Daniel Hans is a Presbyterian minister in the United States. In 1986 he and his wife Beth lost their three year old daughter Laura to cancer. Daniel and Beth watched in agony as their little girl faced nine hospitalisations and four separate operations in the last nine months of her life. Their hearts broke as they watched Laura die, and they struggled to make sense of what had happened.
In 1987 Daniel Hans released a book containing some of the sermons he preached throughout his daughter’s battle with cancer and in the period immediately after her death. One of them is titled: “Caution. Your God is Too Big.” Hans relates how he once surveyed his congregation, asking them about their disappointments with God. He asked them to share things they had hoped God would do but that God didn’t. People described times they had prayed for the life of a newborn child only to see it die, of the hope God would protect his people from violence only to hear of an elderly woman being stabbed on her way to church, prayed for rain for famine stricken Africa only to see starvation continue. To these disappointments Hans now added his own – he had hoped God would heal his baby girl, but her condition only grew worse.
Hans suggests that disappointments like these are the stuff of life, and that if we read the Scriptures we discover that alongside the stories of miracles and amazing feats by God we hear story after story of disappointment with God, of times God appears silent and inactive. He suggests that sometimes we remember only the miracle stories and so we develop too big a view of God – not that we can have too big a view of God’s greatness and power or too big a view of God’s love and grace, but that we can have too big a view of God’s will. God’s action in our world is not always to perform the miraculous, but more often than not to walk through our suffering with us. Hans suggests that “A view of God that is too big is harmful both to believer and unbeliever. When our understanding of God is exaggerated, we declare that God will do things he does not intend to do, at least not regularly and in all situations.”
Source: Adapted from Daniel Hans, God on the Witness Stand (Baker, 1987)
During the US civil war Abraham Lincoln met with a group of ministers for a prayer breakfast. Lincoln was not a church-goer but was a man of deep, if at times unorthodox, faith. At one point one of the ministers said, “Mr President, let us pray that God is on our side”. Lincoln’s response showed far greater insight, “No, gentlemen, let us pray that we are on God’s side.”
Lincoln reminded those ministers that religion is not a tool by which we get God to do what we want but an invitation to open ourselves to being and doing what God wants.
Source: this is a widely distributed anecdote found on the internet, including citation in serious studies. I have been unable to confirm its historicity
In 1979 the tugboat Cahaba was headed down the Tombingbee River in Alabama, USA. The current was flowing fast as the tug’s pilot approached the bridge and released his coal barges. He then put his 1800 horsepower twin engines into reverse to get away, but when the boat moved slightly off line the current swung the boat sideways and slammed it into the bridge. The current was so strong that it forced the boat down under the water. To the astonishment of onlookers it passed under the bridge and popped up, upright, with the engines still going and the pilot at the wheel, on the other side. Why did it come back to the surface in an upright position? Because it was ballasted with a metre thick lining of cement on the bottom of the hull. It is a vivid reminder that life can often go horribly wrong, but if we have the right “ballast” – faith in Christ – then we can get through it and emerge upright on the other side. By the way, you can view photos of the amazing tug incident on at www.gcfl.net/stuff/tugboat/.
Source: information found at www.gcfl.net/stuff/tugboat/.
During the deepest, darkest days of apartheid when the government tried to shut down opposition by canceling a political rally, Archbishop Desmond Tutu declared that he would hold a church service instead.
St. George’s Cathedral in Cape Town, South Africa was filled with worshippers. Outside the cathedral hundreds of police gathered, a show of force intended to intimidate. As Tutu was preaching they entered the Cathedral, armed, and lined the walls. They took out notebooks and recorded Tutu’s words.
But Tutu would not be intimidated. He preached against the evils of apartheid, declaring it could not endure. At one extraordinary point he addressed the police directly.
You are powerful. You are very powerful, but you are not gods and I serve a God who cannot be mocked. So, since you’ve already lost, since you’ve already lost, I invite you today to come and join the winning side!
With that the congregation erupted in dance and song.
The police didn’t know what to do. Their attempts at intimidation had failed, overcome by the archbishop’s confidence that God and goodness would triumph over evil. It was but a matter of time.
