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/

 

Hey, Christians. Let’s talk about doubts

Lately I’ve been wanting to dig into doubts a bit more. Not due to some strange call to self-flagellation, but because I wonder if the term is used so broadly amongst Christians we actually don’t stop to think about doubt in all its nuances.

As my ‘on a scale of one to ten, I’m going to heaven‘ post hopefully demonstrated, I have little problem with being saved. I know I can’t ever do enough or be enough, but that doesn’t matter because of the pure certainty that ripped through me when I grasped Jesus’ gift to me.

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Once I got passed the, ‘why in God’s name would you do something like that?’ confrontation of being utterly loved, the acceptance of grace was fairly easy. On my worst day I never doubt that, come my last day, Jesus will be there (probably shaking his head and smiling wryly with affection) pulling me in close.

I will likely be snot-monstering my awe, hiccuping, and – as the song goes – on my knees or (more honestly) dancing like a loon. I imagine it a little like the wildest reunion: “Oh my gosh I’m here and there’s Mum and Jo and Percy and, wow, look there’s Dorothy’s husband and, yes, he’s a handsome so-and-so in his resurrection body, just as she told me she imagined after his funeral.”

I have a dear girlfriend and when we catch up – not frequently enough – it typically involves big hugs, then pulling back to hold each other at arm’s length to check each other out, whilst jigging on the balls of our toes, then back in for more enormous hugs, all to a sound track of exclamations. “Darlz!” she half yells, half screams, “let’s grab a champagne.” I imagine my heavenly reunions in a similar fashion.

(BTW, I’m really praying the SAP won’t be in heaven until after God calls me home. That’s because I have a codicil in my will about dog collars and robes being worn by the pastor I’d like to officiate my funeral. I’m only sad I won’t be there to see it.)

So what are doubts, then? If I’m assured of being saved by the Jesus fella, then what are the wobbly periods about? I know mine to be different to Big T’s. Blame it on his Roman Catholic hangover as – unlike me – his doubts often take form as ‘the works burger’. What if I’m not ‘good’ enough? If my works aren’t super-sized sufficiently to get me in?

Some days I do a Thomas. My journalist brain kicks in and – despite all the investigation I undertook – I have this strange shimmer of, I can’t quite put my finger on it, but if I could actually put my finger into those nail prints… Yet it is just that, a shimmer. As I can’t discount what has happened – for real – since getting to grips with the J-man.

When my doubts are in the here and now, they are mostly around not ‘feeling‘ God and Jesus as intensely as I’m used to. It’s never about my end of days.

Some days in the now you just need solid. When my daughter has a rough day in the schoolyard and I remind her to pray for strength and help – as well as doing the actual work of engaging with others around her – and she rolls her eyes and says, “But, Mum, Jesus isn’t there to play handball with me when I’m lonely!”

There are days when I want Jesus to turn up next to me and play handball. I want to grab his hand and feel the physical. Not to check for nail holes (well, maybe I’d take a peek) but because I am human. Sight, smell, touch and warmth; oh my gosh, they mean something on our dark, down, doubting days, don’t they?

His bread and water might fill us up. But so too do our friends when they nod in the right place and lean over and hug us. Make us laugh. The real and solid. From a full human contact hug to the lightest rub of an understanding hand across your back. Every now and again my doubts seek the equivalent from GJ & the HS to squash the air out of them.

“Can’t You sneak Jesus down on a sort of day release from heaven, God?” I whisper. “For a hug?”

Some readers may respond that time in the Bible ought to be enough. Praying and talking it through with Christian brothers and sisters. But sometimes it’s a massive, tight, ‘channelling a boa constrictor’ hug that’s required. Jesus seeping through my skin, across my nerve endings, into my marrow and I want it – need it – to be just as real as Big T wrapping his arms about me.

I may just start a trend at my next bible study, or set up a ‘free hug’ sign at the doorway to church next Sunday.

So what are your doubts? Are they of the works burger variety? Do you do a Thomas, like me? Maybe your doubts are around creation, cosmology, miracles, suffering, evil, even God’s patience. Doubts, I think, take form in the stuff that gets in the way between myself and Jesus. The distance I allow in. It’s never God or Jesus that move, after all. But dismissing it as a catch-all collective of ‘doubt’ is an easy excuse. Hence my wanting to dig deeper into what doubts really are.

Will you join me on this excavation? I’d really appreciate your willingness to share your doubts in the comments below. At the very least it may spark some new blog posts and great conversation. At the very best it may shine a light on doubts and extinguish them in the viewing.

