squeezed in a pill. Again I held her mouth tightly shut.
And this time I waited longer. Three minutes. Four minutes. Five minutes. Surely by now, even if she hadn’t swallowed it, the pill would have dissolved of its own accord. Cautiously I let go of her jaw.
‘Pht!’ She spat it out.
This was getting serious. It was now a matter of honour. Man against cat. Human against animal. Someone created in the image of God opposed to a creature made in the image of pampas grass. No feral cat was going to outsmart me, no matter how beautiful she was. Human intelligence must prevail. I thought long and deeply. Then suddenly I knew what to do.
Take cat. Open mouth. Insert tablet. Close mouth. Wait. And this time watch. Watch carefully. Not the mouth but the neck. Watch for tell-tale signs of swallowing. Watch for feline gulp. Shake cat if necessary to ensure safe passage of pill through esophagus.
I gave the tablet and waited. We sat together unmoving for some time. I thought to myself, ‘I should have brought a book.’ But then I could not have observed the swallowing process closely and this demanded one hundred per cent concentration. And I was determined to win.
Pickles closed her eyes and began to purr, humming a soft siren-song. I said to myself, ‘Don’t be distracted. She is a woman. She is trying to charm you. She wants to seduce you, to lull you into a false sense of security.’
I ignored the alluring siren-song and focused on that esophagus, my eyes unblinking. But gradually, I too, began to feel sleepy and my lids started to droop. I sat up with a start, like a dozy driver behind the wheel of a swerving car. I shook my head and focused again.
The suddenly, there it was. The slightest movement of fur, the merest ripple of skin. But there was no doubt. Pickles had polished off the pill. I relaxed my grip. I waited. But there was no ‘Pht!’ The tablet was gone. It was a moment of triumph. A stronghold had been dramatically brought low. I had won.
My victory was momentary, for it was then that my wife asked, ‘Why don’t you just crush the tablet and sprinkle it on her food?’
‘It wouldn’t work,’ I replied testily, my male ego leaping to my defence.
‘Why not?’
‘Well, tablets have to be whole. They lose their effectiveness when they’re mangled.’
‘Well, of course they do. Anyway, Pickles would still detect a crushed pill in her food. She’s not stupid.’
‘I wasn’t suggesting she was,’ Vanessa murmured.
‘I beg your pardon?’ I asked.
‘Oh, nothing,’ she answered walking away with an enigmatic smile on her face.
As it turned out, crushed pills actually worked quite well. My male ego retreated into its cave.
A year or two later, Pickles got sick again. This time it was more serious. She had some kind of weeping sore on her neck that would not go away. Now it was not just a matter of pills. She needed injections and surgery to lance the wound and clear up the infection. The vet was skilled and the treatment proved successful.
The family was happy. Vanessa was happy. Pickles was happy. I was happy. Until the bill came. It was astronomical! I couldn’t believe it. All that money for a stray cat that we had got for nothing. We could have invested that amount and lived on the interest.
After that, I saw Pickles through new eyes. Now she was no longer a stray kitten taken in to give the kids something to play with and to teach them a thing or two about how to treat animals. Now she was an object of value. If she had been a painting we would have hung her on the wall and showed her off to guests. If she had been a diamond brooch she would have been locked up safely and insured. But she was a cat and she had to be free.
Now I felt like opening the door before she even asked and bowing politely for good measure. A cat on whom so much had been spent must be respected. How can you not revere someone who has turned you from prince to pauper?
The price we paid to save her enhanced her value beyond measure. Of course, the kids still treated her the same as ever, but not me. I wanted to get my money’s worth. I was going to make sure she lived a long and happy life. If I could help it, she wouldn’t get lost, she wouldn’t get sick, she wouldn’t die before her time. She was worth something.
And now I realised that Pickles had provided me with a wonderful illustration of that text from 1 Peter. It was not just the act of redemption that made the difference – it was the cost of redemption that mattered. And that’s what I would tell the people. ‘You are precious beyond measure because the price paid for your salvation was the very life of the very Son of God.’
When we realise this, we look at one another with new eyes. We treat one another differently. We honour one another more readily. How can we devalue those who have become indescribably valuable?
We all wear a price-tag labelled ‘the precious blood of Christ’. And that puts a new perspective on everything.

Behind Berlin’s Wall of Shame

The distance from tyranny to freedom may not be far – but when you are on the other side, it is further than the longest journey in the world.

Fresh from the clear, unchanging, sunny days of Israel, I was caught unprepared by the cold, misty weather that wrapped itself around Berlin. My light-weight acrylic cardigan was little protection against the cold and even less against the rain. But today was the day on which I was to visit East Berlin, and all arrangements had been made.

I was accompanied by a retired pastor, who acted as my guide and interpreter, and as we approached the renowned Checkpoint Charlie, I began to wonder if the weather was not appropriate!

