Chris Thomas

The Peculiar Glory of Unexpected Discoveries

If we continue to live out our faith in carefully selected screen grabs, presented with post production filters that only show our ‘good side’, we may think that the charade is somehow advancing the gospel—but it’s not. We need to remove the distance. We need to show people the full frame. Living life up close with people is a sure-fire way of revealing your weakness, and with it, the true power of the gospel to save.

Content is king. Or so they say. Not that you would guess it after discovering the billions of dollars that are spent every year in packaging, marketing, and advertising in general. We are obsessed with hype, highlighting the wrapping, and creating a sense of anticipation. We are a generation who have perfected the art of over-selling and under-delivering. Big ticket consumable products are preceded by cinematic campaigns, while even our movie teasers have teasers and even these are fast being delivered as trilogies in their own right.
But there is a peculiar glory found in unexpected discoveries. A cool fresh stream flowing down a heavily forested gully is enjoyable, but the same stream found in the barren wastelands of some distant desert is a wonder. Treasure, found in a clay jar, is all the more brilliant for the fact of where it was hidden. Again, there is a peculiar glory found in unexpected discoveries.
While the Bible explicitly warns us of the folly, many a church have not been immune to following the well worn paths the world has blazed. Whitened smiles and power suits are fast being replaced with whatever the latest packaging trends are, but both communicate the same thing — “We’ve got a product you want, and if you come get it, you can be just like us.” Just as the world is growing weary of the pretence of marketing, so many disciples are growing weary with the charade of Instagram Christianity.
The Apostle Paul, a world away from ours, speaks into the veneer of our world with wisdom for the weary.

For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weakness, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. — 2 Corinthians 12:10

If our heart is truly tuned to the cause of Christ, if in fact we actually are centred around the gospel as a planet orbits the sun, then Paul’s words begin to ring true—glory in unexpected places is precisely his point. But if the veneer of my life showcases my own ability, my own fortitude, my own wisdom, my own strength—then who gets noticed? Who gets the glory? Is the gospel even portrayed at all?
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Harvesting Idols

We’ve tried the fields of prosperity and wealth, they have not given us the harvest we truly longed for. It is time to turn to the fallow fields, the fields we have ignored. Sow righteousness. Reap love that will not fail. God will turn up in ways that we had only ever dreamt of, and he will come with the refreshing rains of righteousness.

It is a valuable distinction to make, that money is not the root of all evil, but the love of it. Yet even here, the distinction may deceive us, or at least, our heart may. Your heart, like mine, is a powerful force. The heart sings a seductive song that the mind finds difficult to resist. Like Tolkien’s depiction of the Dwarves who loved gold above all else, the more we have the deeper we dig*. Our pursuit of wealth unearths dark places where danger has lain dormant, but is now ready to rise up and devour.
Yet, we have no need to turn to Tolkien for such truths; long has the relationship between riches and ruin been known, and there are many who have warned us of the perils. Yet we rarely listen. One such voice of reason comes through the prophet Hosea. As he delivers a message of warning to God’s faithless people, his own experience with an adulterous wife becomes the image through which God demonstrates his relenting love. As God pours out his heart to his ‘bride’ who has wandered far from him, he reveals again the lust they had for wealth.

Israel is a luxuriant vine that yields its fruit. The more his fruit increased, the more altars he built; as his country improved, he improved his pillars. Their heart is false; now they must bear their guilt. The Lord will break down their altars and destroy their pillars.  (Hosea 10:1-2 ESV)

“The more his fruit increased, the more altars he built.” There is a direct relationship between wealth and our lustful heart’s tendency to pursue anything else but God. Here sits the deception of our heart.
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Zombie Sins

Accountability to a fellowship is good, but without honesty, is insufficient. More often than not I have coddled my sin rather than killed it. I’ve fed the beast, thinking that I might keep it at bay, all the while it has been plotting its attack. We cannot co-exist with sin, making excuses for it, placating it with promises of tomorrow. Our idols are ruthless task-masters; we have made them too heavy to bear up, their weight will crush us. We must grind them to powder and throw them to the wind, or we might find that God has ground them for us, though the taste will be bitter on our tongue.

