The week I retired from preaching

Retirement_imageLast week, I prayed over something dear to my heart. Running close to empty I needed encouragement. Was preaching a path God really wanted me on? People like the SAP were saying, “Yes, don’t you dare stop.” But the month prior it had felt hard and lonely.

In the month prior, I’d tried to find a spot to do live expository sermons (one that’s on a specific Bible passage). Without it I couldn’t be assessed for a unit in my Grad Dip Divinity.

Attending church within a denomination that can get itchy over women preaching -whilst studying at a denominational college that doesn’t – has its challenges.

So, emboldened by an idea God whispered, I suggested sermon salons.  A place where I could practise my sermons on willing guinea pigs. And it grew. The first one outgrew the original idea of my lounge room venue. Which meant I needed a larger space. So, armed with a registration list of Christians and non – and an audience of both genders – I asked my church for a room.

A room I received. I did feel I had to explain why the men wanting to attend weren’t unwillingly under my preaching authority. I also had to quiet the sense of unfairness I felt when, setting up the room with tables and chairs, plugging in the data projector, managing my own AV, I thought of my brothers in Christ also being assessed. Who likely have walked into ‘church proper’ on a Sunday, to a pre-prepared room, with a pre-prepared AV desk, with a pre-supplied audience. ‘Just’ walk in and preach.

God is kind and gracious, packing my virtual sermon salons with 70+ interested people and 15 to my first ‘live’. But still the sense of unfairness dogged me.

Sometimes using my female voice for the Jesus-fella can feel a struggle, as I’ve blogged before. Sometimes I wonder why it’s 2019 and my gender is getting in the way of me being assessed for a course of study.

So, at the start of last week, feeling tender, tired and lonely, I asked if He wanted me to give up. I sought out a wise woman who, also in a denomination that can get itchy over women preaching, has been supported by many male senior ministers over 20 years of her preaching ministry.

Before I went to meet her, God – in His gracious way during my prayer yurt/ journal/ Bible time – had pressed 2 Cor 3:12 upon me: You have hope in Jesus. So be bold. 

Except I wasn’t feeling bold. I was needing more. More than what my prayer yurt quiet time was revealing. More than the encouraging SMS from the SAP – Don’t you dare give up! –  who had heard the dark creeping in.

So, as my my wise friend and I prayed in the glaring surrounds of a coffee shop, I asked for neon. Like He used to use with me back at the start. Forgive me, Lord, but solo Bible time in a prayer yurt is only reminding me of how solo this is feeling. You made it fairly clear a few years ago you wanted me on this preaching path. But perhaps not anymore? If you do want me to keep pressing on, I’m sorry, but I’m really going to need neon to do so. 

The rest of the week illustrates again the intimacy with which God seeks be close to us. To grow us. To help us. He’s God for goodness sake. He doesn’t have to meet my lonely needs to help me feel better. It’s not like He gave Moses a pep talk as Moses stood there shuddering over, “ooh, how will Pharaoh know I’m really speaking a message from You?” and, “You do know I’m a terrible public speaker?”

It’s not like he ever picks worthy people! Abraham had little to commend him – but in God’s initiating grace He chose Abraham to start the nation through whom He would bless all the nations.

In fact, that’s likely what freaks me out the most. I am the least likely, most obtuse, complaining soul. I ran from Him, for goodness sake, for years. I didn’t want His love, His grace, His offer of hope and forgiveness. When I finally stopped fleeing, I stood there with my hands behind my back, like a small child unwilling to touch the amazing gift because… what if? What if He’d got it wrong? And, oh, even worse, what if I let Him down?

“He doesn’t and you can’t,” is a whisper I have heard time and time again from Jesus. From a patient, kind SAP. I have grown and I have learnt that my God makes no mistakes. Even when – especially when – I disagree with the choices He makes in regards asking me to do stuff! As the song goes, there’s no wall God won’t kick down, no lie He won’t tear down, coming after me. 

And so God began to light my path like a blazing runway at night. The day after my wise friend and I prayed, I received an out the blue to an ‘invite-only’ preachers development workshop – run by someone who amazes me with his storytelling preaching talent and will, I know – with that HS scary certainty – challenge and push me to more. The same preacher whose name my wise friend had shared the day before over coffee – and, no, she hadn’t approached him either.

The day after that, another out the blue invite to the same preaching workshop from an attendee. Someone who had prayed and prayed and prayed over me five years ago when she learnt I – supremely unqualified – was applying for a job that had Christianity as one of its essential criteria and could I blag a reference off her? Not being head over heels with the Jesus fella wasn’t going to stop me, was it? Today she is like my favourite bra: lots of support, colourful and close to my heart.

The evening after that, asked to jump up and speak, to share my voice, wisdom and opinion at a large, mixed Christian gathering. Yes, God reminded me, I do want your voice out there.

And then, in case I needed more, right at the end of the week, beautifully timed on International Women’s Day (IWD), God delivered me a neon blast from my BC past.  Not on any day, but on a day designed to recognise and promote unity, celebration, reflection, advocacy and action for women.

“I know you!’ she called out as I walked through Circular Quay towards a Christian IWD event. She did? I knew her face too, but couldn’t place why. Turns out she was the guest speaker. A vital, engaging preacher from a Sydney north shore church.

But we worked out we knew each other from 20 years ago. Neither of us Christians, then. Back then, we were non-believing, pommie, opinionated, quick-thinking PR pros with our own agencies. Both of us thinking  – back then – that GJ&HS needed PR agents, but, ha,ha,ha, we weren’t ever going to be part of THAT campaign. No siree.