Source: reported in Jim Wallis, God’s Politics
One of the most amazing things about our world is the delicate balance required to sustain it, that is, to have a universe capable of producing and sustaining life as we know it. In the book The Creator and the Cosmos, astrophysicist Hugh Ross points out twenty five factors that must all exist within very narrowly defined ranges for life of any kind to exist. Just one of these is the number of electrons. Unless the number of electrons is equivalent to the number of protons to an accuracy of one part in 1037, or better, then galaxies, stars and planets could never have formed. To get an idea of just how sensitive this is Ross asks us to imagine covering the entire continent of North America in dimes all the way up to the moon. Then do the same thing on a billion other continents the same size as North America. Now you have 1037 dimes. Now imagine that just one dime is painted red. You have mixed it in will all the others. Now take a friend a blindfold her and stand her in front of those of those billions upon billion of dimes covering a billion continents and piled to the moon and ask her to pick one out. Her chances of selecting the red one are one in 1037. These are the same odds as the ratio of electrons to protons being at the precise level required for life, and this is just one of many parameters that must be so finely tuned. Ross and many other scientists believe this points to a universe which has been carefully and skilfully designed by a Creator.
Source: information in Hugh Ross, The Creator and the Cosmos (Navpress, 1993)
On the fifteenth of May, 1950, a group of students from Oxford University gathered for their weekly debate between atheists and Christians. Huddled inside the Junior Common Room at St Hilda’s College the meeting was chaired by CS Lewis. A young philosophy student named Antony Flew presented a case for atheism. His speech was titled “Theology and Falsification”. It doesn’t sound very exciting but it became the most widely published philosophical paper of the 20th century and Antony Flew went on to became one of the leading atheist thinkers of the 20th century. It has been said that “within the last hundred years, no mainstream philosopher has developed the kind of systematic, comprehensive, original, and influential exposition of atheism that is to be found in Antony Flew’s fifty years of…writing”. (Roy Varghese, Preface to There is a God).
In 2004 Flew dropped a bombshell – he declared he had changed his mind. He had not had a Damascus Road conversion experience. He had not had a personal encounter with God. He simply believed that the evidence from science and philosophy now pointed to the existence of a God. “I have followed the argument where it has led me” he said, ”And it has led me to accept the existence of a self-existent, immutable, immaterial, omnipotent and omniscient Being.” (Flew, There is a God)
There’s a story told about a Professor of biology who was an atheist. Every year he began his lectures on evolution by asking if any of the students were religious. When they identified themselves he boasted that by the end of his course they’d all know evolution was the truth and would have become atheists. Over the years many a student lost their faith during his course.
One day our atheist professor was walking through the forest, marvelling at the wonderful world evolution has given us. His wondering was interrupted by a loud growl. He turned to see a large, hungry and cranky grizzly bear charging towards him. The professor began to run, but it was no use, the bear was too fast. The professor tripped and next thing he knew the grizzly was standing above him, one foot on his chest, his paw ready to strike. With terror in his eyes the atheist professor realised he was about to experience survival of the fittest first hand.
At that point he cried out “God help me!”
Time stopped! The bear froze. The forest was silent. A bright light shone down upon the atheist and a voice boomed from the heavens, “You deny my existence for all of these years, teach others I don’t exist, and even credit creation to a cosmic accident. Do you expect me to help you out of this predicament? Am I to count you as a believer?”
The atheist professor looked up into the light, “It would be hypocritical of me to suddenly ask you to treat me as a Christian now…but perhaps could you make the bear a Christian?”
“Very well,” the voice said.
The light went out and the sounds of the forest resumed. And then the bear dropped its right paw, brought both paws together, bowed its head and spoke: “Lord, for this food which I am about to receive, I am truly thankful.”
