Asking the right questions

They say you should never ask a question to which you do not already know the answer.


Perhaps this is true in a political sense, or in a debate.


But in any normal context asking a genuine question is like the process of writing.


Sharks rugby player Stefan Terblanche once said when he remarked on the latter years of his career, that he still got butterflies in his stomach, but that they tended to now fly in formation.


I can’t speak for everyone, but for me, writing is a process by which I take inchoate thoughts and capture them like butterflies and then order and categorise them. I start, never quite sure how it is going to conclude, but sure that when it does there will in fact be a conclusion.


Therefore, writing is kind of like asking a question.


When God asks a question, of course he already knows the answer. One of the most striking images in Scripture is of the prophet Ezekial in the valley of dry bones. And God then asking him a question:


‘Son of man, can these bones live?’


No phone a friend, no audience to ask. Ezekiel ponders before answering perfectly: ‘Sovereign Lord, you alone know’.


If you don’t ask the questions, how can you get the answers? Reading through more of the Emmanuel Press material, Jesus reaches people a lot by asking questions as well as answering questions.


Ravi Zacharias once remarked that apologetics works best not simply by answering the questions of skeptics, but addressing the questioner.


The Pharisee Nicodemus visited with the Rabbi Jesus at night, probably to ensure that there was no social pressure. Jesus tells Nicodemus that to see the kingdom of God, a person must be born again. “How can someone be born when they are old?” “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”


We can infer that Nicodemus was no dummy and that he knew Jesus wasn’t speaking literally of a guy entering a birth canal to then enter the world again. Not even in the realm of sci-fi B-movies. Yet.


It was a question meant to draw an elaboration out of the Teacher. But even when Jesus explains that a man must have a spiritual birth, Nicodemus asks “How can this be?”


So convinced in his own ways that he was doing the right thing, it never occurred to him that he was spiritually dead and needed spiritual life. Jesus chides him. How could this teacher of Israel, Nicodemus, not know it? Perhaps that question resonated with Nicodemus for a long time. He thought he knew the Scriptures, he thought he knew what God wanted, but here was the Christ telling him about spiritual life and he was clueless.


And here is Nicodemus and without a context to tell me differently, he’s the first Pharisee to hear John 3:16. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” He probably had more questions.


I think of another Pharisee (Acts 9) who was confronted with the question: ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? And asking his own question, ‘Lord who are you?’ I reckon Paul knew the answer as he asked the question.

I like what the EE3 material has as diagnostic questions for the Un-Believer:


Do you know for sure…if you had to die tonight…would you go to heaven?


If God had to ask you why you should be admitted entrance to heaven…what would you say?


I like the rhetorical question Scripture has for the Believer:


What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? (Romans 8:31) Sin is no longer an impediment for us in walking His way. God is for us, we’re on His mission (if we’re not, we should be) and He is backing us all the way.

Somerset County

I read a charming article this week by Salena Zito in the Washington Examiner.

The one and only Joseph Biden zipped off to Pittsburgh to drop off some pizzas at a firehouse and then deliver a 12-minute speech, parts of which were intended to be used as material for campaign ads.


Salena Zito took the same trip by car along the highways and byways of Pennsylvania, heading west, writing of what Biden could have seen had his staff decided to drive: the rolling farmlands of Lancaster county, the Harley Davidson plant in York, the famous Gettysburg, coffee shops, ice-cream parlours and political signs from the competing campaigns. Taking a journey by road means can you can stop and connect with people.


In an age of infection, and frankly more fear than infection, a luxury in addition to being politically useful.


Along the way to Pittsburgh, Biden may have passed the Flight 93 memorial in Somerset County.


It is approaching 19 winters since the events of September 11th. A lot of water has flowed under the bridges of Madison County as well as the bridge spanning those turbulent waters.

Who even remembers anymore?


We no longer mention Al-Qaeda, ISIS is fading in memory as well. Socially, we are slaves to this moment where revolutionary movements try to maintain their momentum beyond what is natural. Kenosha, Portland, Rochester and whatever place will be next.