Even being in West Berlin was an uncanny experience. At that time, in 1978, the city was like an island in an ocean of Communism. Completely surrounded by East Germany, its only easy link with the West was through the air corridor to Frankfurt or Hamburg. And only the airlines of the three major powers – Britain, France and the U.S.A. – were permitted to operate there.

It was possible to travel across by road, and many people did so, particularly in tourist buses. For local inhabitants of West Berlin, however, it was a constant annoyance. There were passport control points each time you entered or left East Germany territory. Sometimes there were long delays. I was told the road was patrolled by dogs and laced with minefields. Drivers traveling through had to keep to their assigned routes. As a result many locals did not bother to leave the city unless they could do so by air, where there were less controls.

West Berlin itself was a beautiful city of over 2 million people. Its wide boulevards and beautiful modern buildings were a delight. The center of the main shopping street, Kurfurstendam, was adorned with colourful flowers. Cafes and restaurants spilled out on to the footpaths. Modern cars and buses patroled the roads. The shops were clean, efficient, prosperous – and expensive!

Right in the center stood the ruins of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, its spire blasted by a World War 2 bomb, a constant and somber reminder of the terror and tragedy of war. And in the distance, one could see rising high, the distinctive East Berlin television tower – a further grim reminder of the awful nearness of further conflict.

I was told that at certain times the sun so shone on the great shiny sphere of this tower, that its reflection formed a brilliant golden cross. West Berliners called it the “Pope’s revenge”!

In the midst of West Berlin’s prosperity, however, were signs of decay. Porn theatres and peep shows openly advertised their wares in glowing neon signs in the main streets. Explicitly sexual literature was readily available. Perhaps this is a reflection of the fact that it was still a partly occupied city – some 10,000 Allied troops were to be found there. However, I observed the same kind of thing in Frankfurt, where right at the airport, pornographic material was blatantly thrust before the casual traveler.

The very freedom and liberty and joie de vie that the West was experiencing also meant – as it always does – freedom to pursue the desires of the flesh.

I’ll have to leave you here and go to another check point,” my friend and interpreter explained.  “Locals are not permitted to use the same entry as visitors.” He pointed to a street corner over the other side.  “I’ll meet you along there,” he said.

His little Renault car turned away and went out of sight. I shivered, took my camera in my hand, thrust the other hand into my pocket, and wandered towards the crossing.         I would like to have carried my tape recorder, but I had been advised. It would probably be checked and might be confiscated.

I stopped at a large sign which read, in four languages, “You are leaving the American sector.” Two or three U.S. soldiers in a guard-box took no notice of me as I walked past. Near me, to my right, was a wooden platform built by the Westerners, from the top of which you could see over the Wall and into the East. In the cold, gloomy weather, I did not notice it. It was only two days later, when the sun shone again, and I returned for a further look, that I saw it.

I paused to look at the Wall itself. “The Wall of Shame”, the Berliners called it. Built in 1961, it went up layer by layer until it ran like a great gray knife blade through the city, dividing it neatly into two parts. Overnight, thousands of East Berliners found they were unable to go to work in the West the next day. One congregation I visited in the West was decimated. From one Sunday to the next, its numbers were reduced by about 80 per cent. That same church was now flourishing and alive. Under the easy-going but positive, faith-filled leadership of Pastor Volkard Spitzer, its auditorium was crowded with 500 people twice each Sunday morning to accommodate the 1,000 who wanted to get in. Hundreds attended mid-week meetings. Enthusiastic children’s meetings were conducted. There was outreach to young people. The whole place, known simply as the “Jesus Centre”, was an exciting place to visit.

The meeting I had attended the night before was a great blessing. I listened from my seat on the platform, as chorus after chorus was sung in German, to the accompaniment of grand piano and organ. The young American playing the piano was a brilliant musician. And when he sang (accompanying himself) a song in English about the Lord Jesus coming again, it was a special moment for me. And you can imagine my joy when a short time later, I realized that the tune the people were now singing had come from Australia!

When I stood to bring a greeting, I asked them if they knew this. No?  “Well,” I went on, “that song was actually written by a girl who graduated from Crusade Bible College in Adelaide, South Australia, where I was Dean of Students, and was first sung there.” It was Nolene Prince’s “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts.” They had learned it from America!

I shared a few thoughts on spiritual weariness. Many people told me afterwards how blessed they had been by this. It was only then that I learned that this had also been Pastor Spitzer’s theme that night. I had watched him preach. The people were on the edges of their seats. At times he had them so enrapt that you could have heard a pin drop. At other times, they were laughing helplessly. At others, they responded with a loud “Amen”. He was obviously loved and respected by his people.

“How well does he preach in English?” I asked his attractive wife Erica.

“Even better,” she replied, “than in German.”

I learned later that Volkhard had recently spent one week in Seoul, Korea, ministering to the young people of the great church pastored by Dr. David Yonggi Cho.

But now, I was going into the Eastern sector, where years before, hundreds of Christians had been cut off from their spiritual home.