How would you get young people interested in classical music? A few years ago Richard Dreyfuss starred in the movie Mr Holland’s Opus. You’ve probably seen it. Mr Holland is a high school music teacher who is passionate about music. He loves Beethoven, Bach, Mozart. For Mr Holland “music is…about heart, it’s about feelings, moving people, and something beautiful, and it’s not about notes on a page.” But how do you communicate that passion to a bunch of teenagers who have as much energy for Bach as they do for household chores? When Mr Holland starts talking about the classical composers he meets a sea of blank faces and bored looks.
And then one day Mr Holland discovers something amazing. He starts playing one of the hit pop songs of the time. All of a sudden the students perk up, their feet start tapping to the beat, their heads start nodding with the rhythm. “You like that huh?” asks Mr Holland. “Do you know what it is? It’s Beethoven.” This pop song has taken one of Beethoven’s melodies and set it to a rock beat, played it with electric guitars rather than violins, and given it lyrics that speak about boys and girls falling in love. All of a sudden Beethoven is not some ancient relic of a bygone era. All of a sudden Beethoven is relevant, Beethoven has become meaningful to Mr Holland’s students. Beethoven connects.
When people hear about about Christianity they can sometimes become a bit like Mr Holland’s students. Their eyes glaze over, their face goes blank, and they’re bored by it. They’re telling me, “I’m not interested in a faith which is nothing more than an ancient relic of a bygone era. I’m interested in a faith which is a dynamic force in my era. I’m not interested in a faith that speaks to the questions of yesterday, I’m interested in a faith that speaks to the questions I face today. I’m not interested in a faith that dredges through the issues of the past. I’m interested in a faith that engages with the issues of today.” Do you ever find yourself feeling like that?
You know the wonderful thing about the Christian faith is that it can be like Beethoven was for Mr Holland’s students. It’s a song that can be played anew in every era; a melody line that repeats through history, but played using the instruments of our time, with a beat we can dance to. And the task of the Christian church is to take this ancient song and play it in such a way that it connects with the people of our time, the mood of our time and the issues of our time.
Source: Scott Higgins
When the famous seventeenth century French scientist Blaise Pascal died in 1662 his servant found a small piece of parchment sewn into his coat. At the top of the paper Pascal had drawn a cross. Underneath the cross were these words.
In the year of the Lord 1654
Monday, November 23
From about half-past ten in the evening
until half-past twelve.
God of Abraham, God if Isaac, God of Jacob
Not of philosophers nor of the scholars.
Certitude. Certitude. Feeling. Joy, Peace.
God of Jesus Christ,
My God and thy God.
“Thy God shall be my God.”
Forgetfulness of the world and of everything, except God.
He is to be found only by the ways taught in the Gospel.
Greatness of the soul of man.
“Righteous Father, the world hath not know thee,
but I have know thee.”
Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy.
I have fallen away: I have fled from Him,
denied Him, crucified him.
May I not fall away forever.
We keep hold of him only by the ways taught in the Gospel.
Renunciation, total and sweet.
Total submission to Jesus Christ and to my director.
Eternally in joy for a day’s exercise on earth.
I will not forget Thy word. Amen.
That was Pascal’s record of an intense two hour religious experience that he kept secret until his death. It was an experience of God that gripped his soul and changed the course of his life. He stored his record of it in the lining of his coat, close to his heart. For eight years he took care to sew and unsew it every time he changed his coat. It was a treasured experience, something he could return to again and again.
Similarly, we can take those experiences of God that we have – transforming moments – and hang onto them as gifts from God to energise and motivate our faith.
Adapted from RC Sproul Doubt and Assurance (Baker Books, 1993) and Charles Kummel, The Galileo Connection (IVP, 1986)
In November 2000 my wife, my kids and I took a holiday to the Gold Coast. About 600kms north we were driving up a big hill, knowing that Byron Bay was down the other side. We were looking forward to it. We’d been in the car for a long time, it was hot, and we were eagerly anticipating a break. So up the hill we came, knowing that our break was down the other side. And then we saw it – the most breathtaking view you’re ever likely to encounter. At the top of the hill we got the most breathtaking view of a lush green valley stretching away to the deep blue of the ocean.