Ah. No God-incidences. Look. Look what I’ve done with someone so like you.

Maybe this sense of struggle makes me appreciate my preaching opportunities even more? It keeps me humble – but it also reminds me what a privilege it is. Perhaps it’s a reminder, too, for all my preaching brothers, to not take for granted the opportunities they have. To not – and I’ve heard it done – pronounce from the front in an aggrieved tone, “Oh, I got the really tricky passage to preach on this week.

God closed the week with three other gifts. Less neon, as I’d already expressed my snot-monstering, hiccupping awe at what He had provided. Just quiet underlines to keep me steady. An email asking me to preach at a local church. And two people from my church asking to come along to the next sermon salon.

Sometimes I need neon.

But I also need quiet time in a payer yurt to appreciate and reflect upon just how amazing all God’s neon is.

I will blog of His faithfulness? That’s it?

shrugIf my past five years being a Christian had ALL been cage fighting wrestles, as per my last blog post, I’m sure the smart-alec pastor (SAP) would have expired. Or accepted a mission role somewhere remote without cellular or internet. I think I might have burnt out too. But sometimes, sometimes I miss it. The neon. The unmissable insights that God is taking action in my life. Don’t get me wrong, I love the quiet prayer yurt times. But the WHOO HOO moments are fantastic.

Last post, I explained how I’d not written because I worried how boring my faith travels might sound. Sedate, safe, Bible-reading, Bible-college attending, preaching Phil. Compared to the ‘skidding, whoo, WHAT is going on?’ from three-to-five years ago. I’d made me the arbiter of interesting. Not God. How foolish.

I worried at it like a kid with a fidget-spinner. I wanted to blog, but what about? I realised – as Godspiration began to strike less over the past three years – I had egocentrically put my own, somewhat pious parameters around it: “I won’t blog unless I am called to.”

Really? Who kidnapped me, made me editor of the universe and puffed me up with such writing importance??! Unless I’m called to. Dear God. Anyone would think I’d been marinating a bit too long in theological college and mission. Ah… possibly.

I thought the only way to keep writing about GJ&HS was to either get all Bible study exegetical each blog (yikes) or draw out what they were up to with me. But, truly, all eye-rolling nonsense about waiting to be called to write aside – I didn’t want it to be about me!

“Write about your new story being part of the old, old story,” advised the SAP. Which – three days ago – made zero sense.

I imagine God and Jesus doing the divine forehead slap. Then – offering more kindness and patience with me than I ever manage with myself or others – agreeing: “She’s not quite picked up on the point, yet. Let’s try again.”

As they so often do, they used an early morning wake-up call today and a pressing to listen. This time to an Exodus sermon. Finally, what they were trying to tell me clicked.

(Sidebar: If you don’t understand how Israel wandering around in the wilderness for 40 years in the Old Testament makes sense of God’s massive, crazy promise in Jesus in the New, it’s well worth the 29 mins. Link at the end).

The main point of the sermon: look at how faithful God was – and is. He made these massive promises to His people that, frankly, looked impossible.

How was God going to create a massive nation using the dry and likely limp fertility of two old age Israelites? But He did. Through famine, slavery and desert dust He went from one man with no land to a nation overloaded with loot – blessing after faithful blessing poured out, promise after promise kept.

How much more then His promise to us in Jesus? That one day every knee will bow, every tongue confess, that there will be no more tears or pain, and the world that so cuts and grieves us one day will be but a mirage in the review mirror as we step into His eternal banquet. As we step into God’s house, His home, His peace.

But while we wait, what do we do? asked the preacher. Do we give up on the promises entirely? Make them small and attainable? Make them more suitable to our small, not God-sized lives? Refuse to accept the super-size me God serving on offer and simply settle?

Oh. That struck. Like me: settle for a quiet life that stops writing, Phil, because, gosh, you think you might sound a little like Ned Flanders going on and on and on and on about what GJ&HS are doing in your life.

No, the sermon reminded me, as God ricocheted through my headphones and shook my heart. No. The promises of God are not to keep me comfortable. So what if me writing about God makes me fret and worry about looking self-centred (here she goes, writing about her GJ&HS encounters again)?

The preacher asked: “how do we maintain our trust in the promises of God while we’re facing the brokenness and the famine and the hardship of life right now? How am I going to say to my children, and my children’s children, that the promises of God are good and never fail? How do we maintain our faith in the massive, preposterous promises of God to us in Christ?”

The sermon suggested: first to look for the places where we see God at work. The small signs that He is still rolling out His love and blessings.

Yes, Phil, God whispered, for you to see the small and large ways I have changed your life today and over the past five years as part of My larger gathering of you to Me. 

All those God shoves, all those answered prayers, those crazy Godincidences I used to blog about so often, that blew me away and took me out with awe-full tears at the heart and the knees? They were never simply exciting new God news. They were blogs that strived to unpack GJ&HS. To examine more closely, like a bower-bird returning to the blue shiny glistening gem in the dirt of life, how they were building and sustaining my faith.

And then what this preacher said? The most important thing to do, to learn from Exodus is to keep telling the story of God’s faithfulness. “You’ve gotta tell the story,” he said.

A cracking one liner, delivered with Canadian-accented colour.

THAT line? Right there, today at 3am, wet my eyes with God’s love.

“You’ve gotta tell the story,” said this preacher.

