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. 

 

Brace yourself: Jesus and orthodontics

My eldest started high school the other week. The night before I slept like you do when you know you’ve a super-early plane to catch… a wee bit restless and never falling deeply asleep in case you miss the plane.

Four weeks ago the Millennium Falcon also landed in his mouth – a galactic installation of hinges that drop vertically between top and bottom jaw and connect as bars under his tongue, alongside a swathe of shiny metal tracks across all his teeth. He wobbled over it – for a day I wondered if we would ever see his smile again,  his hand creeping up to cover his lips each time he spoke. IMG_9450-e1423232292342

It is painful that the orthodontic work that relies on growth spurts and puberty to achieve its objectives coincides with the time when you don’t want to be different, are dealing with more than enough changes, and heading into an expanded new school grouping.

I ought not be surprised at how he navigated his high school preparation with quiet ease, it’s part of his nature. This is where we pray that all we have planted to date gives him the roots and strength to flourish, grow upwards and, yes, away.

It makes me think about God’s heart bursting with love and pride over us too. Those moments when we walk in His light, when we say no to the stuff of the world and turn to His promises instead, do the three of them give each other a quick high five? A trinity fist-pump of encouragement:

“YES! He navigated away from the porn site.”

“Oh, yes, look! She was so scared in her heart she’d be rejected, but she offered to pray for her work colleague.”

“She went to youth group when everyone else went to the party and got drunk. She’s going to get some stick about it on Monday, but she did it!”

“Their son didn’t get invited to the birthday sleepover because last time they picked him up early on the Sunday to get all the family to church. It hurts them as parents to see the exclusion. But they’re still sticking with church.”

Walking Christianity in a world that is set up to mock and challenge you for your beliefs is much like walking into puberty and a new high school with your mouth full of metal. It looks weird, it can feel weird, a lot of the time you struggle to talk – sometimes breathe – and you can feel the pain of blisters as you rub up differently to ‘the norm’.

Thinking that G&J are watching our journeys and cheering us on, helps, no? And not just cheering, but actively helping, with those wonderful God-shoves of the Holy Spirit. The book of James reminds up to persevere with joy – isn’t it cool to imagine the joy that GJ&HS get from us doing just that?

Like me with Master 13. Just bigger. Much bigger. A God-sized heart, bursting with love.

 

The path to happiness

I was asked to give a talk a few weeks back: how to keep your ‘Be Happy’ new year’s resolution longer than February.

The original topic given to me to talk about was Hot Tips to Happiness. I pondered discussing great cocktails and great sex but decided while the audience (non-Christian parents dropping their kids off at a church-run summer event) might enjoy it, it likely wasn’t the best context to discuss gin and g-spots…

But being happy seems to be the goal nowadays. Do X, achieve Y, add in a dash of Z and, ta-da, happiness! Working at RedBalloon a few years ago, the tag line was “Creating A Happiness Revolution.” In RedBalloon’s case, at least it wasn’t the pursuit of buying stuff that made you happy…rather the pursuit of experiences, doing things – either solo or with friends and family – that delivered happy. Yet it’s still external. Still a pursuit.

Being happy isn’t as easy as it’s advertised. 

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source: tmhome.com
Our economy is geared up for happy: in advertising, brands want to be associated with smiling, laughing, happy customers, and positivity has been shown to increase sharing and engagement on social media. Billboards tell us to open a coke, open happy! Don’t worry, be happy.  Lose weight, marry someone who looks and behaves like Hugh Jackman… these are all things we’re told can make us happy (I’m waiting to test out the Hugh Jackman theory.. just as part of research, you understand).

We see happy, we connect with it, and we all go, yes, I want that. And the mistake we can make is thinking that happiness is something that can be pursued. If I just pay off my debts, I’ll be happier. Get that red dress, I’ll be happier. Have a cleaner house (by the way, no-one lies on their death bed saying they wished they’d spend more time cleaning!).