There was a lookout at the top of the hill, so we stopped, jumped out of the car and stood looking. The kids figured they’d reached the top of the world, so they danced on a little stone wall singing, “We’re on top the world, we’re on top of the world.” Over and over, “we’re on top of the world, we’re on top of the world.”
And in some ways it really felt like it – it was one of those perfect moments frozen in time. The kids singing and dancing, the wind fresh on the face, the sun shining above us, the road we’d travelled stretching out behind us, the road to come winding its way ahead. We knew who we were, where we’d come from, where we were going.
If you think of life as a journey, most of us would like to sit at the top of the world, to have one of those perfect moments where it all comes together and make sense, where we can look back at where we’ve come from and look ahead and know where we’re going, to have a sense of what is out there waiting for us, to see the detours and potholes and danger points that lie out there and start planning how we’ll meet them.
But instead of sitting at the top we spend most of our time travelling on either side of the hill. God sits at the top, has a sense of how it all fits together, but we usually don’t get that view. We get surprised by potholes and detours and danger spots and have to struggle our way through them. Faith however reminds us that God is at the top of the hill, and that even in the roughest parts we can live with trust in him to guide us through.
Source: Scott Higgins
A man named Jack was walking along a steep cliff one day when he accidentally got too close to the edge and fell. On the way down he grabbed a branch, which temporarily stopped his fall. He looked down and to his horror saw that the canyon fell straight down for more than a thousand feet. He couldn’t hang onto the branch forever, and there was no way for him to climb up the steep wall of the cliff.
So Jack began yelling for help, hoping that someone passing by would hear him and lower a rope or something. “HELP! HELP! Is anyone up there? “HELP!” He yelled for a long time, but no one heard him. He was about to give up when he heard a voice.
“Jack, Jack. Can you hear me?”
“Yes, yes! I can hear you. I’m down here!”
“I can see you, Jack. Are you all right?”
“Yes, but who are you, and where are you?
“I am the Lord, Jack. I’m everywhere.”
“The Lord? You mean, GOD?”
“God, please help me! I promise if, you’ll get me down from here, I’ll stop sinning. I’ll be a really good person. I’ll serve You for the rest of my life.”
“Easy on the promises, Jack. Let’s get you off from there, then we can talk.”
“Now, here’s what I want you to do. Listen carefully.”
“I’ll do anything, Lord. Just tell me what to do.”
“Okay. Let go of the branch.”
“I said, let go of the branch.” Just trust Me. Let go.”
There was a long silence.
Finally Jack yelled, “HELP! HELP! IS ANYONE ELSE UP THERE?”
Christian writer Tim Stafford tells of an unusual approach to teaching about religious truth adopted by a pastor he knows. You might expect this, for the pastor, Stephey Bilynskyj, holds a Phd in Philosophy from Note Dame University! Whenever he runs a confirmation class the pastor takes a jar full of beans with him. He then gets the students to guess how many beans are in the jar, and writes down their guesses on a notepad. Pastor Bilynskyi then asks the class members to list their favourite songs, writing them down alongside the bean estimates. Pastor Bilynskyi then returns to the bean guesses, revealing the actual number and then whose guess was closest to being right. After congratulations have been offered attention is then refocussed on the song list. “And which one of these is closest to being right?” Pastor Bilynskyi asks. Invariably the students argue that when it comes to “favourite songs” there is no right answer. It’s purely subjective, a matter of taste. It’s at that point that Pastor Bilynskyi asks “When you decide what to believe in terms of your faith, is that more like guessing the number of beans, or more like choosing your favourite song?” Always, Bilynskyj says, he gets the same answer: Choosing one’s faith is more like choosing a favourite song. Bilynskyi disagrees, and though he still confirms those who hold this view, does his best to try to argue them out of it!
Source: Reported by Tim Stafford, Christianity Today, September 14, 1992
One of the most loved of all the world’s animals is the dolphin. We perceive of dolphins as friendly, intelligent and beautiful sea creatures. But one of the lesser known facts about dolphins is why they have dark grey backs and silver bellies. The answer is stunning yet simple: camouflage. When the dolphin’s swimming on the surface the silver masks its shape against the surface of the water; it makes it difficult for that Great White shark swimming below the surface to spot it. And when the dolphin dives deep the dark grey masks it against the darker water. In fact the dolphin only has to dive A few metres and it disappears from view.