“Write about your new story being part of the old, old story,” said the SAP.

Who gave me this talent with words? Who created my tongue?

Phil, you’ve just gotta tell the story.

I don’t have to make the story. Heck, I don’t even have to be the story. I just gotta tell it. Over and over, sharing the bower-bird shiny blue gems. Because it gives me hope.

So, much as it feels a little presumptuous and scary, I figure, dear reader, it gives you hope too. Of what He is doing in your life and mine, your family’s life and mine, in the lives of the people around us.

So I’ll keep telling the story of those God shoves, of the quiet Yurt times and the crazy who-hoo times. I will blog of His faithfulness.

Phil, you’ve gotta tell the story.

Thank God I’ve got one hell of a subject.


Link to Exodus: The Story So Far.  Exodus 1: 1-24. By Marc Rader, Gymea Baptist Church

When did my Jesus get boring?

If I told you I had met a bloke who could raise the dead with his words, perform heart surgery simply by the touch of his cloak and turn tap water into Grange, you’d be impressed, wouldn’t you?

If I said this guy spoke love to asylum seekers, saved the environment with a breath, empowered women on every day, not just on March 8th, tackled the corruption of and abuse by religious leaders, and could fix the public health system by healing all the sick – you’d vote him in at the next election, wouldn’t you?

It’d be big crosses on the ballot paper for the Jesus party.

Surely.

Sadly, I think us humans are way too fickle for that. Look at me. Here I am, unexpected poster girl for ‘Who does that at 40-something? Wow, that Jesus bloke must be something different for Phil to do this major life switch, did you know she’s even at Bible College and, what the actual, she’s preaching???!!!

You would think I’d be drunk on dizzying amounts of watered up, Jesus-delivered Grange.

And yet.

I had the mother of all awakenings yesterday when I realised I’d domesticated God. I read back through some of the early posts on this blog and wondered, where has the ‘zing’ gone? 

Those cage fights with Him that characterised our early relationship – as I tested, wrestled, Vodka-Cruiser style Psalm slanged – have settled. I, much like a slowly maturing adolescent, learnt to lean in and trust. Much of that trust has come from spending significantly more time with God. Marinating in His word. I have to give the SAP points for pastoring bravery. There’s a certain smart-alec timing in being able to deliver, drily, “I reckon some time in the Bible would take the edge off this wrestling, Phil,’ without causing the recipient of such wisdom to launch herself at him in cage-fighting frustration. “I’m wrestling here! Venting! And you want me to go off, sit quietly, pray and READ THE BIBLE??!!!!”

The SAP received a fair few flippin’ the bird emojis in the early days. 

I miss those God wrestles. I find my answers in His word, but, gosh, I loved it when I’d launch myself at Him and then see Him reach so clearly into my world, catch me and guide me. Graciously and kindly, He would deliver His Post It Notes of love. It was real, vital and tactile. Plus my immature Christian faith, my pinging around like a meercat on speed, gave me such blog fodder. So entertaining!

Originally I wrote to figure out what was lost in translation between the stereotypes by which I’d been misled, compared to the hope-filled, loving reality of having a relationship with GJ&HS. In God’s crazy way, readership grew. He used my own figuring it out via this blog as a way to help others who were figuring it out too.

As the months passed, more would press on my heart and out the keyboard: domestic assault. Lack of women’s voices. I began to write less about where I was in my faith and more of what I saw around me in institutionalised Christianity that I perceived as barriers to people meeting the Jesus-fella.

Plus, if I’m honest, deep down, I quietly wondered how interesting I could keep making the settled, sedate, safety I was experiencing with the three of them. How entertaining was writing about church each Sunday? My bible college classes on a Tuesday night? The swathes of the Bible I have now read? How systematic theology fascinates me, understanding the historicity of God’s story hooking together, and how His reaching through time and place to redeem people to Him – broken, stuffed-up people like myself – is echoed over and over and over.

I mean, I love it. But everyone else? Aren’t cage fights and vodka-Cruiser style Psalmesque slanging more interesting? Compared to settled, sedate, safety? Hardly the three Ss of a news agenda or rollocking good story.

But I have far more than an interesting, entertaining faith. My God is not a God of readership statistics. Jesus is not a barometer of social media likes and shares. The Holy Spirit doesn’t get measured on His five-star entertainment rating. My faith is deeper and stronger than that.

And God says, just as He has to countless characters over thousands of years, inside the Bible and out: “Excuse me, Phil…since when is it all about you? I’m in all of this. It’s not you.”

It’s the three of them inviting me into their story that have given my life fresh colour. At the start it was ‘let go of the trapeze, what next?’ crazy. Today the trapeze still happens – but now it feels so safe because my trust in them is now strong and implicit. My error has been confusing their strong, surrounded, rock-solid support with BORING.

GJ&HS have removed my need to operate at speed. They have healed the hyper-vigilance that domestic and sexual assault grew in me from a horribly young age – along with the help of some cracking meds – but it wasn’t until GJ&HS was I able to understand what was going on.

They have – and absolutely this is the HS at work – helped me become more other focused. I genuinely want to be kinder, more patient, have self control, be gentle, share love, offer peace. Not because I have to in order to get in God’s good books. But because that’s how the HS shapes me. A little bit more of Jesus taking shape out of this clay each day.

I mistook that for boring. I replaced GJ&HS with my worldly news agenda that tells me in order to write well and to gain attention, I need to have conflict. Action. Pace.

