Word up: when God leaps from the page.

God has been asking me to do a few different, ‘leap across the abyss and trust Me’ action items of late. All in areas where I traditionally become scared, uncertain and, well, choke. Better the devil you know..ahem.

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I’m now sufficiently theologically aware to know that my ‘choking’ over the past four to six weeks is putting other gods (safety, security) over my true God. That by giving into the voices of fear and ‘what if?’ I’m letting the horned mother trucker mess with my head.

The Bible tells me that God has my back. That when He asks me to grow and do wild, crazy things that make ZERO sense (remember Abraham honouring God when, in a test of faith, God asked him to kill his son Isaac? ), He delivers. As we grow in Him, He blesses us. But, oh my gosh, it still doesn’t make doing it any easier!

I’m no Abraham. The trick is knowing and trusting God’s character. How do I do that? By spending some solid time in God’s word. It’s all there in black and white, proof statement after proof statement, from His covenant, loving promise to His people in the Old Testament all the way through to His sacrificing His only son in the New…all because He wants a close, personal relationship with us. If He is willing to go to such lengths to show me His love, why on earth would I fear? Verse after verse points to His having plans to grow and not harm me. Yet, still, I teeter…

Why? Honestly, I think it’s to do with the Bible. It’s so big. And dense. And written down. It can feel impersonal, this big book of God’s rescue mission for his people. It’s like I’m observing characters from 1000s of years ago and because it’s so long ago it’s easy to forget how they still all relate to me. I petulantly mutter, “It’s Ok for THEM. You spoke to them directly through prophets, no wonder they got it. And then there was Jesus. They got to see him. I’ve got words on a page and it feels so…not lonely, that’s not the right word. Just too far away from me here, struggling with this?”

Now, if it were me, less abundantly blessed as I am with the fruits of the HS (patience, kindness, self-control etc.) than God, I’d be calling Jesus over and getting terribly frustrated: “Why doesn’t she get it? How much more do I have to do?! Haven’t I told her, shown her?” Thankfully, God is better at patience and loving kindness than I.

The miracle is how personally he shows me His patience. How lovingly He shows He can leap off the pages of the Bible and move through my life, in this time, in this place. The Bible isn’t an old, static book. It is God-breathed. Living. Supernatural. Once you get your head around that and allow God to leap off the page, it becomes more than words.

So as I wrestled with fear, it began with a call to read Psalm 119, to reflect upon God’s word, ‘to open my eyes that I may see wonderful things’ in it. ‘Mediate on Me,’ God whispered. Over and over the Psalm reminded me to trust in His word, that God will always remember all He promises. Psalm 119 affirms God’s Word and reflects the very character of God Himself. Righteous, Trustworthiness, Truthful, Faithful, Unchangeable, Eternal, Light and Pure.

So, of course, straight after reading that I was positively overflowing with trust and bravery, right? Well. Sort of. But something small shifted, like the HS within me had risen in response to, well, Himself.

Quietly, inside, it became less words on a page and more living and fluid. Which may be totally woo-woo to a fair few people, maybe even some UHT Christians, but it suddenly began to make more sense. The God in that book was at the exact same time the same God in me (the HS) and the same God all around me, right here, right now as I walk and pass through time and place. Which of course I knew – I hope I’ve blogged sufficiently to show I have no problem with Him being all around – but the sense of His word rising up to envelop us because it is a real thing you can hold in the hands of your heart suddenly made perfect yet inexplicable sense at a cellular level.

Look at how John begins his Gospel: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He’s about to write an account with the end in view: all John witnessed, the glory, the light, the words out of Jesus’ mouth, the miracles, dying, rising are summed up in one excellent line that is designed to land between the eyes.

The first and final, Alpha and Omega is the Word, which is also God, which is also with Him. You can’t separate the Word from God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit, John tells me. Don’t make the mistake of separating the Word (God) from the Word (on the page in The Bible). It can’t be done.

When people say dive into The Bible, as you would a pool, I think we ought to take it quite literally.  Not simply a deep dive regarding ‘head study, what does this greek mean?’ but knowing it is real and living, soaking in it to our core. A spa retreat for the Holy Spirit within.

Yet I think too often, that’s the mistake we make. I know I did. Likely because it takes a small brain explosion to stop looking at the Bible as ‘words that tell me about God and Jesus’ and recognising instead it is them. Was them. Will be them. All at once. There’s a reason why missions records stories of 100s of people in remote villages all becoming Christians, yet having never been introduced to Jesus by anyone like the SAP. They’ve simply been able to get their hands (or ears) on a Bible translation. And, as THE word, God leaps out and into their hearts. No special sermons, no fancy preaching, not even a fancy ground coffee. ‘Just’ a Bible.