Go to an oceanarium that has dolphin shows and you’ll see the evidence for yourself. The crowd gathers to be amazed by these spectacular creatures. Everyone exhales with delight when the dolphins are spotted. Then they dive deep and we lose sight of them. And that’s what makes for the joy. Because all of a sudden, out of nowhere, a pair of dolphins burst through the surface of the water, leap high in the air and crash back down into the water. Then they dive deep and they’re gone again, and the crowd waits with a delirious sense of anticipation for the next appearance. We don’t know where it’s going to be or when it’s going to be and then bang, there are 3 dolphins dancing on their tails across the surface.
It’s magical. As I reflect upon that I wonder whether God is a lot like those dolphins. There are times when God is spectacularly present in our lives, leaping through the air like one of those dolphins. Maybe it’s walking in the forest and having an overwhelming sense that God is present; maybe it’s hearing for the first time that God loves you and knowing that you believe it; maybe it’s a dramatically answered prayer; maybe it’s a sense that God has provided you guidance for a difficult decision.
And there are times when God is like those dolphins when they dive, when all we can see are the deep waters of our lives. We fear the sharks and the stingers that lurk down there, worried that they will leap out and bite us – and sometimes they do. And we hope like crazy that the dolphins are down there too, that somewhere hidden in the depths, invisible to our sight God is there. We long for God to come crashing through, though we’re not quite sure just where it will be or when it will be or how it will be. And some of us wait for an awfully long time between appearances, sometimes almost a whole lifetime, but wait we do and we enjoy those moments when God does.
Source: Scott Higgins
Philip Island, in Victoria Australia, plays host to one of the greatest nature experiences possible. On the shores of Philip Island are the burrows of thousands upon thousands of fairy penguins, extraordinarily cute little birds that stand only 30cm or so tall. Every morning the adult penguins head out to sea to catch fish. At the end of the day they return to land to bring back food for their chicks. Watching them get from the water to their burrows is both funny and exhilarating. The penguins surf in on the waves, then gather in groups at the water’s edge. Their burrows are 100 metres or so away, with the open space of the sandy beach between them. All of a sudden a group of penguins will take off, waddling as fast as their little legs will carry them across the beach. But then, having got 10 or 20 metres they’ll suddenly turn around and waddle back to the water. They wait, then try again. One group makes it, but another performs this strange ritual of turning back. And on it goes, through the dying light of day, until finally the penguins have all crossed the beach and met their chicks in their burrows.
What’s going on? Why the strange stop-start-return ritual? The answer’s quite simple. At sea the birds are fast swimmers, able to dive deep. At sea they’re safe from predators such as eagles and hawks and dogs and cats. In their burrows their safe below ground. But on the open beach they’re vulnerable and exposed. On the beach they can only waddle slowly and are easy pickings for predators. And so, as they cross the beach, the moment they see a shadow or something out of the corner of their eye, they turn back and race for the safety of the water.
It seems that we humans are a lot like those fairy penguins. When confronted with challenging situations we find ourselves like the penguins standing at the water’s edge. We know where we’ve got to go, we know we’ve got to get across that beach to get back to the burrow, but it can be so terrifying. When we step out of the water and start waddling across the beach we leave our safety zone behind, we’re in no-man’s land where it’s dangerous, uncertain and where we’re vulnerable. Yet to get to the burrow we must leave the safety zone behind and strike out into the danger zone.
Source: Scott Higgins.
The Holocaust is one of the terribly traumatic episodes of modern history, yet it has also yielded some astounding stories of bravery and faith. In France a Jewish family were hidden by some concerned French nationals in the basement of their house. The Jewish family waited and waited for their deliverance. At the end of the war these words were found scribbled on the wall of that basement:
“I believe in the sun even when it does not shine.
I believe in love even when it is not given.
I believe in God even when he is silent.”
Source: reported in Hans, God on the Witness Stand (Baker, 1987)