I made GJ&HS boring. Not them. I told myself no-one would want to read about:

  • my answered prayers, because I’ve written about those before
  • how daily Bible time in a quiet room and the wisdom it gives me each day is the only thing after 40 odd years of searching that works (and I really did some searching!) when it comes to helping me tackle whatever life throws
  • the quiet room nicknamed the Prayer Yurt – so named because it needs more than four walls for the strings and strings of A4 pages of handwritten prayers hung up. Prayers I get to take to God, secure in the knowledge that Jesus’ work in me makes those prayers powerful and effective
  • the journal of daily notes that come out of my Bible time. That when I make those notes, there can be a tingling in my fingertips and the handwriting turns to CAPS as God speaks His love and wisdom to me. To me. Wow. The God who hangs stars, calls tides, commands night and dark, speaks to me. Here is this quiet space. Him and I. All because He loves and desires relationship with ME. With us all.
  • how, like nothing else in 40 odd years of struggling and searching,  GJ&HS, Bible time, the Prayer Yurt and the support of other Jesus followers have healed my family through addictions, marital struggles, and helping me find my voice that I’d silenced for so long. Silenced due to what happened as a child when the man in the pink shirt wearing Paco Rabanne Pour Homme aftershave would enter my bedroom.

No-one would be interested in that. They’d find GJ&HS doing that boring, surely?

The only boring bit here is my repeating the same mistake that God’s people have made over and over for thousands of years. Of making it about me. Of me thinking it has to be fast and exciting for anyone to pay attention to what GJ&HS have done and continue to do. That God needs me to drum up attention. To be the arbiter of what makes Him exciting. How foolish, how typically human, I have been.

Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.

1 Kings 19: 11-12

Can Godly men be quiet?

In my five years as a Christian, I have felt the weight of my gender, its capacity to be diminished, unheard and unseen more than any other time. Not because I suddenly became Christianly enlightened to the atrocities women face globally. No. It was more personal. In these five years I have been exposed to more limiting expectations and opinions based on my gender than in any other context I’ve been in during the 37 years prior to my meeting Jesus.the-quieter-you-become-the-more-you-can-hear-22384454

Did you inhale in horror? I hope so. In the 37 years before meeting Christ, hanging out in that broken world, far from a relationship with God, I experienced low-to-no gender discrimination. Didn’t even blip on my radar. Compare this to my recent, briefer time spent working in Christian organisations, worshipping in church, and studying at Bible college, and overnight my gender seemed to become the yardstick for my ability to do anything!

Take a church gifting questionnaire I filled out in year 2 after meeting the Jesus-fella. My top three ‘manifest’ gifts: wisdom, leadership, teaching. With but a point separating the three of them. Closely followed by knowledge, discernment, prayer.

Crickets chirped as I shared the results. “What will you be able to do with those in church?” asked one.

It was my first clanging indication that I wasn’t in Kansas (or indeed a developed, enlightened country) anymore. My ability to have wisdom, lead and teach all reduced and negated by having ovaries and breasts. As a lecturer at Bible College said to me last year, “You know, Phil, with some of the things that have been said to you, I’m amazed you actually are a Christian.”

But I am. And I have intentionally chosen theological study because what I was hearing didn’t match up with the fullness of what Christ Jesus offered me. I needed to discern where denominational opine was leading me away from Jesus, not to. And, thankfully, God blessed me with gifts like wisdom and discernment so I could.

How many awesome, gifted women are not meeting Jesus because of this sort of thing? How many remain unreached and lost as a consequence? This is what presses and hurts my heart the most. It’s why – despite feeling hugely uncomfortable speaking up and out in a context that has Timothy’s ‘woman, be quiet’ rattling around my brain – I continue to do so.

But I don’t want to have to operate at such a loud volume to be heard. It hurts my throat. So instead, I ask: Godly men, could you be quiet? Because in the quietness you might hear something new. Something Jesus is whispering. That this fuss about women is getting in the way of the Gospel and we need to shush and listen.

A recent post from an organisation that develops strategies to hold institutions, perpetrators, and enablers accountable for violence, harm, and cover-ups was the final shove to have me take to the keyboard after months of quiet.  It comes in response to yet another church cover up of abuse. The headline used (from which I drew inspiration): Godly men, be quiet.

Boom. Nothing like a headline between the eyes. The writer opens:

The vast majority of church leaders have absolutely no business trying to be leaders in the movement to end sexual abuse. Part of how church leaders mess up–particularly in strongly patriarchal traditions invested in male headship (and let’s get real, for all the change that’s happened, that’s still most of Christianity)–is in assuming that they do.

With my hand on my heart for all my Christian brothers who have supported and encouraged me, I have to say: the article is right. Can you please, please, just shush and listen.

Listen without the defensiveness of #notallmen (and that goes for any women too who swoop in with the hashtag and rush to the defence of their husbands, brothers or sons). We know it’s not all men. But just like when everyone rushed to decry the data about domestic violence in Aussie churches, swooping in with the hashtag means you diminish the importance of what is being shared and, worse, you negate the pain and bravery it has taken for people to speak up.

You see, the very nature of how the world views leadership has pervaded many churches. Of course it has, or else we wouldn’t be reading story after story of collapsing meagchurches with leaders caught in sin without anyone being held to account.

Christian leadership courses teach being servant-hearted, leading from behind. To do so, it requires you to champion the least to the front. If Jesus told us the least will be first in the Kingdom of Heaven, then surely Jesus-like leadership demands the same of our leaders?