I stopped at a wire mesh gate with no handle. How did it open? A guard materialized and the gate opened, apparently controlled electronically by someone caged away out of sight. I produced my passport. Above me, to the left, stood a drab, deteriorating watchtower, where two men sat in silent surveillance. Other watchtowers were spaced at short distances along the Eastern side of the Wall. I looked down the Wall. There it stood – a smooth, gray forbidding concrete serpent, totally barren of hand-grips or foot-holds. It was so sloped that climbing it would be impossible. Behind and beyond it, on the Eastern side, was an open space, presumably mined; and then another barrier, a mesh fence, topped with barbed wire. Dogs also patrolled it.

“Swedish, eh?” asked the guard, a young man, unexpectedly cheerful in his military uniform and great-coat.

“No, Australian,” I replied. From the office at the gate, came the sound of other young men laughing. They were playing some kind of game, it seemed, guessing people’s nationality.

He gave me a slip of paper, and I continued along a pathway fenced either side like a sheep-race. A car from the East was being checked by the guards. One of them slid what looked like a large jack under it. As he wheeled it out, I saw that it was in fact a big mirror, lying horizontal on a low trolley. It is no longer possible to escape from the East by clinging to the chassis of a vehicle.

No one seemed to be checking the cars going the other way – not until they crossed into the East, anyway. It was impossible not to think things like, “It must be great in the East. How good of the authorities to go to such lengths to see that people stay there to enjoy it!”

I entered a building and found myself in a small, gloomy room. But I was relieved and grateful for its sudden, pleasant warmth. Here my passport was taken by a stern-faced woman behind a glass window. Then a shutter dropped and I was left alone. Maybe I had seen too many movies, but it was impossible not to feel unnerved. Without my passport I was stranded. I waited anxiously for its return. Meanwhile, I filled in a form telling how much money I had with me in various currencies. To my relief, the shutter was raised and my passport returned. I paid about $2.50 visa fee, and was directed out through another door. Another short passage. Another office.

A gruff, unsmiling official simply mumbled, “DM6.50”. I fumbled in my pocket for the money (about $3.00 at that time) and handed it over. Without words, he handed me a plastic bag with some more money in it. Puzzled, I took the bag and saw that it also contained DM6.50, but this time in East German currency. The only problem with this apparently fair exchange, was that Eastern Germany currency was worth only one- quarter of its West German equivalent! This struck me as a very capitalist enterprise for a communist regime!

Finally, another passageway, another official, another gate – and I was behind the wall, behind the Iron Curtain, in East Berlin. I waited in the cold street, and finally the little Renault appeared. I climbed aboard, which at last gave me protection from the wind, and we drove on.

East Berlin was also a gracious city. Like the Western side, it had wide boulevards and garden median strips. But the buildings were different. Many of the older cultural centres of Berlin were kept in the East after the partition. Large Moscow-style buildings lined the main streets. Graceful, slender light poles marked the pavements. The city was the showpiece of Eastern Europe.

We visited the famed Pergamon museum. What a magnificent display! It was like walking through the Bible world at the speed of light. You were instantly transferred from the temple of Pergamum to the shrine of Miletus to the magnificent Ishtar Gate from Babylon. And these were not just models – these were the real structures, transported stone by stone and rebuilt here under cover!

But, in East Berlin, something was still missing. For all its capitalism and its immorality, the West was bustling and lively. Here, in the East, one had the impression that you could only go to the baker or the grocer or the butcher – there seemed to be only one per suburb. Competition appeared to be non- existent. Maybe this was a good thing. But gone with it was something that money can’t buy and capitalism can’t destroy. Freedom!

Part of the highlight of my visit to East Germany, was the opportunity while I was there to spend some time with a Pentecostal pastor and his wife. How delighted they were to have the opportunity to fellowship with a brother from the West. And what a thrill it was for me to meet a brother from the East.

He spoke no English and I knew no German, so initially we could only smile at each other and praise the Lord at first! But my guide was able to interpret for us and we managed fairly well. So we enjoyed steaming coffee and beautiful German cakes in a warm dining-room while we talked. Much of what I was told, I was not able to report at the time. That is no longer the case.

Pentecostal churches in East Germany could exist, but only by being part of the Union of Evangelical churches. This meant that intending pastors must be trained at the Union seminary.  No doubt, they were given excellent training, but it was not really Pentecostal. There was no teaching on the gifts of the Spirit, or the manifestations of the Spirit. The attitude to healing and deliverance was different. Hence, new Pentecostal pastors were really more Evangelical than Pentecostal.

However, Pentecostal pastors could meet together a couple of times a year and it was at these gatherings that they did have opportunity for teaching in these areas. There was urgent need for the Spirit to be outpoured in a special way on these gatherings.

Furthermore, there was need for a tape ministry which could be used among all the pastors to give them teaching in the areas of spiritual renewal.