C.S Lewis, of Narnia fame, once described suffering as God’s megaphone. When my Mum died six years ago, when I was grieving her, I was very aware of what I was experiencing internally. To go off and find happy externally seemed to make a mockery of what I was feeling inside. It made no sense to look at happiness as an external pursuit. If sad was in my heart, then happiness, it’s opposite, must be in there too.

Proverbs 15:15 says this:

A miserable heart means a miserable life;
a cheerful heart fills the day with song.

So how do we go about encouraging our hearts to be cheerful? Below are some some good daily habits, and then I’m going expand on one area that gets insufficient attention.

Take a daily thank you walk – “Feel blessed and you won’t be stressed” – what you pay attention to that grows. What do you give thanks for every day?

Talk to yourself – Not the naggy, unkind voice we can too often use. Remind yourself of the lovely truths about yourself. Me, I came to a faith in Jesus a few years ago and that really gave me a new perspective on how to talk to myself. In the Bible God tells me that I’m fearfully and wonderfully made and that God’s works are wonderful. Who am I to disagree with God? When you talk kindly to yourself, when you share God’s perspective on yourself, there’s an immense amount of love and happiness that comes with that.

Get more sleep – a great night’s sleep cannot be replaced by a double latte.

Don’t waste your energy on negative things. Gossip. Your past. Stuff you can’t change. Forgive yourself, and others, admit your mistakes and ask forgiveness of others too.

Love, serve and care – For centuries, the greatest thinkers have suggested the same thing: Happiness is found in helping others. Jesus said it is better to give than to receive. Through MRI technology, we now know that giving activates the same parts of the brain that are stimulated by food and sex. Experiments show evidence that altruism is hardwired in the brain—and it’s pleasurable.

You don’t need me to tell you five tips, or ten steps, to daily happiness habits. We’ve got google for that! I did it when writing this: how to have a happy life. I got about 14 articles per page, and by page 18 of Google I’d stopped pressing ‘Next’. But there were plenty more. Hundreds if not thousands of articles on how to be happy.

But we’re not. In any one year, around 1 million Australian adults have depression, and over 2 million have anxiety. I suffered from it, and I’m sure everyone knows at least one person. It’s on the rise.

So for all the self-help articles, for all the hints and tips out there, ‘being happy’ must be – if you look at the stats – hard. Or are we looking at it the wrong way?

What if it isn’t about self-help?

For all those articles I googled, the one thing I noticed – Jesus didn’t pop up once.  He didn’t get a mention as a way to happiness. Yet the 5 tips above, they can all be traced back to Jesus. Even getting more sleep – like the time in Mark 4, when he and the disciples are in a boat when there’s a massive storm, Jesus is fast asleep in the bottom of the boat, the disciples are panicking, yelling “How can you sleep?! We are going TO DIE”.

How can Jesus sleep? He sleeps because he’s assured of His Father in heaven. Sleep, prayer, thankfulness, forgiveness – these are ways of happiness –– they are all ways that Jesus modelled not because of SELF-help. But because of His trust and the love of his Father in heaven.

And that’s the same for all of us. It’s not about SELF-help, but God’s help.

The Bible has plenty in it about happiness, but defines it differently than our culture. The happiness the Bible advocates isn’t dependent on circumstances. The words for “bless” and “blessed” in both the Old and New Testaments means “well-being,” “flourishing,” and “happiness.”

It is used throughout the Psalms and Proverbs to describe the happy state of those who live wisely according to God’s design.

Four years ago, I wasn’t a Christian. In fact, I’d done the self-help, new age thing for over a decade. Courses, crystals, books (I even went to a church that channeled an alien) – you name it, I tried it. Searching for happiness. There was always another course, another book.

And then I met Jesus – and may I say, I have never been happier. Augustine (one of the great early church theologians and a wild man before he met Jesus) said a lot of pretty fantastic things.  This is one: ‘You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts find no rest until they find their rest in you.’