But do we see that in church? I think to model heaven on earth, we need to look more honestly at the locus of our spheres of leadership. And own that we do not do it. Not nearly enough.

Almost ten years ago, the top scholar on gender and leadership, Dr. Alice Eagly, released studies showing that women are more likely than men to possess transformational leadership qualities  – they care more about developing their followers, they listen to them and stimulate them to think ‘outside the box,’ are more inspirational, and they are more ethical.

Gosh. Transformational leadership qualities. Caring about developing their followers. Listening to their followers. Stimulating them to think outside the box. Inspirational and ethical. Why, that sounds positively ‘Lead like Jesus 101’!

Imagine if the Vatican church had leapt on that research by Dr Alice Eagly a decade ago. Or the Southern Baptist churches. Would such growth – appointing women in vital leadership roles – have prevented the tsunami of abuse that is washing out of these organisations?

So who is least? For one, those women without a voice in church. Those women who are not represented or modelled female leadership outside of children’s or women’s ministry. Who hear a majority male perspective on scripture, and, worse, are made to feel they are rebellious trouble makers when they question it. Not because they seek to tear down God’s word. But because, as women, they have been long aware of how their opportunities are diminished because of their gender.

So they pray, and they wonder. They recognise Jesus as their Lord and Saviour, who bandages up bruised reeds and fans smouldering wicks. They think, surely, Jesus, you wouldn’t seek to diminish us too?

Of course not. Who were first to share the resurrection? The earliest evangelist to Samaria? All women.

Women like the persistent widow, the haemorrhaging woman, or Mary learning at Jesus’ feet. Many women challenged their status in a patriarchal society to be near Jesus, to touch him, to be forgiven and to grow in his likeness. To grow. 

The trouble is, as soon as this topic get touched on, we get caught in shouty dialogue of what scripture says, who is right, who is wrong, who can lead, preach, teach etc. Don’t you think I’ve not prayed and wrestled with James 3:1? I know where my salvation lies and to whom I will give an account.

So, instead, can Godly men be quiet in this? Rather than rushing to speak, look at what we are seeing: the diminishment or lack of female voices is having far-reaching impact. Instead, look at the evidence that women have a vital role to play in leadership transformation.

When I turn up, again and again, asking for a new way it’s not because I’m a shrill harpy seeking to diminish men. It’s because I’m the persistent widow.

When I reach out my hand, my voice, fighting against the crowd to speak, to lead, it is not because I am some bossy feminist seeking to stomp all over men in my high heel boots. It’s because I am the haemorrhaging woman.

When I listen to the Holy Spirit, to learn and engage, to use the gifts He poured out on me in making sense of scripture and Jesus; having a knack to speak it, teach it, share it, it’s not because I seek to wilfully challenge. It’s because I am doing my best to honour and obey. To sit at Jesus’ feet like Mary.

Remember, too, there is a difference between quiet and silence. A culture of silence is a breeding ground for abuse. A culture of quiet creates the space for many more to be heard. For the last to be first.

Monica: a quiet faith that shouted loud

File_000 (1)On Tuesday evening a group of my contemporaries gathered in a ‘mini-wake’ ahead of her funeral to celebrate the life of a friend, Monica Brewer. After a short, valiant journey (she didn’t like to call it a battle), she passed away early last week from a cancer that had been diagnosed a fast six months before.

She is not my first friend to die of cancer. She likely won’t be my last. But I wasn’t able to meet them to celebrate on Tuesday night. I was off doing something else. Something Monica played an instrumental role in my undertaking.

I was at my Bible College class. Should I wish, and most importantly should God wish, by the end of this course (a Graduate Diploma in Divinity) I could become an ordained minister. Which I’m certain God, Jesus and Monica are now having a jolly good laugh about in heaven. I don’t think that will actually happen, my being an ordained minister. I still swear waaay too much for that. But God does have a strong sense of humour, so I’ve learnt just to wait and see.

I met Monica through the She Business group many years ago, long before I became a Christian. Christianity was not what I expected in my 40s, and it took much wrestling and cage-fighting to figure it out. One of my wrestles was being a business owner and integrating my faith and work.  Soon after I was baptised in the river, I retained Monica as a business coach – totally unaware she had a Christian faith herself.

Monica mixed a no-nonsense planning approach, thanks to her background as an accountant, with a matriarchal firmness I enjoyed. As I said to her at the time, “I don’t need you to talk to me about positive thinking mindset, I need you to call me on my sh*t,” and she did.

She and I worked on developing and rebranding my communications agency. But as GJ&HS swept relentlessly through my life, she could tell my heart wasn’t in it. I wanted a Kingdom-business but I was a new Christian still figuring out the Kingdom for me, let alone a business. It’s like I didn’t know enough about my own faith then to work it all out.

One day – after one of those dangerous crazy prayers – an executive role in an international not-for-profit Christian mission presented itself.

I remember turning up to my next planning meeting with Monica, totally conflicted. We had spent months, after all, planning and structuring this new agency. I told her about the prayer, and what had happened 24 hours later. “I just got goose bumps,” she told me. “Follow this. The agency will always be there for you to pick up. God will do the rest.”

Of course, she was right. He did. With spectacular results. From her encouraging me to walk through that first door, I now find myself studying, writing and preaching. Plus a new opportunity that saw me launch the Ministry of Sex. Yes, you read that right. And no, I’m not administering that sort of pastoral care. Everyone calm down.

