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.

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. 

 

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.

 

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?