Word.

Church & Domestic Violence. Love your statistics, sorry, neighbour as yourself.

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Australia’s ABC’s 7.30 report and then 60 Minutes current affairs programs have, in the past week, again put domestic family violence (DFV) in churches, due to the misuse of scripture and warped readings of submission, under the spotlight.

Again it caused all sorts of defensive positions. Some Christians took refuge in atheist commentator Andrew Bolt decrying (Christian) reporter Julia Baird and Hayley Gleeson’s quoted research. To paraphrase most defensive camps, very loosely:

“The quoted statistics about evangelical men irregularly attending church being most likely to abuse their wives is offensive and nonsense and too old. So the rest must be rubbish.”

Or, “the ABC hates us Christians, we’re persecuted, so you can’t believe what they’ve said.”

Or, “I was interviewed for that story, I’m doing a lot to help victims of DFV, but they didn’t use any of the footage. Which made the DFV issue in church look worse than it is. And that’s why they chose not to use it. Because they want us to look bad.”

Baird has been called a “shameful Christian” and worse. The phrase “feminist agenda” pops up a lot – giving something or someone an agenda makes it/them sound so dangerous, underhand and divisive, doesn’t it?

What did the rush to redirect to incorrect reporting, bias, errors in statistics and vilifying Baird really achieve? It buried all the stories – the true, researched, on-record, painful stories – of women who had been abused by their husbands under the incorrect application of scriptural submission. As a result, many Christians focused their attention on any errors in the quoted statistics – rather than paying more attention to their neighbours. Consequently they derived false, horrible comfort at victims’ expense.

The rush to legal fact-checking was like the Pharisees questioning Jesus on the disciples plucking grain on the Sabbath. If we keep it about rules, regulations, and berate you for getting a statistic wrong, or not giving another statistic sufficient prominence, we might avoid looking at the real sinful failure here. Which is this:

There are wives who have been badly beaten, raped, made to feel unsafe in their homes, made to feel terror for their own safety and their children – all at the hands of Christian husbands misusing submission and headship scripture. There may be thousands, there may be hundreds, who knows, because the problem is, there’s no up-to-date data in the Australian context. But just because there’s no data – or the data that’s being extrapolated is from another country – is no excuse to blame-shift. Experts recommend we draw patterns from other countries and level those numbers UP because DFV is notoriously under-reported.

In fact the whole crux of Baird and Gleeson’s research shone light on this problem: there is no data and Australia desperately needs it.

I can’t believe I’m having to write this: but just ONE woman saying this has happened to her is one woman too many. More than one woman came forward to speak to the investigative reporters. All with awful stories of abuse. How dare we diminish their voices playing games of smoke and mirrors over data?

Please, all those men who assumed the defensive – “I’m an evangelical Christian and I’M NOT A WIFE BEATER, saying this damages the church, and me as a Christian, it’s wrong, you must stop sharing and spreading this sort of story, the statistics are wrong!” – I ask you to be bigger than that. I ask you to be stronger than that. I ask you to make yourself less in this. I ask you to lay down your lives. Put their stories first, put these women first. Love these sisters in Christ as Jesus does.

As an aside, when the research also shows that regular attenders at church are much less likely to be involved in domestic violence – which was reported by Karl Faase in Eternity in 2015 and also by Baird but less prominently – I’m slightly baffled as to why so much defensiveness and bluster. You faithful, solid Christian guys got paid a compliment…unless, of course, you don’t attend church regularly and are now paranoid everyone will think you’re a wife beater. If this is you, I’m going to gently ask you to man, I mean, Jesus up.

Jesus didn’t roar and bluster defensively. He wouldn’t have said, “Shame on you, Julia Baird for your use of that data that reflects poorly on me and my church.” Or, “Go fetch me more Australian data to support the story the woman shared of how her pastor told her to pray about it when her Christian husband was raping, abusing, and hitting her, and if he killed her first before he repented, well, at least the pastor reminded her she’d be in heaven with me. I need more data, Julia, data. Data thy neighbour. That’s it.”

Jesus is gentle.  Jesus comes back with love. With grace. He reached out a hand to the Samaritan woman at the well who, in my eyes, is the closest we have to a likely DFV sufferer in The Bible. He prevented the stoning of the adulterous woman. He didn’t join in throwing the stones.