In Jesus, I have found rest, peace, contentment – happiness – no matter what the external world throws at me.

And, unlike that external pursuit of happiness, of striving, God says STOP.

God says, YOU don’t have to do all the work to be happy. No. I’m pursuing YOU. I love every hair on your head. I sang over you as you knit together in your mother’s womb.

With God’s love and gift of Jesus, there are no rules to get right, no external things to chase. No ladder of rights and wrongs you have to climb up to reach God.

Instead, in Jesus, you meet the God who came down the ladder. Pursuing us. He became human, lived the sinless life we could not, died the death we deserved, then rose again – all  in order to ensure a close, forgiven relationship with us. Through faith. And Grace. Nothing else.

Being loved like that, being redeemed by that, no matter what, gives you an incredible blank canvas each day of love, trust and happiness. Jesus died and overcame death for me so I could be in right relationship with God.

And His love is where true happiness and flourishing comes from.

A lovely new friend said to me recently, after she’d gotten to know Jesus, “Phil, it sounds mad, but even the trees seem greener!” It’s not mad – it’s the right order of things. A relationship with God, through Jesus, means we flourish. And when we flourish, happiness is a natural by-product. Psalm 1 tells us that in relationship with God we are like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fresh fruit, always in blossom. Happy.

I want to close with something that Jesus said that resonated strongly with me when I was seeking happiness. You see, we put so much effort in trying to achieve happiness, we can just end up exhausted. Jesus said this in Matthew’s Gospel, and I’m using a more modern message translation as it really speaks into how harried we can become pursuing happy:

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burnt out? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

If you’re tired out by this pursuit of happiness, and you like this idea of blossoming, flourishing with ease, without the stress and effort, try hanging out with the Jesus-fella for a while. And if you don’t know where to start, drop a comment below and I’ll do my best to help.

 

And so she was named Grace

Eleven years ago right now I’d finished around 17 hours of  labour. After firmly refusing to go to hospital because, with the firstborn – 22 months before – they sent me home twice. No way was I going to hospital until things were serious in the contra-aaaahhh-ction department.AMAZING-GRACE1

Number two was overdue. Which challenged all my journalist, deadline-orientated, thinking. Number one had arrived on his due date, after all.

I believe God sends you the children you need. Aren’t they the most glorious, confronting, gap-analysis mirrors of our very best and worst traits?

Number one is my introvert, reflective, deep-thinking mirror. I understand number one with his phlegmatic approach to life. He is more mellow and methodical than I, but, like me, hides well how deeply he feels. He takes peoples’ measures quickly, succinctly and does not suffer fools gladly.

Gestating number two likely had less of my attention because I was busy living and parenting with number one. It was less ‘beautifully-planned nursery’ and more ‘hand-me-down Bond WonderSuits’.  So then – like now – number two devised her own way of gaining attention. Overdue? Yes, and I’ll stay that way until you really focus on me.

After acupuncture in an effort to get things moving, the practitioner said to me: “I get the strong sense it has something to do with the name you’ve chosen. And the nursery.” That evening, Big T and I finally spent sometime getting the nursery more organised. As we sat together on the small sofa placed for night-feeds, we changed the orginally-chosen name to Grace. In less than 30 minutes the first contraction began.

Fast forward a few years and it was her name, uttered in my first phone call with the SAP that set him thinking that maybe, just maybe, God was chasing me down. I’d failed to notice quite a few signs over the years before. Like the name-change.

Number two feels every emotion deeply – and she lets us all know. From extremes of joy to extremes of frustration, phlegmatic is never an adjective we will ascribe to her. Until I really knew God and Jesus, I never understood grace. But I watch it each day in the daughter whose name we changed.