The agency has also been prepared for me to pick it up again. Whilst working in the mission, I ran it remotely with an awesome team. Was it a juggle? Yes. Am I ready to focus on it fully, now? Yes.

Monica was part of that too. Three years ago she helped show me how to run a Kingdom business that integrated my faith – I just wasn’t sufficiently mature in my faith to recognise it at the time. During our meetings, our laptops open at her wooden dining table, an overseas visiting pastor (staying with the family as he studied at Bible college) would wander in and out. There was my Kingdom business model. Love God, love what you do in business, serve where you can and do it for His glory. He looks after the rest.

Today was her funeral. I love that they read Proverbs 31, as it encapsulates her perfectly. A woman of Godly character, in successful business, full of energy, with strength in her arms. Facing a cancer diagnosis that she called a gift from God, her faith assured her. I don’t doubt she was clothed with strength and dignity – and she may not have been laughing at the days to come, as the Psalmist writes, but she would have been fearless.

Thanks Monica. The biggest blessing is knowing I get to spend eternity with you in heaven. Dancing, just as we all did leaving the church today, just as you asked.

God bless.

 

 

 

Can one get too close to God?

I have been at God’s boarding school for the past couple of years. Which is kind of weird, considering I had no clue I was there – but bear with me.

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Source: http://www.jeansinboots.com/the-higher-the-heels-the-closer-to-god/

You see, after the crazy pace and race of the first eighteen months with GJ&HS, it all skidded to an abrupt….I don’t know what. I’ve been trying to figure it out:

Halt? No. I used to blog how I expected it all to wear off, but it certainly didn’t stop.

Cruise control? Like the set and forget, take your eyes off the speedo, and autopilot takes you along in fifth gear. No way. I can’t describe the past couple of years as cruising. GJ&HS (especially HS) were still in action and I was still active in trying to figure out why God had hunted me down in my forties.

Heck, you could call me the conversion chick poster girl: from meditating on runes and crystals one minute to working in an international Christian mission, serving and learning about GJ&HS, receiving a scholarship to complete a year-long Christian leadership course, moving on to study part-time at bible college for a Graduate Diploma in Divinity, leading a new growth group in the church, plus – the real crazy icing on the cake – speaking and preaching in a variety of settings across churches and conferences.

I’ve hung around plenty of UHT Christians now to understand what an anomaly this is. The most common comment I’ve received in the past four years is, “That’s not typical, you know, what happened to you.” (Closely followed by, “You do know you’re not Anglican…”)

The typical getting to know Jesus route involves Sunday school, Christian parents, youth group etc etc.  A nice linear path that appears measured and within certain speed limits. Not my UFC cage-fight followed by full-throttle around the racetrack on a Kawasaki ZZR 1100. I used to feel I had to apologise for it, as if such speed was unseemly.

But so too was the speed at which the Father ran towards The Prodigal Son in Luke 15, so I decided to stop worrying what everyone else thought about the pace, and started to accept rather than worry about it.

The other comment (about my surprising Anglicanism) could be to do with my preference for expressing my opinions with a glint in my eye, ribald humour, red-to-purple hair and leather pants.  Whilst I turn myself over to the HS daily for ongoing application of the J-factor (sort of like the X-factor, just with better gifts, talents and far more kindness and patience than Simon Cowell), I’ve not yet been overcome by a need to return my hair to its natural, dirty-dishwater blond or change my wardrobe.

As the Bible tells me, God loves every hair on my head, He knows what I’m about to say before I do…. and I don’t have to change outwardly to fit. He changes me as He sees fit, but that’s hugely different.

So if I grew more secure in my relationship with GJ&HS, recognised that the three of them were handling the makeover, not I, why have the past couple of years felt bereft?

This is the description I landed on. Bereft. It hadn’t halted. I wasn’t in cruise control. But I felt bereft.  I was still loved, but the tangent and tenor of my conversations with GJ&HS had shifted.

Something was lacking. I was deprived of the almost compulsive need to blog, for example. Despite desperately missing the medium, it felt like my brain was clogged down with chronic fatigue each time I tried to write. What had poured out of me four years ago – for almost two years solid –  felt as unwieldy and as appealing as wet cement.

I was also rubbing shoulders with more Christians than ever before too: learning from them, being inspired by them….

…and being knocked down by them.

It should come as no surprise that Christians behave badly. We are God’s broken people, after all. But doesn’t it wound and take your breath away when it happens? It hurts more – much like the awfulness of churches sweeping child and domestic abuse into hidden corners. It explains our wider society’s struggle to forgive – because so much more than brokenness is expected of God’s people. We are asked to be His lights, His image-bearers, to walk and talk as Jesus would in this broken world – so when Christians behave badly it strikes as so much worse, so much more damaging.

God thrust me right amongst it: the wounding, the lies, the gossip, the inability to forgive as He has forgiven. Verbal and spiritual abuse amidst pious proclamations. The only things that didn’t cross my path were heresy and adultery.

Yet for every illustration of brokenness, God delivered me 20 Christians who lit a path. He knew how much I needed them.

Truthfully, I wanted to both retreat and retaliate with cynicism. To doubt that anything good was at work here. Yet it also took me to new depths of scriptural wrestling, of really listening to the HS and trusting each time He would guide me. While I wanted to distrust, doubt, be suspicious – all traits of cynicism that eat away at faith – the HS took over. It was like the HS ring-fenced my heart. He showed me when to be suspicious of what I heard, whilst showing me my heart need not be damaged by what I experienced.