Pentecostals in East Germany were not allowed to advertise their meetings. There could be no distribution of leaflets, no radio or television ministry, no open-air meetings. Only word of mouth!

When I heard this, I thought that perhaps if we in Australia were similarly restricted, we might be able to learn more quickly how to be soul winners ourselves!

What about Bibles? “Most of our people have at least one Bible,” the pastor told me. “Other Christian books are hard to get. But sometimes we can obtain them.”

At this point I happened to glance over the bookshelves in the study to which we had now gone. Suddenly I saw two familiar books. One was a Revised Standard Version of the Bible in English, identical to the one I had with me. The other was a book about the Pentecostal churches – a book written in German and published a few years previously. I recognized it, for I had, through rather unusual circumstances, written two chapters for it, and I had a copy of my own. So, I took it from the shelf and showed the pastor my name. He was as delighted as I was. Something I had never expected was to find something I had written behind the Iron Curtain!

Well, we continued in fellowship and sharing together. I saw pictures of his church and took a photo of his wife and family. Finally, it was time to leave.

When the time came for us to go back into West Berlin, my guide suddenly remembered something. When he had crossed the border, he had already had some East German currency with him. “You should spend it here,” the guard had told him. “Don’t bring it back with you.”

But he had forgotten to spend it! If he had thought of it, he would have given it to the pastor, but it had slipped his mind.

“Would you take it with you?” he asked me. “I don’t want to run into difficulties which might make it hard for me to get back in future.”

“OK with me,” I answered and pocketed the few marks he gave me.

Later, as I walked into the check–point, I wondered if I would have to complete another form declaring what currency I had with me.

“Oh, probably not,” I thought and wandered in.

My relaxation was short-lived. Within a few minutes, there I was once again having to count my money and declare what I had.

“Lord, what do I do now?” I prayed silently, but urgently. Receiving no angelic message or anything like it, I did all I could do. I started filling in the form. American dollars. So much. Write it down. German marks. Write that down. East German marks? I was just about to count them, although I knew already that I had more than the DM6.50  I had taken in, when the official pointed to the form.

“Sign here and put the date,” he said impatiently.

I did so, and he snatched the paper and walked off. He asked no questions and I made no protest! I went my way and was soon back in the Western part of the city. As soon as I could, I gave the East German money back to my guide. He would find some way to dispose of it.

That night I thought much about my visit to the East. The distance from the Eastern side of the Wall to the Western side was not far. But when you are on the other side, it is further than the longest journey in the world.

“Wall of Shame,” the Westerners called it.

It was an appropriate name.

I Am a Lucky Girl

Vanessa and I were walking through the Scott Market in Yangon on a hot summer morning, where the temperature was climbing to an estimated 40o Celsius. It had taken us a while to get there. For several days we had promised ourselves a visit to the renowned shopping haven, but had usually opted for the hotel pool or an afternoon rest. But at last we had made it.

While the market was clearly changing, with the appearance of some new air conditioned restaurants and a few contemporary stores, there were still plenty of traditional stalls jammed together in clusters separated by fascinating narrow, darkened alley-ways, down which one could easily become lost behind the hanging clothes, the cluttered displays and the multitude of wares of every description stacked high in baskets or bundles on either side.

We weren’t intending to buy much – maybe some souvenirs for folks at home but little else. That, however, was not what the smiling shopkeepers thought. To them we were potential sources of income – two Westerners with cameras and mobile phones, with rings on their fingers and, no doubt, bulging wallets in their pocket.  That we had not come to shop could not be possible. But it was a very hot day, a spirit of lethargy hung like warm mist in the humid air and few of the merchants made much effort to earn a sale.

Except for one. A girl about twelve years old, in a long dress with a scarf over her head and a shoulder bag at her side, spotted us and immediately offered us a packet of post cards which she deftly unfolded with one hand, waving them before us in a long strip so we could see them clearly.

She was eager for a sale but her pretty dusky face looked dispirited and discouraged. It had obviously been a tough morning. ‘Two thousand?’ she pleaded, with a rising inflection in her voice. ‘Two thousand?’ she asked again, holding the cards high.

I tried to wave her away. ‘I’m sorry,’ I said kindly. ‘We don’t want any postcards.’

‘Two thousand?’ she repeated plaintively, showing us the cards again as if we had never seen them before. ‘Two thousand?’

I shook my head and tried to walk on. She ducked around in front of us. ‘One thousand?’ she asked hopefully. ‘One thousand?’

Vanessa and I turned into a side alley.  She followed us. When we stopped to look at something, she produced the cards again. ‘One thousand?’

I turned away and gently eased her aside.

But she would not give up. She followed us down the crowded alley and up the next. She went around corners with us and stopped where we stopped. And constantly her small, girlish voice asked plaintively, ‘One thousand?’

I explained firmly, ‘Look, we don’t want any post cards. I’m sorry, but we really don’t need them.’

She turned away crestfallen and walked slowly back, her shoulders sagging. She kicked at something on the ground and wandered on. There were few tourists in the place and the possibilities of further sales were slim.