You see, she may veer from sheer frustration and anger one moment, to joy and wide smiling love another – but she never holds a grudge. Sure, she may sweat it – for a while – but she can also forget it in a flash. She forgives. She tells me when I’ve hurt her feelings. And vice versa. And we hug and it is gone.

I’m sure life will deliver its bruises to her, but I pray she holds onto the peace, redemption and love of the one from where we chose her name.

On her birthday, I am reminded of God’s long-range plans for me, for all of us. I imagine God explaining:

“Phil’s going to take a while to get with the program, son. So I’m just going to do this small thing with Ecclesiastes 3:2 and her daughter, regarding a time for everything and a time to be born. Press upon her a different name. A few years later, that name’s really going to stand out. For her and that SAP fellow I’ll have pick up the phone.”

It once again shows me how personal and loving our Abba in heaven is when it comes to wanting a close relationship with us. He plays a long game to relentlessly pursue us with love. With Grace.

 

DV in church is not about me wanting to preach or be ordained. Seriously.

My last post regarding the emerging story about Don Burke, and comparisons I drew with recent news coverage and responses to DV in churches and clergy marriages, was received, for the most, positively.

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Source: BBC

I urged readers to be wise as snakes and gentle as doves. Again, for the most, readers were.

I have a philosophy/policy with this blog. I treat the posts like my children. I’ve done my best with them, I pray they don’t disgrace me in public, but nor am I going to hover, defend, justify or disempower them. Whether as a writer or a parent, the time comes when I have to let go and see if they fend for themselves.

However I do want to look again at an example I used. I sought to illustrate the subtlety of language and how it can both empower and disempower. I wrote about two conversations I’d had where – on separate occasions – a man and a women in church positions of influence dismissed the idea of women preaching. They used specific language on i) how it would disempower men and ii) my female broken, sinful nature.

A couple of comments via social media reached me. While my policy/philosophy above means I ought to let them slide, I want to be clear: I did not use the example to make it about me; specifically me wanting to hijack domestic and sexual violence in church in order to push an agenda about women wanting to preach and women seeking ordination.

The comments I read tried to make out this was so. And I won’t have it. I asked people to be wise as snakes, gentle as doves. So let’s try again. To tackle the concerns:

1) My credentials: I don’t have insight to write on DV.

I write with insight into DV and sexual abuse because of my personal experience (read here and here). This is how, alongside the Bible and some literal, smacked-into-me lessons, I learnt my wise as a snake mojo.  I don’t profess to have counselling degrees and a specialist field of study. But I pray I have empathy and insight.

2) I just want to preach, so I’m using the angle of lack of women’s voices in church = DV to push my personal agenda about my desire to preach.

It is not wise or gentle of me to want to stick my fingers in my ears and loudly sing, “la-la-la-la-la-la, can’t hear you.” But, Good Lord, I really want to when I read such agenda-shifting comments. Oh, hang on, that’s what happened. An attempt at agenda-shift.

Take your fingers out your ears, please, stop the la-la-la’s and breath. Sit with it. I know it hurts. It’s bloody painful to think a lack of women’s voices and leadership in church could play into the insidious evil of DV in church. But we can get past this. God is bigger than us and this. So let’s lean in. If – and I’m referring especially to anyone in church leadership, influence or authority – you think it’s too painful to do so, please lift your eyes back to the cross and away from your pain receptors.

Do I preach? Yes. Am I gifted at it? According to feedback, yes. Can I? Literally, yes. Biblically? Well, it depends on where you land scripturally.

Do I particularly care if I preach to men or women? Nope. I just want to preach Jesus.

If you do want to get Greek scholarly and biblical and start thrusting verses at me to argue I ought not preach to men, please resist. Be a gentle dove. I don’t need you to agree with me to justify why I’ve arrived at my ‘wide path’ decision on women preaching based on my scriptural study; just as you don’t need me to agree with you to justify your ‘narrow path’ belief in your decision based on your scriptural study. Okay?