I’m a former journo. I understand the news agenda. Immediacy, conflict, proximity, consequence etc etc. Baird and Gleeson have held up their research to scrutiny and while detractors and trolls will still likely scoff, it reads as solid research to me, not news agenda sound-byte chasing. Solid particularly in light of the lack of Australian data and fear so many women have about going on record.

As I’ve written before (links below), I don’t want to hear more stories emerge about DFV. I don’t want our churches to be viewed as places where wives who have experienced this will not be heard. Where their husbands will be allowed to stay while they themselves lose their body of Christ support. But until we move away from shrill, scared, ‘it’s just a feminist-agenda’, or trying to reduce it to errors in fact-checking, and an unwillingness to listen to women’s voices more fully in some church contexts, I’m afraid the stories will continue to emerge.

I want to thank those pastors who have been quick to say, “I don’t care who you are married to, I don’t care what position your husband holds in your church, if this has happened to you, I am here, I will believe and I will help and support you.” For those who tackle DFV in full sermons, not simply in passing through one or two verses, I salute you.

I contribute to sites written for women to learn what it means to follow Jesus. Some of whom use it as a safe place to reach out. DFV sufferers in the past week have shared to the site’s management team how they value the support and willingness of others to keep speaking out when they feel powerless and voiceless. So let’s be like the Lord we follow. To whom we owe our lives. Shine light, speak out and, please, weep with those who weep.

Other related posts pertaining to DFV on this site:

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, family or domestic violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000.

 

Why I can’t put Jesus in a cat video

In a world of expanding waistlines (because we’re sitting longer in front of screens) yet shrinking attention spans, how do you get the good news into a succinct sound byte that cuts through ‘sufficiently’?

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Cat videos are popular, right? They get shared a lot, viewed a lot, and people make cute comments about, “ooh, I want a cat like that one!” So people who want to introduce Jesus make the clunky connection that if they can somehow make Jesus as cute and appealing as the fluffy grey kitten with the blue eyes and white bib, they’re on a winner. Kittens are culturally popular, so how can we use kittens to make Jesus culturally-popular too (and then get lots of shares and likes for him too, yay!)?

No! Number one, people aren’t that daft. Number two, Jesus is no kitten.

Lately, I’m uncomfortably aware that I simply can’t sell Jesus.

Now that’s fairly confronting for a PR chick who spends her life working out what tactics to employ to get people to think and feel a certain way about something. It’s even more confronting when I’ve a major assignment – on designing and creating an evangelism strategy –  due in less than three days and I’m stumped.

I’ve researched my target audience (the ‘sub culture’ using evangelism course terminology) and I understand their blocks to the Jesus message. The next step, if I follow the secular approach to crafting a comms and marketing strategy (which, dumbed down, is essentially an evangelism strategy: what to do to introduce Jesus) is simply list the tactics I’d employ and roll ‘em out.

But I can’t. I can’t put Jesus in a snazzy sound byte or cat video that will get likes and shares. And while I ponder apostle Paul – how he became a Jew to win Jews, Gentile to win Gentiles etc. I also bump up against Galatians 1:10. Am I trying to win the approvals of human beings or God? 

Jesus sells himself, doesn’t he? Whilst one of his last commands was to tell us to go to the ends of the earth to share his Good News, I end up shuddering at deconstructing Jesus’ sales message. I’ve spent hours googling ‘evangelistic tools’. If I write this artful blog, design this snazzy app, and add in some high production value videos of Christian celebrities wearing black clothing under mood lighting, maybe you too will be saved.

It’s just so commercial. I keep imagine Jesus in some sort of Steve Jobs pose, staring soulfully out of his redesigned Bible book cover, wearing a black turtleneck…

After all, none of us are shiny and perfect. That’s the beauty of Jesus. His humanity keeps him approachable and relatable. I don’t want my Jesus to be book cover perfect, with matching merchandise. I need to know he’ll look at my brokenness, my mess, and smile at me gently whilst holding out his grace. He gets to be the perfect one, not me.  Boy, doesn’t that take the pressure off?

But that doesn’t mean we have to make our methods of introducing him perfect. I made the error of thinking I had to, seduced into the idea of finding the best marketing practise for GJ&HS.

But what can compare? How do you improve on brand Jesus? Well, I could blog on about rules, judgement, denominational bickering, and Christian over-use of exuberant, shiny, “have you let the Lord Jesus into your life?” language. I still don’t believe any of that adds anything to brand Jesus.