Blessings.

P.S: Atheist doubters are welcome to add their comments. Please be respectful and kind. Any, ‘you crutch-needing, weak minded weirdoes who believe in the spaghetti monster’ comments will be deleted. That isn’t contributing to a conversation. It’s simply trying to yell loudly. Same applies to any blustering Christians who see doubt as a weakness of faith, being possessed by the horned mother-trucker and turn up with the written equivalent of bible-thumping and exorcism.

Play nicely.

 

Prayer. It’s allowed. Aloud.

Prayer was always something I was happy doing on my own. My isolated quiet time with G&J. Or the ‘led’ prayer in church, where I’d listen in, add my own prayers into any allocated ‘fill in the blanks yourself’ pauses, and add my “Amen” along with the congregation. images-2.jpg

Then, just over a year ago, I joined an existing growth group in the church. A mix of different-aged Christians, most of whom I’d term UHT (at this Christian thing a long, longer life than I) who meet weekly to do a more intensive unpacking of the Bible. If I wanted to grow my relationship with G&J, this was a natural progression.

I had sat myself next to an older women in church one Sunday, who’d helped hugely in my getting to grips with the histrocity of Jesus (being a history teacher herself), when the pastor on stage mentioned extra bible study. I whispered I thought I may need some of that, but with other commitments only one evening worked, and TA DA, she said: “That’s when my group meets, would you like to come along?”

Perhaps I was naive. Maybe G&J were ROTFL in heaven, hooting. God knows me well enough to know that my first step in learning is literal (read, research) then experiential (ponder, write about it, apply it, then return to ponder and write as I grow). God TOTALLY knew my literal understanding of a Bible Study group was just that. And that I also  assumed that ‘growth group’ was some sexy, marketing-derived name to make it sound more appealing out in the congregation target market than bible study.

Of course, growth group is a perfect descriptor. Yes, I unpacked more about God’s word as I attended each week. But you do more than study the bible in a growth group. You connect. You share. You pray. Out loud.

Out loud. In front of people. They are all fantastically lovely people but let me write it again: out loud. In a sort of free form manner based on notes you have taken as people share prayer points. My inner introvert was sweating.

Now, my UHT Christian readers may wonder what the big deal is. But when you are a newbie, the out loud thing is fairly confronting. In a small group, I was uncomfortably aware that it was really noticeable if I didn’t join in. Then my brain starting ticking with daft questions: what if two of you start up at the same time? Is there some prayer etiquette when that happens, do you give way to the left or something? Plus if we miss prayer points off the list, does the last person do some massive wrap-up just to make sure everyone is covered?

I love praying, I do. It’s an intimate opportunity to open up your heart, hopes, worries, sorrows. What I had to learn was the power of group prayer. That as Matthew 18:20 tells me, where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them and there is something beautiful in that, no matter how it tested my introverted heart.

So I grew. Rather than letting my naturally introverted, ‘don’t let anything come out my mouth before it’s fully formed in my brain,’ inclination takeover, I had to lean in. It gave me more insights into how the holy spirit whispers into my heart. It doesn’t matter that it is stumbling and ineloquent (a challenge for this writer who likes to craft and polish). I simply have to breath out, listen and hear the words that I’m gifted with.

As Jesus reminded me the other day: “I never said to make the light. Just to be the light.”

If only you could see yourself as I do

Her Mummy clicked on the bedroom light and burst crying through the doorway. The little girl sat up groggily in bed, rubbing her eyes against the brightness, squinting.

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Photographs of Sunsets Through Broken Glass by Bing Wright

Dragged out of sleep, she stared bewildered. She had gone to bed early the night before after vomiting all afternoon. It wasn’t – as all assumed – the odd banana flavoured chocolate she’d eaten at the six-year old birthday party she had attended. It was something in the air of their home yesterday afternoon. Her Daddy had gotten really upset at the lunch table about the lid being left off the toothpaste. Why was he so angry over toothpaste? And the invisible crows had come back, pecking at her, flying in currents of the adults’ wake that she could feel but couldn’t see to navigate.

It made her confused. Her head ached and the paracetamol tablet her mummy gave her sat dizzily in her tummy. She had run out of the ‘Pass the Parcel’ game at the party, vomiting into the bowl of the downstairs toilet. She had felt miserable and alone but hadn’t told the mother of the birthday girl because she didn’t want to go home yet. She dreaded stepping back into those unseen currents that bit and buffeted her invisibly; she worried they would again flare into rapids of angry, bitter words between her parents that made her head hurt and clogged up the words in her own throat. Staying quiet might mean the currents would stay quiet too.