The lights dimmed. The movie began. A man waking in a hospital bed repeatedly pressing a buzzer that is never responded to. He gathers his strength to stand, slowly exploring the empty halls, calling repeatedly to his echo. He’s alone.
The lonely man wanders the quiet streets. He seems small in empty world. Wind blown waste shudders down the side path, newspaper headings about a virus, the date read 28 days earlier.
That’s when the zombies attacked.
It was also the exact moment I left the cinema. Like a fool, I walked in to watch a movie I knew nothing about while attempting to kill time on an interstate layover. I don’t watch Zombie flicks. I’d like to say I have some grand theological reason why that’s the case, the truth though is simpler—I don’t like scary movies. It baffles me why zombie movies are so popular, why the idea of the living dead still attracts a crowd—but it does. ‘Fright’ is cheap entertainment.
I don’t need to entertain fictional zombies, I have enough of my own to contend with. I’ve been a stumbling follower of Jesus since my mid-teens. I’ve had my moments of victory, mountain-top experiences of joy that modern worship songs love to extol. But sin has plagued me. Of course, the sins of youthful lusts and pride were present, and my twenties were a decade of struggle. My thirties saw the struggle change, but still present. I thought I’d left much behind, but in my mid forties, a new army has arisen—a zombie squad intent on tearing apart what God has built.

“So then, brothers and sisters, we are not obligated to the flesh to live according to the flesh, because if you live according to the flesh, you are going to die. But if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” (Romans 8:12–13, CSB)

Here’s what I am learning. Paul asks me to slay sin, a theme that John Owen would later riff off as he famously quipped, “Be killing sin or sin will be killing you,” and I thought I was. But I was wrong.
Burying sin is not the same as killing it.
I’d take a stab at killing my sin, I’d strike at it with my willpower and see it step away into the shadows again. My foolish mistake was assuming I’d dealt it a mortal blow, some fatal slash, and so I would consider it dead and buried. I’d rise on the mountain-top victoriously. But now the horde grows close again. Buried sins. The ugly undead.
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Held by Tender Hands

Bring your bruises to Jesus. He will not break you off and caste you aside. That little bit of flame that remains, the small glow that just burns in desperate defiance of the approaching night, he will not snuff it out. The breath he breaths on you is to fan that smouldering wick into flame again. The hands that hold you now are not to caste you aside, but to draw you near.

I am a reed, but not like others.
I suppose I should be. I grow by the quiet waters of a sheltered pond. In the late Summer evenings I watch the same dance of the Dragonfly as she gently kisses the smooth surface and momentarily shatters the mirrored sky. I grow beneath the sprawling branches of an ancient tree that drinks the same water I do. I grow among my brethren, other reeds who bow their heads each evening, only to lift them again to greet the rising sun, nodding with the warm breeze that carries the smell of earth and harvest. I don’t grow alone.
I am a reed, but not like the others.
Oh, it may appear I am the clone of those who gather round me; tall and straight I stretch toward the sky. The creatures of the wetland make their home around my feet, the birds of the air come to harvest from my crown, and like my brethren, one day the workers from the village will come and harvest us to weave into their art. We reeds have a noble calling. But I am not like the others.
I am wounded. The fibres of my being have faltered. Where others stand strong and secure, I feel the soft place within, the weakness that threatens to topple me. While others sway with the gentle evening breeze, I fear that their breeze will be my storm. Rather than sway, I bend, and I know that one day the bend will become a break.
I am bruised.
When the other reeds of the river are woven into tapestries of beauty, I will not be wound around my brothers, I will still be standing here, alone. Or worse, I will be hewn in half and thrown down; a bruised reed broken and left behind. I’m sure it is only a matter of time. Like the fire that burns the chaff away, when it has done its intended work the labourers of the field stamp out the smouldering remains. Or like the nightwatchman who blows out the candle before the smouldering wick stings his eyes with unwanted smoke, so my tall crown will be cast down to the mud in which I stand.
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Faith Like A Beach House

Left dormant for too long, left to the buffeting effects of wind and rain, waiting out the scorching summers and unattended winters, my faith begins to stink. I had foolishly thought that time would be the vehicle of sanctification, that being an older Christian would automatically make me a more Christ-like Christian. But it hasn’t. The veneer on my faith looked uncomfortably like the veneer on our shack.