Brand Jesus is about real and broken Jesus followers. Who love. Reach out with compassion. Who are brave enough to talk about him and have uncomfortable conversations that are confronting in today’s self-led, self-sufficient world. That none of us are perfect and that’s OK. That you are not defined by your car, house, career, family, schooling, Facebook, waistline, Instagram, sexual prowess, or duck face pose on social media… the list goes on.

I still don’t know what I’m going to submit as my evangelism assignment. I’m not sure the lecturer will accept me writing: pray, have coffee with someone each week, ask them about their spiritual beliefs and keep going until I get the opportunity to read some of the Bible with them. After all, His word does the work and never returns empty.

Maybe if I put all that in a cat video I’ll get a high distinction?

Sorry SAP, it’s all greek.. I mean God.. to me.

Lately I’ve had a few questions about the SAP. Where has this scarily forthright man of the cloth disappeared to?  Why aren’t I recording some SAP adventures? Is he MIA? foundsheepgreek

Yes and no. With almost two years in a church that has grown by around 40 per cent since he and Mrs SAP relocated to lead it, God has been incredibly busy in the smart-alec corner of a remote Aussie outback town. So you can imagine the SAP has been equally as hectic. Pastoring. Getting to know his new parish inside and out.  Nimbly translating God’s word from Hebrew and Greek each week without a guidebook to produce HS-led sermons. Plus the usual hatch, match and dispatching.

And the events. Oh my gosh, the events. The SAP has become the evangelising ninja of runsheet organisation. It warms the cockles of my public relations heart. Easter outreach. A massive dinner with a leading television performer. The other day he sent me an Instagram photo of his Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired Gingerbread House, and the upcoming Carols in the Red Dirt look to have the whole town rocking. Did I mention the brave Persecute The Pastor he hosted in the local pub? I’m not sure how many schooners he ducked as he did the equivalent of soapbox preaching standing on a wobbly bar stool, but the numbers in the pews speak for themselves.

At a time when many churches are shrinking, far behind the dusty wake of population growth, it’s a pleasure to see God in action within the SAP’s new church.

I am kidding slightly. Not about the growth. Or the evangelising events. But the SAP is dealing with more city carbon monoxide grey than red dirt. In his region there are 40 churches of his denominational ilk.  20 have under 100 people.  Ten of those are under 50.  And they are shrinking. So the church where the SAP works is bucking a trend.

Now I know it’s all God. But, as an outside observer, I’d also add that it’s much to do with the energy, personality, and sheer smart-alec-ness the SAP prays into his gigs. After all, the same God is in those ten churches with less than 50 congregants around the corner.

So what’s the difference?

It makes me wonder. Should smart-alec pastoring be a mandated subject in every theology degree?

SAPing isn’t on theology curriculums. Greek and Hebrew take centre stage, along with units like Church History, Sacraments, Jesus and the Gospels, expository (a fancy word for ‘what does this bible verse mean and how can we relate it to everyday, modern life?’) and – depending on where you enrol – training in preaching.

What do we do with personality?

I suspect personality can be a problem in bible colleges. What if a personality gets in the way of God’s word? Could an individual be tempted to think FIGJAM not FIGJAG? The tabloid fall from grace of ‘preachers with personality’ understandably gives people pause. If we stay safe, don’t rock the boat, keep charisma firmly away from everything, and stay well under God’s word, then nothing can go wrong. Don’t shine too much. Don’t challenge. For goodness sake, just keep your head down in the Greek and the Hebrew. Which is likely the equivalent of snorting bromide for someone with a smart-alec personality.

Languages recently got a dusting down on social media between biblical language heavyweight scholars and everyday juggling pastors who really just want to introduce Jesus to people who need him. The latter couldn’t give a flying FIGJAM about passing greek exams and learning to translate the original manuscripts. I asked the SAP’s opinion, given additional Greek study is a three-line whip he currently has to do as part of the ‘essential skills’ in his new job description (I was kidding earlier about his nimble weekly translations).

“I want to get on with what God has called me to do – preach in a way that people seem to understand easily that relates to their world on a Monday morning.  When that happens I’ll use my Greek like I have done for the previous 20 or so years: when I’m really badly stuck on a bit of exegesis I’ll consult Don Carson or one of the many other fine scholarly commentators we’re blessed to share God’s green earth with, or I’ll pick up the phone and ask a mate who is particularly gifted at Greek.”

Otherwise the SAP is content to back the Holy Spirit’s capacity to speak through him and leverage the rudimentary knowledge of Greek he already has.