We picked our way up and down a couple more alleys. It was a small adventure – like stepping back in time to an ancient world where trading was a personal affair, a lingering interaction to be savoured and experienced, not transacted in haste. The small, dark booths on either side of us were crammed with wares, sometimes piled up in short leaning towers, sometimes spread out, sometimes carefully displayed, sometimes just stacked in jumbled heaps of miscellaneous goods and sometimes hidden in gloomy inner recesses, almost out of sight.

We stopped to look up at some Burmese garments hanging from a rail above a stall. We stooped down to admire some nice handicrafts, spread out on a sheet of cloth almost beneath our feet, obviously the result of hours of painstaking work. We brushed against other customers as they cruised knowingly up and down the alleys, spotting genuine bargains and ignoring eye-catching but valueless junk.

Eventually, hot and tired, we headed for the exit. The young lady was waiting for us. ‘One thousand?’ she asked, thrusting the cards in front of me. I told her yet again that I did not want the cards and turned aside.

But as we walked off, I said to Vanessa, ‘I guess we could have bought those cards. It wouldn’t hurt us. It’s only a dollar. And she has worked pretty hard to get it.’

So I turned back and held out a 1000 kyat note. ‘You are very persistent,’ I said. ‘You deserve it.’

‘I am a lucky girl,’ she replied and broke into a flashing smile of triumph. Her teeth needed dental care but I suppose her family couldn’t afford it. I took the cards but as I walked away I thought, ‘I don’t even need these.’ So I called out to her, held them out and said, ‘Here, sell these to someone else.’

She grabbed them with glee and ran off with a laugh, her shoulder bag bouncing at her side. She had made a 100% profit on the deal and she was pretty happy.

Vanessa and I watched her delight with pleasure. She reminded us of the widow in the Bible whose persistence Jesus commended. But later I realized how little we had actually done. I could at least have paid her the original asking price. The girl was lucky but had I been more generous, she could have been luckier still.

The Case of the Stolen Opals

The jangling sound of the phone rattled through my head, jarring my slumbering nerves. I opened my eyes reluctantly. It was dark. And cold. I stumbled out of bed to answer it.

‘Are you a minister?’ asked a young man’s voice.

‘Yes,’ I replied groggily.

‘I have a problem.’

I looked at the clock. It was not yet six o’clock in the morning. And it was a bleak, wet wintry South Australian morning, not the kind one enjoyed facing before time. I had received calls like this before and most of them could just as well have waited till a civilized hour.

‘You have a problem,’ I repeated sleepily, hoping it would be something minor that I could deal with later.

‘I stole half a million dollars worth of opals last night and now I don’t know what to do with them,’ he said.

‘You did what!’ I responded, suddenly awake.

‘I stole a case full of opals,’ he repeated.

‘You do have a problem,’ I agreed.

It was chilly standing in the passage in my pyjamas and I was already shivering, but now he had my full attention. ‘What happened?’ I asked.

He told me his name was Mitch. He began to tell me his story but I cut him off. ‘Look, why don’t you come and see me?’ I asked him. ‘Hide the opals somewhere, get a taxi and come to my place. We can have a coffee and work out what you should do.’

Half an hour later he arrived. By this time I was dressed and thinking more clearly. It was not a great time for me to be dealing with an issue like this. It was Sunday and in three hours time I was due to preach at a large church and I wasn’t yet fully prepared. But I would just have to trust the Lord to get me through. This was a serious situation.

I opened the door. Mitch was carrying a brief case. He walked in, set the case on the low occasional table, alongside the toast and coffee, and immediately opened it. To my shock and alarm, it was full of glowing opals. He had brought them with him! I had half a million dollars worth of stolen jewels sitting right there in front of me in my house. I closed the case.

‘You brought them with you!’ I exclaimed. ‘I asked you to stow them somewhere.’

‘I had nowhere to put them,’ he said. ‘I had to bring them. And now I have to get them back somehow. I’ve just got out of prison and if they catch me, I’ll be right back in again – for a very long time.’

Mitch was in his early twenties, reasonably well dressed, with a pleasant manner. He didn’t look like a criminal. It turned out, however, that he was. He had been in trouble with the law on more than one occasion. Then he had begun to attend a Pentecostal church. He had heard the gospel, believed it and been baptized. For a few months he made good progress. When his accommodation fell through, the pastor invited him to stay in the manse with him and his family. Things went along nicely for a time until Mitch found himself in bed with the pastor’s daughter and she fell pregnant.

‘So the minister kicked me out,’ he said simply.

‘Well, what did you expect?’

‘Oh, I’m not complaining,’ he replied. ‘I probably would have done the same thing. But at the time it made me mad and I decided that church wasn’t for me and went back to my old ways.’

And it was not long before he was back in prison. Two days before this Sunday morning, he had been released, gone to a pub on Saturday night to celebrate and had a few too many. It was then that he happened to see an opal dealer he had ‘dealt with’ on a previous occasion.