9/11 is pretty much forgotten. News cycles are born, live and die.


Call me old fashioned though, because 9/11 is still like a scar, where my fingers check in the flesh what I know is there in the memory. I remember. I remember Flight 93, and Todd Beamer and the heroes of that flight in a desperate effort to re-assert a measure of control.


A day when the whole world mourned with America but then moved on.


Except I didn’t really. I still remember and a flag rests on my desk.

First foot forward

At the last census in 2011, the town of White River in Mpumalanga recorded 16,639 residents. Along with several other missions students, I happened by there in 1997 and was impressed by the agricultural lifestyle: colder in the morning, fresher, less noise, physical labour, but surrounded by green things and iron-rich soil that is just about burgundy.


We saw a little publisher in the town called Emmanuel Press, at that time managed by a gentleman that resembled Colonel Sanders, but without the dark framed spectacles.


David Newington has since fallen asleep.


Strange, all these years later – and because we’re in a lockdown – I decided to make use of free online courses that they offer and I’ve been at it fairly regularly. For a long time I’ve wanted to study theology. I’ve heard it described as the ‘queen of the sciences’ because it lies at the summit of a type of Unified field theory, that collates everything that can be discovered about God from all the other scientific disciplines and in fact leaps over the barrier of what we can discover about God from logic and observation of his creation and into the territory of what God says about Himself in Scripture.


So, I’m happily studying the first module and its basic stuff. But what I like about Scripture is that one verse can slam through your eyelids, cause you to suck in your breath, fire up your brain and tug some nose hairs on its way out.


A verse can have a profound effect. Because the Word is alive.


I read a lot, and Scripture is the only place where I find this happens.


“For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.”


The context is Paul contrasting our earthly bodies with our heavenly home, and us wanting to please Him, whether in our tents (earthly bodies) or at home in His presence. And then Paul reminds us that we have to give an account for the things we have done in the body, whether good or bad.


The unbeliever appears before the great white throne of judgement. The Christian appears before the bema (judgement seat of Christ). As Paul notes, when apart from the body the Christian is at home with the Lord. There is no question of his or her eternal destiny. It is heaven. The judgement seat of Christ resolves the issue of what the Christian’s reward looks like.


Faith is expressed in actions and those actions are judged. The apostle James wrote that faith without works is dead. I figure, works without the right motivation is just sweat.


The Father knows our motivations and in the light of His word, he evaluates in all the things that we have done.


I read this verse and wondered…any of the things that I have thought and turned into action, or have said, or have actually done, how much of it has been ‘for Christ’? It’s a question without my being able to resolve it. How do I know what my motivations are? I’m capable of deceiving myself and only He can show me.


When I first ventured to White River, it was the year when I remember asking the question, what would He say to me at the end? Would it be ‘well done’?


Well, I could obsess about the question and sigh and pace around like Hamlet, or I could do what Paul wrote about: forgetting what lies behind and reaching for Christ, the goal, the prize, I strain towards what is ahead.


The lazy servant in the parable (Matthew 25) didn’t do anything with his Master’s investment but buried it in the ground. I can briefly engage in some contemplation about what my motivation has been up to this point…have I done it for Christ? Or what have I done for Christ? But sooner rather than later, contemplation has served its purpose and I stop looking into my own heart (yuck) and I start looking into Scripture and then put the first foot forward again.

Forgetting what lies behind…straining towards what is ahead

In this lockdown, would it be hard to convince you that it seems I’ve taken as many steps backwards as forwards?

Obsessing like Hamlet

And then I start looking into Scripture and then put the first foot forward again.

Common grace

I watched ‘Groundhog day’ first and endured the South African lockdown second and one reminds me of the other.


As in every time we tuned into hear ‘My fellow South Africans…’ it was six more weeks of winter.


And yet, despite the happenings in the country and ‘the troubles’, on taking the hound for its exertion early this morning, a flight of birds whipped past me at tree-top level and in my recollection of the moment now hours later, their dark avian forms paused with a pregnant gray cloud as a backdrop looking to the east.