From what I observe, it’s working so far. He and Mrs SAP are struggling to find the room to put out more chairs in their growing church.

God gives us all different gifts: the SAP’s is a willingness to apply imagination and rigour to exegesis so some of the stereotypes about GJ&HS (and the folk who follow them) are busted.

As Christians, if we’re passionate about reaching the unreached and spreading the Good News of the Jesus fella, then we need to meet people where they are at – in their current context – and stop berating and hobbling those pastors who do great jobs despite not having the ‘correct’ unit of study.

Where would the SAP’s time be better served? Studying all hours and commuting to bible college in order to achieve a certain percentage on a Greek exam? Or getting out and about with more of the people in his parish, diving deep into bible study groups, and solidly introducing the Jesus fella to as many as possible?

I can put my hand on my heart and say I’d still be in the ‘unsaved’ camp if the SAP had spent more time in Greek and Hebrew and less in smart-alec pastoring when I first picked up the phone.

Hopefully that is a sobering notion for any church bureaucrats more concerned about pastors passing Greek biblical study units than the souls of the people those same pastors in their diocese are passionate about evangelising.

It’s all God To Me

I did not care then, and care even less now, how the SAP could correctly translate the greek word in the bible for agape as the passionate, radical, hungering love that God has for me compared to the ‘quick, fancy a shag’ love of eros, the more contained, virtuous love of philia. 

Whether from decades of Greek language study or an hour with a theological book by D.A Carson, I care not a whit

Nor do I think God cares. He and the angels held a party in heaven, Jesus strung up a massive banner with my name on it, and there was much rejoicing, celebrating and helium balloons when I got with the GJ&HS program. “Finally!” they high-fived.

Jesus did not stop, pause and say, “Hang on a second, Dad. That SAP fellow who introduced her to me, he only did a year-long study of Greek as part of his undergraduate theology degree 20 years ago. That won’t do, will it? No grace for her!”

Instead, let’s imagine the conversation God has with the person who would take a pastor off their focus of growing and leading a church to bury them in achieving another Greek qualification.

God: “Let me get this straight. You were worried about a pastor who was helping grow My church and ensuring people were being introduced solidly to My son – all because of the amount of Greek he previously studied?

“Yet the church was growing whilst they were there involved there? And beforehand it wasn’t?”

I imagine God may remind us something like this: “With whom am I head over heels Agape? My lost sheep or Greek conjugations? Perhaps you missed that when you translating My word from the original language?”

Let’s play to strengths

Please don’t misunderstand me. The need to protect and be true to scriptural translations is vital. I give thanks for biblical language scholars. I just don’t believe God and Jesus expects every Rev. to have identical skills. Jesus called fishermen to build his church. If we explore the parable of the talents, it becomes clear that God apportions us different gifts.

If your gift is Greek, awesome! Please keep writing worthy scholarly tomes that help others less gifted in biblical languages. Help us preserve and better understand God’s word. If your gift is taking all of the ancient language, comprehending and unpacking the Bible so your everyday 21st Century person realises just how relevant Jesus remains, please don’t feel beleaguered and belittled by being less than nimble in languages.

For church hierarchies, perhaps this requires a long, hard look in the mirror? Facing up to the awkward question that perhaps one denomination is too focused on intellectual sermonising and Christian study, whilst another is a little too ‘loosey-goosey’ with scripture. Too much intellectualism can disenfranchise those needing to understand Jesus, and flakey ‘off-piste’ theology can lead people away from the cross not to it. There’s obviously a balance.

I also wonder how the horned mother trucker is feeling. For every prideful conversation he hears over the ‘right’ language study, the ‘right’ bible college and the ‘right’ amount of translation skills, he is likely smiling. As the body of Christ bickers over whose theological qualification is best, he gleefully rubs his hands:

“That’s it! Stay worried about the Hebrew and the Greek. Lose yourself in it. Get so buried in its dusty history you forget how to share Jesus so he makes sense today. Argue over your theological Grad Dips, Masters and Bachelor qualifications. Feel clever for attending the ‘right’ college and insecure if you didn’t. Suits me just fine.”

For an excellent couple of blogs on this topic, I highly recommend these two by Stephen McAlpine: My Greek is rubbish but I preach Ok and My Greek is OK but my preaching is rubbish.