The excitement ebbed away with my first breath. Now, to be honest, I’m not an overly excitable guy; I’m fairly reserved in my displays of emotion, but I had been undeniably excited, that much was clear. But not any more.
A week or two earlier, my wife and I had purchased on old van, circa late 70’s, that had been permanently parked on a slab of concrete, wrapped in old corrugated iron, and had numerous little extensions tacked onto it over the last 30 years or so. Our intention was to make some small renovations, tidy it up, and use it as a beach house retreat for family holidays, and as a place for others in need of some Sabbath rest to have an inexpensive break away. The location is stunning. Nestled among the Australian bush landscape, overlooking a quiet stretch of water that winds its way out into the Pacific Ocean, sits our little shack. In my mind, the primary vision was wrapped in all the potential, the finished product, the place where I and others could rest. Of course, somewhere in the back of my consciousness was the annoying voice of the realist the dwells within, “You got a fair bit of work here, mate. It’s not going to be easy.”
I’d say that my sense of expectation was most akin to the hopes and dreams of my youth—full of visions for how thing will be, without giving much thought for the journey required to get there. I recall the zeal of my early 20’s, the vision I’d constructed of my victorious Christian life, the ministries I’d have transformed, and maybe even built. I remember thinking about how much easier my Christian life would be when I was older, when I’d conquered youthful lusts, had overcame the temptations that assailed me, and looked more like Jesus than I did then. I guess I must have thought that with enough time, things would get better, as though the passing of years would, in and of themselves, achieve something that I longed for.
But now, here I am looking at my Beach House—the passing of time had not been kind. Of course, there was a kind of rustic charm, a weathered patina that told a story of the years that etched themselves into it—yet there was no mistaking it, more time was not the cure for what ails my crumbling little shack.
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Refreshed In Chains

Long after Onesimus took the letter, Paul sat in chains knowing that Philemon’s response could refresh his weary spirit. Yes, I know that we look to Christ for comfort and strength—Paul was no stranger to knowing the Lord’s presence to embolden him for the hard road ahead. But isn’t this wonderful? When Paul saw the gospel budding in another’s life, that too was a source of refreshment for him.

The Bible is far from barren prose on ancient parchment. Instead it ripples with life, it rises and falls with the breath of God, it ebbs and flows as the Spirit wields it with surgical precision.
Consider the short book of Philemon nestled toward the back of your Bible. Not even a book really, more accurately, an intimate insight into the gospel, seen through the lens of friendship and exposed by the expert penmanship of Paul as he pleads with a dear brother.
Receiving a hand-written letter by post is fast becoming a novelty these days, but imagine for a moment Philemon’s surprise to have this letter couriered to his own hand by none other than Onesimus, the very slave who ran from him some time earlier. Or imagine, if you can, the moment Onesimus crested the hill overlooking his one-time master’s estate—clenching the scroll he carried as though it was his greatest treasure, heart beating with unusual haste, hopeful for Philemon’s blessing, fearful of the consequences of his escape. If you can imagine neither of these, I wonder if you can picture Paul as he etched these 25 verses from his own prison, glancing up at his new friend and child in the faith, Onesimus. Casting his mind back to his precious friendship with Philemon, Paul allows his heart to flow onto the scroll rolled out before him.

So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self. Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ.  (Philemon 17-20 ESV)

The entire letter is rich with implications that blossom from the stump of the gospel, but even in these few verses lay a bouquet that should awaken our senses to the aroma of grace that is found in Jesus.
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Untainted Eyes

In the things that matter most I long to be childish once again. To hear the words of Jesus, and feel his welcoming embrace, and simply stand with wide-eyed wonder and innocent acceptance. I long for the scales to fall from my eyes, and with untainted vision see the grace of the gospel in all its fullness wash away the stain of skepticism.

Two things I long for. Two things lost, but not forgotten.
The childish wonder I saw in a lizard as it lay warming itself in a dust speckled shaft of sunlight. The eyes of my children as they drank my words that fuelled imaginations of a world yet to be seen.
Adulthood is conditioned toward sclerosis. As I speed toward a half century of life, I feel a hardening creeping toward me as the sun begins to dip beyond the zenith of my days of wandering. When did I cautiously handle every new discovery, swill every new taste before swallowing? When did my default setting switch to “let’s wait and see”? When did I become such a skeptic?
Skepticism is exhausting. Always looking for the angle, the sell, the loop-hole, the attached strings. Always listening for the subliminal message, the ring of falsehood, the unmistakable tone of sensationalism. Always expecting the let down, the “told you so”, the uncovering of lies, the sting of disappointment. I grieve the passing of childish days, where innocent wondering consumed my mind but never wearied my soul.
I grieve too, the passing chapter of parenting that saw the same hardening in my children. I wistfully smile as I recall the wide-eyed excitement my children lived in, long before disappointments marred their vision; yesterday, when skepticism lay undiscovered and simple pleasures were simply that. Both they and I, when I too was like them, saw the world in wholeness, sharp edged and clear. We had untainted eyes. But those days have slipped away.

Skepticism is like a microscope whose magnification is constantly increased: the sharp image that one begins with finally dissolves, because it is not possible to see ultimate things: their existence is only to be inferred.— Stanislaw Lem

Now, with brief glimpses of “if, buts, and maybes”, we feverishly build an image of the world that won’t crumble beneath our feet. Forever groping about, not trusting the ground with our full weight, anxiously expecting to pitch forward into the darkness, knowing that those who promise to break our fall probably won’t. What a wretched existence we’ve constructed for ourselves.
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