The regulations temporarily forgotten, our walk continued and the rain cloud gradually caught up to us.


Free as a bird like the saying, but thinking about being cared for as His child, which is of far more importance.

Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? (Matthew 6:26 NIV)

Raindrops falling on my head, being reminded of His common grace, enjoyed by child and foe alike, oppressor and oppressed.

He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.(From Matthew 5:45 NIV)

Tiny green and pink colonies, there one moment and gone the next, but noticed in His providence.

“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. (Matthew 6:28 NIV)

Spotting a rainbow, though insipid on the cell phone camera, vivid on my photo receptors and in my memory, speaking of how His mercy persists.

I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. (Genesis 9:13 NIV)

Get thee a wife

‘Much ado About Nothing’ is one of my favourite comedies from the pen of William Shakespeare and concludes with the deliriously happy Benedick offering advice to Don Pedro: “Prince, thou art sad. Get thee a wife…get thee a wife!” (Act 5, Scene 4).


Pretty much everyone loves a happy ending and what’s better than a wedding, a union, a life of possibilities ahead.


On the occasion of our thirteenth anniversary, I think of my wife in view of the writer of Proverbs:


10 A truly good wife
is the most precious treasure
a man can find!”


I think of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, writing about how marriage is a mystery.


It’s not a mystery in the sense that you wonder how the guy got together with the girl in the first place. In our case, gradually.


It’s not a mystery in the sense that you wonder how they’ve stayed together this long. No idea, just blinked a few times and its now 13 years later.


It’s a mystery in that the bedrock, common, ordinary relationship that billions are familiar with expresses a meaning far greater than the obvious. And it’s been understood in this way only since Christ.


“Why did God design the world this way? Why two sexes, and why one male and the other female? Why one called to lead, provide, protect, and shoulder final responsibility, with the other called to actively receive, beautify, and strengthen humble initiative and care? Why a dance of two complementaries, rather than just two of the same?”


Not two of the same because husband and wife don’t have the same function as any other partnership on earth.


Not just to make babies, but to model, express and show the relationship between Christ and His church.


Paul rightly says that it is profound.


Now from the profound to the co-incidental…it was before I had even proposed, in 2006 we wandered into a music store and they handed us each a flier:

I don’t do omens, since it seems like taking things that are co-incidental and reading a conclusion into it that isn’t there. It was a cute coincidence, but we are called to live by faith in the revealed word of God and so I kept these fliers for fun, but I read Scripture for life.


Not-so-famous Grouse
Bridge made of recycled plastic. In my day we did it with wood
Almost like green feathers
A gentle stream, very unlike our world at present
Hiding place
Trees in a row within a random arrangement
Character lines in wood
A bio system within a bio system
The reservoir

It’s the sap, not the wood

Imagine a world in 2020 without the novel corona virus. What would we be talking about? Where would our focus be? Sadly, that would merely be a thought-experiment, a pleasant day-dream.


What are the lasting effects that are going to emerge out of 2020?


  • The overuse of the term ‘Covid19’ which will be shorthand to explain everything without having to elaborate?
  • A distrust of the media and their ability to get us caught up in a panic for clickbait?
  • The ripple effect of millions of job losses and all that means for South African families?
  • Less importantly, the members of Sanzaar’s Super Rugby taking the opportunity to split the kids in the divorce.


Perhaps, the lasting effects will not be all that lasting. Our kids won’t remember things quite so acutely as we will, who went through it as adults with fully developed anxiety.


From my further reading of Paul and his letter to the Romans, I came to wonder what 2020 and all this present craziness would look like in arboreal time. I mean, imagine the core sample of a mature tree and what lockdown would look like in contrast with other years.


Not that dissimilar I’ll bet. Just another tree ring, representing an annual orbit around the sun, but you could still point it out and say, ‘that there was 2020’. And trees can live hundreds and even thousands of years.,thought%20to%20be%20more%20than%203%2C600%20years%20old.