“He’s leaving us,” her mother sobbed. The child stared up from her bed. Her mother added: “Daddy has met another woman and he’s leaving us for her.”

—–

The child sat in front of the TV eating her supper from a small table in front of her. The lounge room door was shoved open suddenly and her mother appeared, in nightdress and dressing gown, Daddy just behind. Her mother’s clothes fluttered behind her as she half ran, half stumbled across the room. She thrust a buff A6 envelope onto the little girl’s lap, where it caught between the underside of the table and her knees. “This is for you, don’t read it yet,” her mother said, sounding angry.

Her Daddy left the room, saying he was calling an ambulance. Her mother chased after him, sobbing hysterically. Small egg-shaped, yellow tablets scattered on the floor. The child stood to follow them out, the envelope falling onto the carpet. She waited in the lounge doorway, staring up the hall. Her Daddy was on the phone, trying to call, but her Mummy kept slapping her hand over the cradle so it disconnected. He ran out the front door saying something about the public telephone box. The child didn’t want him to leave her alone with this strange version of her mother,  collapsed at an odd angle up the stairs. Nor did she want to get any closer. So she stood at a distance, watching her through the slats of the wooden bannisters, feeling a little scared but mostly removed.

The ambulance man with dark hair wore a dark navy jumper with patches at the elbows. Proper patches, not ones to cover holes. He helped stretcher her mother into the ambulance. “She bit my hand,” said her Daddy, over and over. “I tried to get my fingers in her mouth to get the tablets out, and she bit my hand.”

——-

“He didn’t even bring me clothes to the hospital,” her mother  told her bitterly. “The nurses thought it was awful of him. I had to come home in a hospital blanket over my nightdress.”

——–

“Wake-up, get up, you have to get up,” her mother cried, snapping on the bedroom light. The child woke up quickly, a pit of dread in her stomach, clamping her muscles against the panic drops of urine that wanted to escape as she sat up. “You have to call him, come on, get up. I’ve got her phone number. Call her. Tell her he has to come home.”

But I can’t, thought the little girl. I’m too scared to call her. You’ve told me how awful she is. How nasty. She is dark-haired and so much bigger than me, you’ve told me. You told me she works opposite my school and is watching me. You told me she might steal me. I’m too scared to call her. 

But then the little girl remembers the small, egg-shaped yellow tablets. The ones she had quietly picked up from the floor. The ones with the tiny black writing that matched the title on the paper sheet she had found in her mother’s bedside drawer. She was a very good reader for her age. Everyone told her.

If she didn’t make the phone calls, then her Mummy might take more of those yellow tablets. And if she didn’t wake up this time, if they didn’t pump her stomach the way her Mummy had told her they’d done in the hospital, then she’d have to live with her Daddy and the big, dark-haired lady who was waiting to steal her.

She sat on the stairs and dialled the number her Mummy told her. But Mummy hadn’t given her a chance to do her morning bathroom pee. It was wet and uncomfortable, her nightdress sticking to her bottom. Her mother stood at the top of the stairs, making sure she called, listening to her cry and sob and ask for her Daddy to come home. The next morning was the same. And the next. And the next…

——————

When she was 11-years old, her mum went out to an evening meeting. The man who had moved in, who would eventually marry her mother, jovial, tall, always smiling and clapping his hands, told her to climb into bed for a bedtime cuddle. “I’ll keep my hands clasped under my chin,” he whispered. “No need to worry. No need to tell anyone.” He kept his hands clasped but the 11-year old never quite relaxed around him again. If there was nothing to worry about, why did it have to be kept a secret?

——————

Before she was fourteen, she had defended herself with a knife against the same man who now liked to use his fists in places it didn’t show.  He wasn’t so jovial now. She had watched a tea-tray thrown from the top of a three-storey house because his cup was not placed on it – and it wasn’t a leap of her imagination to suppose he would push her mother out too. His son, who lived with them, watched with empty eyes. She watched where he put his hands too.

—————–

That girl today is 44-years old. She has written about domestic violence, but never about the personal damage of divorce, emotional blackmail and abuse. Never. It was locked away.

She is me. And, finally, she is happy to own her story.

I can only thank God, Jesus and Holy Spirit for the work they have activated in the past two weeks. For a SAP, with whom I became irrationally angry for prompting me to read Psalm 139.

Why was I angry? Anger is a secondary emotion. The real response was fear. Psalm 139 was calling me to look at something beautiful about myself and all I wanted was to run away as fast as I could.