He watched the dealer’s movements as he went into another room with a client. Later the two men returned and while they were talking together, the briefcase of opal samples was placed on the floor near their feet. No one else would have realized its value, but Mitch did. It was a relatively simple matter to walk past, quietly snatch it, and keep going out the door.

He then hurried to the car park, stole a car as well, and drove off into the night. After a while it ran out of petrol. He was now a safe distance away, so he parked the car and fell asleep. When he awoke that morning, he came to his senses and realized what he had done. He knew that if he was caught he would be back in jail in no time and he was scared. So he found a phone box, tried to find a minister he could talk to, and somehow discovered me.

‘So, Mitch,’ I asked, looking at him across the opals, and trying to pretend they were not there, ‘what do you want to do now?’

‘Can you give them back to the police for me?’ he pleaded.


‘Yes,’ he replied casually, as if he had just asked me to post a letter.

‘What about you doing it?’ I wanted to know.

‘Well, I’ll be arrested if I do it,’ he said, with a puzzled look, wondering why I had even asked. ‘I’ll just clear out and no one will know the difference.’

‘But you have just committed two acts of stealing,’ I protested quietly.

‘Yeah, but the car’s OK – I didn’t damage it – and the opals are here.’

‘What about the inconvenience to the car owner? And how do I know you haven’t got some opals in your pocket?

He opened the case again. ‘Well, I’m sorry about the owner of the car. But he’s still got it, hasn’t he? That’s the main thing, isn’t it? And I haven’t taken any opals. See for yourself,’ he said. ‘Look, it’s a sample case. There’s a spot for every opal. Every place is full.’

There were two layers of opals, and as far as I could see, he was right. Of course, I couldn’t be sure. Maybe he had re-arranged them in some way. But what could I do?

‘Mitch,’ I said. ‘Don’t you think it would be a good idea if you were to face up to your mistakes and come clean? Don’t you think you are the one who should return the opals?”

A look of alarm flashed across his face. ‘I don’t want to go back to prison!’ he said. ‘It’s awful there. Please, I can’t face it again. I’ll die!’

I couldn’t make him do anything, of course. He had come of his own volition and he could leave in the same way. If he had jumped up right then and fled, how could I have prevented him? I went on, ‘What about going back to church instead?’

‘That wouldn’t be a bad idea, I guess,’ he said. ‘Things were different then. People did trust me and they were prepared to give me a go.’

‘When you were baptized,’ I asked, ‘did you understand what you were doing? Did you really mean it?’

‘Oh yes,’ he replied brightly. ‘It meant I was leaving the old way of life, burying it and starting a new life in Christ.’

‘And were you?’

‘Well, I thought I was. I was really sincere at the time. Until I fell in love.’

‘So you really loved the pastor’s daughter?’

‘Of course,’ he said softly. ‘Why do you think we finished up in bed?’

I looked at him carefully. The sun had risen now. The rain was easing and there were a couple of patches of blue sky visible through the large lounge room windows. Two birds were singing somewhere outside.  We had warmed the room. The coffee cups were empty and a few scattered crumbs on the plates showed where the toast had been. It was a homely environment for a winter’s morning, yet it was also bizarre.

‘And did you really come to love the Lord Jesus Christ, too?’

‘I thought I did,’ Mitch replied. ‘I certainly wanted to.’

‘Well, why don’t you give it another go?’ I suggested. ‘If you really were sincere when you were baptized then you know that you can live a new life. Not by trying to be different but by trusting in Jesus to make a difference. ‘When you come to Christ, He forgives your past sins and He enables you to overcome future sins. This is what baptism is all about.’

I reached for my Bible and we read Romans 6:3-4 together. He seemed to get the message.

‘Does this mean I have to stay here till the police come?’ he asked, with a tremble in his voice. ‘I really don’t think I can do that.’

‘That is entirely up to you,’ I answered. ‘Only you can make that decision.’

He stood to his feet. He wasn’t very tall, but he stood straight. ‘Pastor,’ he said, ‘I came here to return the stones. I’ve done that. But that’s all. Now I want to go. I’ll leave them with you and you handle it how you like.’

I stood and reached out my hand. ‘Let me pray with you,’ I said. And so we prayed together for him to find a way back to God and to the new life that he had briefly tasted once before.

He shook my hand and thanked me and went his way.

I phoned the police and they came quickly. The loss of the opals had been reported, of course, and they knew exactly who they belonged to. What they didn’t know was who had stolen them. They began to question me. I told them my story. They listened politely but didn’t seem to believe me.

With a shock, I realized that I was a suspect. They wondered if I had stolen them, had second thoughts and made up the story to cover my tracks!

‘This young man,’ they began, ‘was he tall with black hair?’

‘No,’ I replied. ‘Quite the opposite. Short with brown hair.’