It’s not a salvation issue, there’s no “I’m a better Christian” barometer if one person believes X and the other believes Y about women preaching. Thank God for the fully equalising gurney of grace.

But, as someone with 20+ years in communications and a Masters degree in the dark arts (PR and Comms, or ‘persuading someone to think a certain way about an issue’) I do know there’s a consequence of language becoming subtle, pervasive and using oft-repeated specific messages. In this case, regarding gender, roles and influence in our churches.

Having had intimate insight into domestic family violence, I know exactly how hyper-vigilant sufferers are. The words you say, the look on your face, the tone of your voice, they all signal something. Something you may not even intend. And when it is ‘the norm’  – like, say, a woman should not preach as it disempowers men – you may not even think about it coming out your mouth. But for the victim, reading and paying attention to that, it is everything. I cannot emphasise that enough. Because she has learnt to observe, to watch for cues, to live in fear of missing one. The onus has to be on us, surely, to love our neighbours better. To no longer speak in ways that offer subtle disempowerment and disenfranchisement.

3) It rises up when you least expect it (back to credentials)

For the most part I have prayed, pondered and therapied my wounds. But until quite recently I never realised the level of my hyper-vigilance. I just thought God had wired me fast, with a million-miles-an-hour brain! A career in journalism (deadlines) and 20 years of business ownership (always another job to do, another sale to pitch) had simply fed the pace and race.

It wasn’t until I was given some pills to fell the racing cheetah did I realise. Forget multi-tasking, I hyper-tasked. I won’t sit with my back to an entry and, if I do, unwittingly, my sub-conscious will reposition my body before I’m aware. If I ever have coffee with you and you find I’ve switched sides of the table to sit in your lap, my apologies…

Talk to me in a crowded room, and I will focus fully on your conversation, but I’ll also be aware of the content and currents of the other conversations around us. I thought it was a fairly cool gift until a kindly doctor pointed out the dangerous spikes in my cholesterol were likely to do with constant fight and flight and cortisol.

“But I”m not anxious or stressed!” I blustered. “No, that’s part of the problem,” he replied. “You think it’s normal. You were a child, the wiring started way back when, you don’t realise it’s not normal because it’s always been there. Time to stop.” The day I took my first ‘fell the racing cheetah’ pills was hilarious…

But the point I’m trying to make: it creeps up and fells me when I least expect. Like when I was told, ‘wanting to preach is sinful and broken’. I kept it together until I left the church but afterwards I just howled. I couldn’t reconcile my loving, grace-filled Abba in heaven who has blessed me with a gift to write, read and speak, with what I had just been told (well, admonished). That even though I thought I had a voice, it was sinful and broken of me to think about using it widely.  It took me straight back to an abusive step father, grooming and an attempted sexual assault where I had felt voiceless. Unheard. Without hope.

Recall: I’m a 45 year old, feisty so-and-so who has come a long, long way in healing and speaking out, who did not experience abuse at the hands of a Christian using scripture to keep me down. Yet my reaction still happened.

How much worse, then, for someone who has suffered through incorrect application of scripture? Who has been told she ought to always submit, who has been abused, assaulted, raped? Hearing narrow messaging, no matter how unwittingly done, would be much worse. A million times worse.

And please, let’s not go off track on admonishing and correction, and how if someone is biblically incorrect then they need to be put straight. You may agree I needed to be ‘put straight’ on women preaching. That’s ok. This isn’t about that. It’s about being open to consider how the tenor of language and messaging, the subtleties of submission doctrine and gender leadership, can impact.

Please hear my voice: this is not, and never will be, about pushing a personal female preaching agenda.

This is about urging everyone to be vigilant in their scriptural language and being alert to any subtle disempowerment and disenfranchisement of women, from how scripture is taught to how we speak, lead and teach each other.

There are too many great women in the Bible who led, fought, taught, preached, prophesied and served for us to think about doing anything less. To do so would be, well, unBiblical.