The testimony blooper reel

I love the bloopers at the end of shows. I think it started as a child watching Smokey and the Bandit movies. I loved how I could move from pure fiction to authentic reality. There was also a massive lesson about failing fast and failing with fun. All these people getting it wrong, stuffing up lines, enjoying it, trying again and succeeding. d5e933bd4c28f20cd1ac927e8a14a7cf38935364324fa876f2d56730d5a0e7a6.jpg

Upon reflection, my getting up on stage to give my testimony almost two years ago was a fairly interesting exercise on the SAP’s part. He’d observed me pinging around like meerkat on speed as I wrestled and questioned with God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. And whilst he knew I was more than solid with what GJ&HS had delivered – I’d not have been lipton’d otherwise – he’d also had plenty of insight into my, um, somewhat colourful communication methods.

I wonder if pastors ever have a moment when they wish for the same nine-second delay button that allows live broadcasters to dump any content that’s off-piste before it goes out to air?

After all, live testimony is a fairly public litmus test of a pastor’s efforts in the soul-saving funnel. Yes, yes, I know, God is sovereign, it’s not really the pastor’s fault if someone doesn’t get it 100%….but, still, you’ve surely got to feel a bit of the pressure.

Something has prompted the newbie to come to (or call) the church, they’ve asked lots of questions, likely attended the gospel 101, Christianity Explored course, totally gotten with the program that Jesus’ grace is an underserved gift and are ready to publicly give testimony. But imagine if something has been lost in translation, and, up on stage, there’s some major faux-pas.

Like the live testimony where the person expressed hope they had done enough.

Whoops. I imagine it caused the pastor a mental forehead-slap, a quick grab of the microphone and a, “Ahem, right, well, actually, before you continue let me quickly open up to Ephesians 2:9.”

Testimony is a funny thing. There are the big, headliner, “Jesus turned my life around saved me from drugs/drink/prostitution” testimonies. Or the no less headlining, but somehow less attention-getting, “I grew up in a Christian home, with happy parents, their solid marriage and embrace Jesus as my saviour because I have seen so much joy in him throughout my life why on earth would I put anything else above him?”

Why don’t churches do more ‘where are they now?’ testimonies and report on some follow up stories? I think many congregants would be greatly encouraged by how and where the newbies are growing in their faith. It would also spread some colour and awareness of how gloriously different everyone’s faith walk can be. Hints and tips could be shared. Honest bloopers too.

Imagine sharing all those lessons about failing fast and failing with fun. Grabbing grace. All these people getting it wrong, stuffing up lines, enjoying it, and trying again through faith. Real life, real church.

Bleepin’ awesome.

 

God’s blowtorches & blessings

It never ceases to amaze me that people manage to sell (and get sold on) the prosperity gospel. God may refer to pouring out His blessings, Jesus mentions how the Father clothes the birds and flowers, so how much more will He will do for us etc. but there’s nowhere in the Bible about life being easy, rolling around on piles of dollars, strewn on satin sheets, all because God desperately loves us so much He wants us to be uber-wealthy.

Prosperity gospel reminds me of law of attraction /universal manifestation teachings. Whereby the believer is told to use God/ the universe as a power to achieve whatever the believer wills. Thought creates. Think a million dollars strongly enough and it will appear in your life. 122408_Blowtorch_448x336

Whilst the truth of biblical Christianity is just the opposite: God uses me, the believer, not the other way round. Rather than the Holy Spirit (HS) being my magical manifestation magnet, instead the HS resides within to help me do God’s will. Because, heaven knows, I’d be up the proverbial creek without a paddle trying to carry out God’s will without it!

Yet the most hilarious bit about the prosperity gospel is, well…. does no-one read the fine print nowadays? I have many joyous phrases to describe my journey with GJ&HS, but “winning lotto” and “gee, isn’t it a smooth road without hiccups?” aren’t ones that spring to mind.

God has His crucibles. His ways of achieving the growth of those who love Him:

The crucible for silver and the furnace for gold, but the Lord tests the heart. – Proverbs 17:3

He will sit as a smelter and purifier of silver, and He will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, so that they may present to the Lord offerings in righteousness. – Malachi 3:3

The crucible metaphor being how heat purifies metal to its purest form, just as times of trial, tribulation and suffering refine our faith.

It sounds so lovely, doesn’t it, precious metals and crucibles? Conjures up images of tastefully-crafted jewellery at the end. But let’s not forget the sweaty, burning, eyes closed against the furnace heat part.

I refer to such times as God’s blowtorches. Personally, the last few months? They have not been the simmering sense of a frog warming up in a pot, but a blasting heat that requires an asbestos grip on Jesus’ divinity because…wow…so You think I need that much refining, Lord? Ouch.