I name it the HS vomit. It ranges within me from a faint queasy seasickness to a full, oily rolling in the stomach when something is off-piste. It has protected me during spiritual abuse, when I have been subtly demeaned, diminished, bullied and told I am ‘only a new Christian’, ‘unable to understand theologically’ or when my gender has been used against me – as if my ovaries somehow get in the way of my understanding God’s Word.

The oily sickness would rise and I would find myself better able to discern the lack of truth being uttered. I would reach for His word and find out just how far scripture was being twisted to suit agendas.

Little wonder I felt bereft. I have felt a little bit of me has been missing. But I couldn’t figure out what it was.

The problem wasn’t me getting too close to God in all this. At times I didn’t feel close enough. It became a dark balancing act: yes, I was learning and growing like a weed, but there were days when I felt so choked by thorns I would wonder what on earth was going on. “So what if I’m working in a mission, so what if I’m at Bible College – when was the last time I had a decent, open, generous conversation with someone about Jesus?” I would implore God. “It’s all so…theoretical. But, agh, (exhale), sorry, Your will not mine.”

Kindly, God placed an image of an arrowhead being sharpened with flint in my mind. Which – you’d think – would be sufficient for me to simmer down. But no. Akin to a petulant Israelite whining about wanting smashed avo on toast instead of manna, I returned: “Okay, okay, I get it. Sharpening. Preparation. But leaving me in the equivalent of a forest feeling frustrated with flint might mean I burn the place down out of boredom.”

As you will no doubt pick up, dear reader, the HS is still working on my download of the gift of patience. Yet in illustration of how much He loves, the very next day I received two calls to preach at two different events. Maybe, just maybe, this strange, bereft time in the ‘wilderness’ was coming to an end…

 

It did. Two and a half weeks ago God picked me up from boarding school – which is the only metaphor I can think of to explain the move from bereft to fullness again.

I’d gone to listen to the SAP preach in a new church. For a variety of reasons, I’d originally cancelled my plans to attend. It wouldn’t be the last sermon the SAP preaches, and the beauty of podcasts hardly made the four-hour round trip a necessity. Yet, once I’d cancelled, God had been persistently insistent, shoving hard at me the need for me to go. in. person.

Maybe the SAP needed some encouragement? So, travel coffee in hand, I blearily took a long drive to attend early Sunday service (taking in a radio sermon en route about Israel travelling widely in the desert… God’s humour ;-))

Outside the church, I had my first clue that maybe this was less to do with the SAP and more to do with me. Overhearing the soundcheck, the lyric “it’s your breath in our lungs” landed like a shock on my chest. Hang on… this intensity was familiar: the same pulling me into God’s embrace that I’d experienced so viscerally in my early Christian walk. One that I had been missing, that had contributed to my sense of bereft.

The sermon packed a similar punch. I physically felt I’d received a filling of my lungs – a full 100%, powerful, oxygenated lung capacity that I’d not experienced for a while. Now, I appreciate the SAP’s talents as a preacher, I do. But this wasn’t about the SAP. This was a Holy Spirit rush.

I remember when my son went for his first school camp, age 5. He was away for three nights, over 200km away. On his return he stood on the steps of the coach, looking out over the crowd of parents. He looked so contained – still terribly young and yet he had grown within himself. Then, scanning the crowd, he saw me. As our eyes met, just for a split second, the mask of accomplishment fell away. It was pure love mingled with relief: you are here and I need you so. I’ve been brave, I’ve grown while I’ve been away…. but, Mum, I’m so glad you’re here.

It was the same for me. It was like God was waiting in the arrivals hall of the airport and pulling me in to Him.

Me: “But, but, hang on…I didn’t think I’d moved? Did I? Oh, Lord, really? Did I go away? I’m so sorry if I did.”

He smiled and pulled me closer: “Not at all. I planned this. Haven’t you learnt the last couple of years about Me, and you, and My people – all the good, all the broken and everything in between?”

I nodded, wiping my hands over my face to clear the tears. “Yes. And there were plenty of times I prayed if were time for me to move on from the situations You had placed me in. PLENTY.”

God smiled. “And what did I say?”

Me: “You kept saying, “No. Not yet.””

God (smiling): “Yes, and I know it drove you nuts. You slanged and wrestled with Psalms. But you did as I asked, dear heart.  Plus you had to seek Me in My word first. Which you did before, but not as much as you have done as a consequence of the past couple of years.”

 

 

It explains my idea of being at God’s boarding school. I was bereft because the level of intensity I’d experienced when I first got to know GJ&HS had altered. At the time, it was a real, vivid, loving intensity that God knew was so desperately needed in order to reach through the cynicism and armour I had erected around myself.

Nor do I want to imply that God withheld His love. That either of us moved. But I needed to learn how to stand on Him as my rock, not as my giddy fairground attraction. The most wonderful part of the past two weeks has been recognising I now have both.

Talking conversion on national ABC radio

If you’d told me five years ago I’d be on national radio discussing my embracing of the Jesus-fella, I’d have told you to go away…. but a lot less politely.

It began with a message from a journalist friend:

“Radio National has a show called God Forbid. James Carleton is the host. The late great Richard Carleton’s son. He has asked me for the name of someone who ‘converted to Christianity preferably from another religion.’ He is doing a show about conversion and has someone who converted to Judaism, wants a second panelist. I told him I know someone who converted to Christianity from a secular background and he’s interested. I think you would be excellent because of the fresh way you communicate.”