‘How old was he? How did he know your phone number? How did he get here?’ The questions went on. And so did the time. If they didn’t leave soon, I would be late for church. I became restless, wondering if they would ever stop – and wondering how in the world I would explain my tardiness to the congregation. (‘Folks, I’m really sorry to be running late but I was a suspect in a crime scene and I was being interrogated by the police.’ What a great start to a sermon that would be!) And even if they did leave. How would I be able to focus my thoughts sufficiently to preach an intelligent sermon?

Looking back later, I could see they had been trying to catch me out. Fortunately, when you stick to the truth, it is hard to be tricked.

Finally, to my great relief, they took the opals and left and I never heard any more about them.

And Mitch? I have never heard from him either. Did he return to his new-found faith? Did he finish up in church? Was he spinning me a line all along with no intention of leaving his old ways? Is he now in prison? Or married with a family? Or lost on the streets? Or…

I will probably never know.

Did I do the right thing in letting him go? Well, I couldn’t have stopped him anyway. But even if could have, should I have? I will never know that either.

But when I sit in church next Sunday morning, and I join in the praying and the singing, I hope that in some way, somehow, in another church somewhere, a man named Mitch will be lifting his voice in praise to God, too.

The Great Hall of Gloom

His Royal Lowness, Lord Everett Flyblown, sat restlessly in the Great Hall of Gloom, with its huge sable pillars and inky forecourt. In the thick, black darkness, he was almost invisible. Ima Slimebag stood uncertainly before him, barefoot on the frigid tiles. The gloom surrounded him like a dense, liquid fog. When he moved, he could almost feel it moving with him, so bleak and grim was the air.
It was a night waiting for a dawn that would never come. Not a single light was to be seen anywhere. Black dust covered everything and a black pall hung over all.
Lord Flyblown’s figure, once so glowing with glory, but now so tarnished and stained, blended with the ebony atmosphere. He drummed his metallic fingers with impatience on the arm of his imperial throne.[1]
Slimebag had spent so long in the enfolding tenebrosity that, like a bat in a cave, he could distinguish the objects around him, black as they were. His vision could penetrate the impenetrable. But in the murky gloom, Lord Flyblown’s facial expression was impossible to read, even for him.
‘So,’ began Lord Flyblown, ‘you claim to have had some success in counteracting the seditious activities of Enemy agents i-Plod and e-Pray. Tell me more.’
Slimebag’s blue-black skin sheened faintly like the carapace of a small lobster. He felt a shudder ripple through his skinny frame but it wasn’t from the cold.
‘I tracked them closely, Your Venomness, as you ordered me to do,’ answered Slimebag as confidently as he could.
‘Well, things were looking pretty promising  at the beginning, Your Despicableness. I am glad to report they failed miserably in their overseas mission trip. They had little opportunity to engage with the locals and made no significant contact with the underground movement.’
Slimebag lifted his shoulders, and looked up at Flyblown, his eyebrows raised, hoping for commendation for his efforts. He squinted, trying to read his master’s mood, but although he could readily distinguish his figure in the pervasive gloom, it was impossible.
‘Is that all?’ barked Lord Flyblown. ‘And you call that success? According to your report—and to information from other sources—i-Plod spoke at ten meetings of enemy slaves. And both he and e-Pray spent long periods of time in discussion with a significant number of international agents and were actually entertained and dined by senior Government officials.’
‘Well, yes, Your Lowness,’ mumbled Slimebag, suddenly grateful to be half-hidden in the darkness. ‘I do admit there were a couple of glitches. But on two occasions, when e-Pray addressed meetings, they were so interested in what she said that i-Plod was ignored. I thought that was gratifying. He is such a know-all. He is always trying to hold the floor. And I did distract them with some tourism and they had to endure below zero temperatures.’
‘Enough!’ Lord Flyblown interjected, his steely hands held high in mock astonishment. ‘I am awestruck by your achievement!’ He stood to his feet and took a step forward towards his young protege.
‘Maybe he’s going to pin a medal on me,’ thought Slimebag excitedly. ‘Wait till I tell Fishrot about that!’
Lord Flyblown stopped and gazed down at Slimebag. Then his eyes narrowed and there was menace in his voice. ‘Haven’t you worked out that the way to deal with human pride is to build it up, not break it down! Will you ever learn?’
Slimebag’s excitement vanished like a lizard under a rock. His eyes widened with fear. ‘And don’t you realize,’ hissed Lord Flyblown, ‘what would happen if people actually did believe that the Enemy’s story is true? What if they were convinced the Enemy really did love them so much that he sent his one and only Son to save them from our clutches?[2] What if millions of people were to start loving each other (ugh) and caring for each other with that soppy sentiment they call kindness? What if they came to think that love, integrity and forgiveness were more important than money or sex or power? The very thought of it is sickening.’