After a series of intense weeks, the SAP picked a shift in my tone from: “Yes, just little bit of testing, but, oh, such joy to be embraced in the trials. I’m totally meditating on James 1 2-4, whilst colouring-in a mindfulness page I’ve designed based on the same Bible passage..” …to something darker. Think Steven Seagal meets Jason Statham.

The SAP suggested it was all part of God’s refining rather than one isolated lesson for me to grasp.  So refining is a lesson in itself. Yet it was fairly obvious I’d reached flash point when I began slanging back at God with blackmail threats:

“You know those awesome gifts of engagement, communication, and ‘sell ice to Eskimos’ You gifted me with, Lord? Well (through gritted teeth), you really don’t want me using them against You rather than for You. I reckon the atheists would love me on their team…and I’m feeling just pissed-off enough right now to do a really awesome job. Ease up on the damn blow torch!”

Thank heaven for answered prayer. I suspect God answered The SAP’s respectful one – “I’ll pray the blowtorch turns off,” he kindly offered me – over my full-frontal tactical assault.

And in His constant, loving, amazing, God-only way, the next day His gentle Yellow Post-It notes of care began to appear or, rather, I was able to see them more clearly. Perhaps the SAP added in something about scales from my eyes in his prayer too?

Like the meeting – after a time of attempting to introduce more prayer into a Christian workplace and feeling a resisting silence to change – when a team member, without prompting, suggested prayers directly afterwards.

Or – in the middle of my worst blowtorched stresses, as that voice in my head began to ask how seriously I had got this wrong, that God really was a spaghetti monster in the sky and wasn’t this just a freakin’ mess and why not go back to how it used to be, because surely it was easier then? – sitting with two Christian women who demonstrated total commitment in their faith, an unwavering certainty that prayers would be answered, that God’s hand was in everything. Intelligent, Godly women, one older, one younger, who through shared prayer reminded me that their faith in Jesus’ sacrifice came not through spaghetti monsters but seeing God work in their lives over and over.

They didn’t even know, those two women, as they sat across the table from me, how close my fingertips had come to breaking point hanging off my blowtorched cliff.  But listening to them talk, hearing the clarity of their certainty, was my chance to draw faith from their faith.

There’s a lesson for us all. You never know who is listening and watching, how God is using you in one moment, and the unexpected encouragement that moment can bring to someone else. Salt and light.

The same day, God drew me back to the longer passage in James 1:

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do.

I realised I had missed a major point on perseverance. There I had been, with ground teeth and bleeding fingernails, grittily persevering. “Just hang on,” I would grind out to myself. “You can do this.”

I had been focused on the wrong two verses: the ‘most famous’ first two, the ones held up as the lights to be guided by in testing times. “Just hang on, Phil, because, on the other side of this, you’ll be whole and complete. That’s the deal.”

Trouble is, the harder I hung on, the more effort I put into this back-breaking perseverance, the more sweat-drenched and slippy my grip became.

No-where in the passage does it say enduring in the sense of being ground down. No. James’ emotion is pure joy. As for the work of perseverance so I could be mature and complete? James doesn’t write that I’m the one having to do the work. The elegant solution, the best approach, the one that would take the pressure off my clamped jaw and anguished, exhausted brain? Verses 5 and 6 leapt out at me:

If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.

I didn’t need bleary perseverance and gritted teeth. I needed wisdom – God’s. And I needed to get my head back into His game so I could draw on His wisdom without doubts. Otherwise I was going to be swamped.

Finally, it filtered through. “I’m so sorry. I’ve been unstable, haven’t I? I don’t have the wisdom here. I need Yours. Please.” Even better, after all my slanging, all my challenging ungratefulness, I could hold onto His promise through Jesus: that He would give it to me generously, without finding fault.

The wisdom He whispered made me smile and hiccup, and get a little snot-monstery. “Count your blessings, dear heart. The way through the blowtorches are to count your blessings.”

I am recognising God’s methods with me: Pressure, pressure, blowtorch, refine, okay so now you’re hanging on by your fingertips, dear heart, so… pause. You’ve taken too much on yourself. Here’s a hint. Why not lean on Me? Ask Me? Let me encourage you? Ah, yes, there you go. See, look, you’re still here, now get your breath back, get the growth, rumble with the joy and get back out there and FLY.