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Calvin & Hobbes (c) 2014 Bill Waterson.
After some research calls with the presenter James (and a sharing of this blog which means he now knows a lot more about me than I about him), I was off to the studio for two hours of recording.

Half an hour out and I was messaging the SAP saying I was ready to do a Jonah (run off to sea and jump in a large fish). This plagued me: “what happens if I make some massive theological error and end up making my faith in Jesus look just weird and awkward?!”

My Before Christ standing joke was that G&J needed a PR agent; I never imagined they’d hunt me down for the gig! And now, here I sat in the ABC’s Sydney recording studio, doing just that.

It only struck afterwards that God opened this particular door not simply because of my quirky way of expressing my faith. But also due to the 20 years of journalism and PR experience with which I entered the studio.

Without it, I’m not so certain how I’d have gone. Without it, I’d likely not have enquired beforehand about the conversion background of the other panel member. Without it, I’d not have contacted a past guest on the show and done my research on the sort of presenter and journalist interviewing me. After all, I wouldn’t send one of our agency’s clients into a media interview unprepared – I wasn’t going to do it to myself or G&J!

It was a little disingenuous for the ABC to say it was a program ‘just’ about conversion. A newbie, freshly entering their relationship with the Jesus-fella, could have been left portrayed as some mystical thinker without rhyme or reason to back up their faith decision.

The questions would have been far harder to answer without a grasp of the Bible. So God was right to put in a journo thinker with some bible college under her belt because Christianity could have had a media thumping. Particularly when compared against the involvement and training described by Ike Curtis, the 21 year old convert to Orthodox Judaism who was the other guest on the panel.

You see, the very simplicity of Jesus and his gift of undeserved, amazing grace is quite a ‘What The?’ moment for many. Let’s recap: God crams all his heavenly magnificence into an earthly body, to live a sinless life that saw him mocked, scorned, beaten, spat upon and murdered in the most painful way…for ME? Why?!

Because He loves. Every hair on our head and wants us back. God pursues us with an intense, reckless, all or nothing kind of love.

It’s insane that sort of self-sacrificial love. It’s confronting. It demands surrender. In our self-led, self-directed lives, it demands we be less when all our egos want to do is show that we are more. It makes no sense! It doesn’t follow any sort of rules. It’s illogical. Just trust and just be loved. Huh? It can’t be that easy, surely?

It can. And compared to Ike describing his food rules and training to convert to Orthodox Judaism, I am grateful it is.

I did have one unfaithful wobble: would my faith sound too simple? Does the complexity of having a second kitchen and fasting and not combining certain foods – let alone ceremonial washing and circumcision – make a faith more explainable? Rules suit our ordered, lineal thinking minds. There’s been a rise in younger Christians attending traditional, methodical, Anglican Prayer Book liturgy services, after all. In a world of uncertainty, we seek structure.

Yet the difference between Ike’s food rules and my seeking comfort in the regular, familiarity of a traditional Anglican Prayer Book service is vast. I can take comfort in its familiarity, and find it opens a new way of dialoguing with G&J, but I don’t have to do it. There’s no need to add anything with Christianity. It’s Christ alone. Not Jesus PLUS. No extra rules. Jesus is the rule breaker.

God Forbid as a radio show seeks to explore and showcase different religions. Yet this wasn’t a simple, ‘what is your Christian convert story?’ There was a sense of, “well, but why?” – if you’re a convert then explain and justify your decision. I didn’t notice Ike receiving the same sort of question. Possibly because the interviewer focused upon the rules that Ike was explaining in Orthodox Judaism. A wieldy set of rules make a religion much easier to ‘explain’ or understand. No strange, heart-led, soul-shaking, unexplainable bits.

We no longer live in a world where the Christian church and faith is automatically respected. Once one’s money, stance on religion, politics and sex were deemed impolite topics to discuss at the dinner table – let alone on national radio! Not so nowadays. Now it’s up for poking, prodding and questioning – with the expectation of having all the answers to defend your faith choice:

If you’ve converted, Phil, justify why. If there are odd peculiarities to your faith (ie: you’re an intelligent, career-garnished woman, why would you be in a Sydney Anglican church, those un-progressives don’t let women DO anything was one angle pursued) you’d better be ready to justify your choice too.

I was happy to because the answer is and always will be: Jesus. Amazing grace. All the other bits of religion I usually roll my eyes over anyhow.

It was an enervating couple of hours. I had to defend that my faith wasn’t simply coincidence or a product of culture; when tackled about Anglicanism and gender I switched it to talk to how counter-cultural Jesus was when it came to speaking to women in first century Israel as recorded in the Bible. When James played me two recorded sound bytes, with topics of proselytising and the Great Commission bumped up against a quote from the Sydney Anglican ArchBishop, Glenn Davies talking building churches and  baptism, I was happy to challenge James on how the two topics weren’t exactly correctly related and explained how one (baptism) was a response to Jesus. Not a “dunk as many people as you can to build a church” story angle.

That he looked over my shoulder at his producers and said, “let’s not get a journalist next time,” when I gave that answer made me smile.

After all, it’s hardly dramatic is it, when your guest tries her best to always point back to Jesus. Not the stuff of worldly, ooh conflict, news agendas.

There was one response from Ike that was edited out before the final show went to air. After I gave my story about meeting the Jesus fella, and Ike was invited to share his story on converting to Judaism, he said, “I’ve never had an experience with God like Phil just described.”

Which made – and still makes – my heart sad. I pray he does.

If you want to have a listen, the link to the recording of the show is here.