In that context, even the corona virus pandemic of 2020 will eventually be forgetfully contextualised.


What do trees have to do with Paul’s letter to the Romans? Romans 9 through 11 are an examination of the nature of faith and what that means for Paul’s people, the Jews. And also for the Gentiles. Previously, Paul had agonized over the non-acceptance of Messiah and wished that he could be lost if it meant that his people could be saved.

Paul uses the imagery of a tree as a picture of faith and being connected to God. As a herald of the coming Messiah, John the Baptist warned the religious leaders of the Jews that they were complacent:


10 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
The religious life in Israel viewed salvation in a national context, not an individual one. The thinking was if you were descended from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, you were in. John the Baptist was telling them that they had the genealogical heritage in place (a family tree if you will) but that that their connection to God couldn’t depend on that.


Genealogy without faith is dead. Faith without works is dead. There needs to be fruit, evidence, sap flowing through the leaves and branches.


In this section of Romans, Paul explains that God elects. He chooses. He has mercy on some and he hardens others. Paul writes that its just the way it is. God is like the Potter and we are the clay and the clay can’t mount an accusation against the Potter and call him unfair. God’s prerogative has included the Gentiles where they weren’t included before. Now both – Jew and Gentile – have the same way to salvation, through faith in Christ.


Paul knows that people are going to bring up all the promises God made to Israel. Isn’t this chucking away all those promises? If God can shake up the system and make it all about faith now? From the first chapters of Romans, Paul is writing that its always been about faith. Abram believed the Lord and that faith was credited as righteousness.


God hasn’t rejected Israel. He points at himself:


“I ask then: Did God reject his people? By no means! I am an Israelite myself, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin. God did not reject his people, whom he foreknew.”


Not all Israel are Israel. Not all the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had faith. Perhaps they had an assumption, but they didn’t necessarily have faith. However there have always been a remnant, a faithful core of Believers among Israel.


Paul writes that God has been faithful to Israel and he will be faithful to the Gentiles. He uses the picture of an olive tree with branches (Gentiles) that were grafted in. Fruitfulness is the criterion for staying connected to the tree.


Jesus also used the analogy of a vine to illustrate the sap that must flow through the branches to show connection to the plant (John 15).


Genealogy without faith is dead. Faith without works is dead. There needs to be fruit, evidence, sap flowing through the leaves and branches.


In this time especially, it’s important to know that we are securely connected to God, like living branches on a living tree.

Whom Paul preaches

Paul rolled into town, once upon a time at the city of Ephesus, with all the subtlety of a gunslinger.


Or maybe I’ve watched too many Westerns. But in truth, Paul was the type of guy who made an impression everywhere he went. Miracles, healings, exorcisms.


The things we picture happening in large tents in places like Rustwater, Kansas, and of dubious authenticity, were actually taking place in broad daylight for all to see as Paul was going around. This must have impressed the seven sons of Sceva, whose pappy was a Rabbi in the city.


They recognised that there was power in the Name of Jesus, but they wanted to use the power without knowing Jesus or being filled with the Holy Spirit. You can’t piggyback on someone else’s relationship to Christ. They learned that lesson in a 7-1 beating when a demon-possessed man sent them running back home, bruised and with their britches down.


The lesson they should have learned that day was that being a child of God is not something that is baked into your family’s cake. It needs to be authentic. The demons in the possessed man berated them that they knew Jesus and Paul, but not these seven posers.


Once, when Jesus was having a back-and-forth with the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law at the Temple, they were disputing with him and he pointed out that they were still slaves to sin.


Even in the midst of the Law, and their pursuit of righteousness, Jesus pointed out that the religious professionals still needed saving, and were still slaves to sin, to which the Teachers of the Law naturally became offended and played what they thought was their trump card to end all debate: “Abraham is our father” (verse 39).