Long inured to the icy texture of the furniture, Lord Flyblown looked around grimly at the dismal, grimy walls and the arid, frozen floor. Those foolish humans imagined he ruled a kingdom of fire. He hated fire. Hated it even more than the pervasive chill of the sinister depths of the Abyss.[3]
He leaned forward, glaring at Slimebag. ‘I hope you fared better during the rest of the year,’ he remarked.
Slimebag wrung his hands together obsequiously and spoke rapidly. ‘Oh, yes, Your Degradedness, certainly,’ he sneered. ‘They both ran short of money.’
‘And you call that an achievement?’ blurted Lord Flyblown, savagely. ‘Do you really understand your job, Slimebag?’
‘Certainly, Your Mendacity,’ responded Ima Slimebag, quoting defiantly from his training manual.  ‘My most important task is to tempt humans and to lure them to sin.’[4]
‘Well, I do confess, Your Coldness, I didn’t do too well there. Plenty of small victories, of course, but little of major consequence to report.’ He went on anxiously, with the hint of a catch in his voice, ‘I mean, I try hard enough. I steer enticements right into i-Plod’s path; I do appeal to his pride; I apply stress to e-Pray in her work; I get them both over-tired—but… Well, I mean, that e-Pray, she can’t help herself, always giving things away and caring for people in need. And i-Plod, he is so naïve. Try getting him to do something dishonest. He doesn’t know how. And when they do get something wrong, they simply ask the Enemy to forgive them and—and—he actually does! I can’t believe it.’
‘Mm, they are an objectionable couple, I do agree. Nauseating.’ Lord Flybown paused. For a moment he almost sounded sympathetic. Suddenly he raised his voice. ‘But so what!’ He glowered at Slimebag. ‘What did you expect? Instant reversion?’
‘I—I—er—did get them too busy to pray sometimes!’ Slimebag urged eagerly, his skeletal toes scraping a pattern on the cold, dusty floor, like worm-tracks ‘And I did give them some health problems! Especially e-Pray. She’s a dangerous Enemy agent. I stopped her in her tracks.’
‘I’m afraid not, Your Scurillity.
‘And i-Plod?’ asked Lord Flyblown, more wishfully than hopefully.
‘Oh, him? Unhappily, Your Arrogance, he’s OK.’
‘If I am correctly informed, you egg-brained wimp, recently at some of his meetings people were infected by that pestilential Enemy Spirit. You thought they would just go away and forget everything as people at church usually do, but they wouldn’t leave. They spent hours calling on the Enemy, many in tears (in tears!) and others crying out as if they were in pain.  At other times they sang, they laughed, they celebrated, they stayed late.’
‘Well, I guess—‘
‘If you don’t tell me something good, Slimebag, I will have you grilled and toasted before the day is out!’
Slimebag trembled at the thought. He looked out through the twisted ebony pillars around him at the wide, waterless waste. Not a single tree, not another living creature, not the faintest cry of a bird nor the merest hint of song. All was bleak and barren, frozen and dry.[5] The thought of a fire filled him with dread.
‘I really did try to stop them,’ he blurted pitifully. ‘But they are so…so…fixated. I can’t seem to divert them, no matter what I do. I manage occasional slipups, I make them stumble, I even trip them over, but they just get up and get going again. They are incorrigible! They just do what the Enemy tells them to do.’[6] Slimebag hung his head. Then he had an idea. His face brightened and he looked up and said, ‘But, really, compared with most other Enemy agents, i-Plod and e-Pray have done hardly anything.’
‘And neither have you, you…you…miserable wretch!’ snarled Lord Flyblown. He stood to his feet, his large frame looming above Slimebag like a huge, black, walking stingray. ‘I’ll have more to say to you later.’  He stormed off leaving poor Slimebag alone and silent in the gloomy, desolate Hall.
He trembled and waited, slouched in the nausea of failure… Absently, he contemplated the faint shadows at his feet. Strangely, the configuration of the pillars had given them a rough Cross-shape.
He recalled the nonsense the Enemy agents blathered about the Cross. Total idiocy, of course. He snarled softly… But what if it were true? What if the Enemy actually had taken human form and died for humankind on a Roman Cross? The thought shocked him. What if that was the problem all along? That Enemy agents did what they did because they really believed He had given His own Son for them? That He had got rid of the cold darkness in their lives?[7] That they really were reborn? That the biblical story was not just another fable but actually a fact of history?
Nah! Of course not. It was impossible. It had to be, didn’t it? If it really was true, his whole existence was a mockery. But what if it was? Could it change even him?  Might it even make him good?
In panic, like a cockroach suddenly exposed to the light, he ran wildly from the Hall and fled into the vast, silent, lonely wasteland, terrified by the thought.
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[1] Jude 1:6, 13; Job 10:21-22; 24:17.
[2] John 3:16; Act 26:18.
[3] Nahum 3:17; Luke 8:31; Rev 9:11.
[4] Matt 4:1-11.
[5] Luke 11:24.
[6] Hebrews 12:1-3.
[7] John 8:12; Col 1:13.