Because, oh my God, hadn’t I already done this? Hadn’t I built something of myself? All that history, it had built me.  It gave me the guts and resilience to move on and through. In a fiery, fiesty, flicking-the-bird, sort of way, I had overcome. With so many benefits, not least knowing myself intensely as a result. I know:

  • I can over-read and internally over-react to emotional cues. Not externally. Externally I am poker-face solid
  • Silent tension in a house is my absolute undoing because of what it heralded 
  • I hate confrontation – when your childhood is soaked with echoes of suicide and violence, keeping quiet is a great thing
  • I will go a long way to avoid asking anyone to meet my needs. I’ll meet them all myself, thanks, way safer.
  • I don’t do vulnerable easily. Emotional independence is, literally, in my make-up. S*&t happens when you  are emotionally dependent
  • Deep down struggling with being deserving of love, no matter how many achievements I could list, how much value I could attach to my life because if your mum attempts suicide the childish synapse locks onto her not loving you enough to want to live and be your mother; and then your dad has left…and then the next husband liked to use his fists…

So I know why I have certain behaviours.  I acknowledge them and have checks and strategies to manage them all healthily. I had therapied myself to self-awareness – which brought forgiveness and insight. You may read the above and judge my Mum. How could she do that to a child? Why didn’t she leave her second husband? But take a step in her shoes. Imagine how lost, how raw, how broken her internal life must have been. So I can forgive her all of it because of how she had been taught to love and be in relationship. My lesson has been not to repeat hers.

So why was Psalm 139 so gut-wrenchingly confronting?

Because of what God wanted me desperately to see. He didn’t want me to look at who I had created in response to life’s circumstances. But at who He had created. Who was incredibly different.

Yet I couldn’t see her because it meant I had to look closely at the experiences that forged the current me; to look back past them to who He created.  And I really didn’t want to. It made me sob and hiccup and be vulnerable. To get back to what He created meant I had to walk back through the car-crash.

“No,” I raged. “I’m not looking. Not there. Not when I have to walk back through that. Leave me alone. I’ve done more than ok despite it all. Let me be. I’m going back to my cave.” I may even have pouted that I was ‘magnificent enough’ to the Lord.

The irony? The SAP had done a sermon series on Jonah as irrational prophet just a few weeks before. As I raged, pouted and refused to do what God asked, I couldn’t help but think of Jonah, stinking of fish guts and sulking under his plant.

My surrender took less than 20 hours, with low to no eye-rolling. A record. “Whatever I need to learn, whatever I need to let go, over to You. And if am wading back through that, be ready for my fingernail imprints in Your palm because I’ll be gripping real tight.”

“Like your fingernails bother me,” replied God: “Did you look at Jesus’ hands lately?”

It took less than five minutes for God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit to answer my prayer and do Their business.

Directly with Psalm 139, verse 6, to how intimately God loves and knows me, that is ‘too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.’

“Look,” He kept whispered to me. “Look at how fearfully and wonderfully I made you. Before. Before you had to create yourself on top. Because until you see that, you can’t do what I want you to do next. My works are wonderful. You know that full well. And you are one of my works. Look.”

So I sat in my car, in a Sydney suburban side street, had a purging, fast, howl for the teen and for the child, and came out the other side . That the Holy Spirit is so often referred to as fire does not surprise me. Bushfire regeneration before growth. Cauterising and cleansing. G, J & the HS did in less than 30 minutes what many hours of talking with professionals had not delivered. Integrated peace.

God sees me as He sees His son. Holy without blemish. My job now is to live out who I already am.

———

Footnote/Disclaimer: I am not waving my hands in the air, yelling “Praise the Lord, I am healed, cancel all your therapy appointments and give your life to Jesus.” No.

Keep the therapy. Keep the meds if you take them. Keep loving and being kind to yourself. For me, I have simply found it much easier to love and be kind to myself with God and Jesus as the lens and accepting the gift of grace. For me.

For you, there may be psychologists, psychiatrists, counsellors, medications and help lines. Abuse – whatever its type – leaves a scar. You may have been abused at the hands of the church, for which I am deeply sorry and wish more people who say they are Christians behave like it more often.

All I know from my experience is this: you can’t ever heal by yourself. Tucking the last little remnants away deep inside, whilst congratulating yourself on how well you are doing, rarely works. Those remnants have a pesky way of jabbing to the surface when you least expect it.

Resources

Psalm 139 

www.lifeline.org.au or call 13 11 44. 

https://www.anglicare.org.au/

http://www.salvationarmy.org.au  or call 13 SALVOS