It was supposed to be a mic-drop type of moment. Not so because Jesus had their ticket:


“If you were Abraham’s children,” said Jesus, “then you would[c] do what Abraham did.  (verse 39). These guys were secure in their own minds of their connection to God and yet they were completely wrong, probably not unlike the seven sons of Sceva. They weren’t children of Abraham because they did not have the faith of Abraham. They had the DNA of Abraham but that wasn’t the thing that saved or saves.


I think passages like these are what Paul was thinking about when he wrote back in Romans 4 about Abraham:


Not by works but by faith. Abraham believed the Lord and it was credited to him as righteousness.


Here’s Paul in Romans 9 then, agonizing about his Jewish brothers having missed their Messiah. How did this happen? And by implication, what does this mean for the Gentile Believer?


Paul’s brain unpacks it for us, but his heart is solemn and serious about the souls of men.


 For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race, the people of Israel.” (Romans 9)


Does he mean that? Viewed through the lens of our time, could Paul be ‘virtue signalling’? Not from the first verse of Romans 9: Paul says he’s not lying, that he’s doubly sure. His conscience confirms what he’s saying through the Holy Spirit.

Paul’s exploration of the question of the Children of Israel and their destiny in salvation stretches over three chapters of Romans (9 – 11) however he comes to the conclusion that:

  • God is faithful (his word has not failed)
  • God is sovereign: some he saves and some he hardens
  • Jew and Gentile alike are saved the same way, through faith in Christ


Like that old song which you may remember from childhood (Sunday school):


Father Abraham had many sons

Many sons had Father Abraham

I am one of them (and so are you?)

So let’s just praise the Lord…

Valley Forge

Just this past week, President Trump over at Mount Rushmore for the 4th of July delivered remarks about the history of the U.S. and the four men whose faces are carved into the rock.


To my mind, history is endlessly fascinating and multi-faceted. Fascinating because actions taken by men in the course of time, lead to present day realities that might not have otherwise occurred. Multi-faceted because we view their actions through the lens of our context here and now. And in five years time, we look at the same historical record and it looks different again.


George Washington became the first elected president of the United States and the first among the visages immortalised in rock. You may be asking what George Washington has to do with me? In 2020. In Cape Town. In the middle of a modern era with smart phones where everything happens at the speed of light?


Because he and the soldiers in his Continental army endured a brutal winter.


Because the lessons of their endurance are relevant to us who are going through this craziness that will forever be remembered as 2020.


There will be no historical moment, a ‘where were you when’ this happened. Corona virus and the lockdown are not like a pin-point on a calendar, but a broad smudge of dread and frustration spanning most of the year.


Washington’s Continental army turned to a bend on the Schuylkill River in Pennsylvania to winter and resupply, spending around 6 months in tactical hibernation in the winter of 1777/78. As we think of 2020, they likely thought of 1777 going into 1778.


Ironically, they camped next to a forge that was used by two Quaker families. A forge is a superb image of being shaped through extreme circumstances. This is the forge after which the encampment was named.


Washington was merely reaching for the promise of a new nation in the New World, conceived in liberty. The winter encampment was brutal, a sixth of the soldiers succumbed to disease, a disparate rabble who were ill-trained to take on the British, the dream of America seemingly bleeding out its warmth into the cold earth.

Just a couple of inches of snow

And yet, they persevered in a political miracle.


Like the Continental army perhaps, our hope seems lost, an eternal winter when we cannot conceive of how normalcy could ever return. Loved ones falling ill, friends losing work, the comfort of proximity tempered with the fear of infection.


We are His children. The struggle has a purpose. Like the Valley Forge, the forge of 2020 is showing us our faith.


I would rather not endure a forge or trials to test my faith. Can I admit that I cringe slightly when I think of James’ word to the Believer?


Pure joy is not what 2020 evokes. Or any trial. But I may yet be standing when Christmas comes around. I may yet be singing His praises. I may be slightly more mature and battle-hardened. For sure, I don’t even want to consider throwing in the towel.


Today’s not a bad day. There have been worse, but not too many better than today. I don’t see much.


But God must be doing something.