So I am back to swigging grace like Guinness, chomping humble pills like Smarties and remembering the one with all the wisdom. Whilst holding onto the greatest lesson of all. Crucibles refine and the way through my blowtorches are to count my blessings, because blessings are our paths to pure joy:

  • Children who are heathy and nourished
  • A husband who never fails to make me laugh: from impersonating a Cath and Kim power walker to being a doofus over helping me stretch a hamsting when I’m taking life too seriously
  • A job that not only delivers regular income to our household, but challenges, stretches, satisfies and allows me to contribute to something bigger than myself
  • A business. With fun-loving clients who trust me and let me have fun too
  • A house. With a room for each child and more to spare
  • A roof that does not leak
  • Running water. Electricity. WiFi!
  • Indoor plumbing
  • Friends. Whose doorsteps I could turn up on at 3am knowing they would help
  • Faith. That God has my back. That Jesus has it covered
  • Access to healthcare
  • The ability to worship in public. Read the Bible in plain sight
  • A SAP
  • Shops without food shortages
  • Answered prayer
  • Blog posts that are read, shared and commented on across the globe
  • Being Loved. Crazy, radical, God-driven, let me lay down My son’s life because I want to be right next to you always, loved.

Just wow. So many blessings. So many joys. Plus, after the blowtorches? Growth. Always growth.

Newsflash: Self-confessed non-Christian disagrees with Christian view of Jesus

Taking a slightly different approach with oneweekinaugust.com today – with a warm welcome to my first guest writer, Lea Carswell.

Lea attended the Sydney Writer’s Festival the other month and specifically the session with social commentator Hugh Mackay. You may have seen the social media tweets when Mackay said: “Jesus never told anyone what to believe in. He only spoke about how to treat each other.”

I enjoyed her perspective, so I asked to publish what she wrote. It resonated because oneweekinaugust.com  was born from my coming to a (surprised and somewhat unwilling) faith in Jesus in my 40s – and my ongoing frustrations around how G,J &HS are lost in translation. These posts are my attempts to do what Lea encourages all Christians to get better at in her article: describing Jesus’ blueprint for Heaven and Earth. I hope you enjoy it, I did!

Newsflash: Self-confessed non-Christian disagrees with Christian view of Jesus

There was really no surprise, during his session at the Sydney Writer’s Festival, that social commentator Hugh Mackay made assertions contrary to what the Bible teaches and to what evangelical Christians believe.BPH_2016_Hugh_Mackay_2

More surprising were the aspects of his view of Christianity (described as ‘his struggle with religion’) that he got pretty right.

Promoting his new book, Beyond Belief, Mackay said he had tired of the labelling around religious or spiritual belief and has decided to move away from the isms and ologies.

“Now when someone says ‘I’m a this’ or ‘I’m a that’, I say, ‘I don’t care what you call yourself. How does it affect the kind of society you want to live in? What are you doing to make that vision of society a reality?’”

That seems a very good way of describing what Jesus did, which was to portray his blueprint for society and to live that out in His own life. (In churches, we refer to that blueprint as the Kingdom of God – a multi-layered term that doesn’t always make much sense to people hearing it for the first fifty or sixty times.)

Raised as a fervent Baptist Mackay described his first 20 years as a world of complete certainty, leading to arrogance and prejudice.

“We opposed Anglicans for goodness’ sake because they baptised babies with little dribbles of water, instead of only adults in full immersion,” he said.

This kind of experience, coupled with the public shame of institutions finally being brought to account for sinful and abusive policies and practise, is not uncommon for Australians who have chosen a life without religion.

Mackay walked away from church, convinced by his own ‘reason’ that it was all false (the crowd smirked knowingly at this point) and that tenets of Christianity were no more than myths.

According to Mackay, “Even so, I came to realise that the myths of all the religions are full of significance. I can not believe the truth of the story but I see that there is a truth in the story.”

Whether we agree with him or not, the session raised questions that we should answer for ourselves and our churches, for the Glory of God.

Does our ‘certainty’ lead to arrogance or a freedom from fear of things that deny Jesus?

If national statistics are of any help, and Mackay certainly believes them to be so, then there is a clear disconnect between what people want to believe, what they like to think others believe, where they want to educate their children and what they actually do with their time, money and loyalty.

What does that disconnect look like in our own area? Why not buy his book and have a read? Why not get better at describing Jesus’ blueprint for Heaven and Earth?

Hugh Mackay appeals for ‘loving-kindness’ as the paramount shared value in our society; our path and destination regardless of our own spiritual or religious conviction. Great perspective. Loving-kindness showed itself most clearly on the Cross and in Jesus’ resurrection. Just a myth? I’m certain that it’s not.

You can read more of Lea’s writing at https://smashedpottery.wordpress.com/