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.
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.
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.
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!
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
Shops without food shortages
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
I don’t envy pastors the pedestals some people expect them to perch aloft. I prefer my pastors the way I like my steak: raw, a bit bloody, and a little battered by the tenderising mallet of life. Rare. Not tough. And certainly not over done.
A perfect pastor atop a pedestal is too unapproachable. I figure the more a pastor has engaged with the broken world we live in, the more likely he is to grasp the broken weirdness his congregations will throw at him. A pastor needs to be rusted and real, not shiny and show pony. Church is us and us, not us and them.
I’ve sat with three pastors this past two weeks, all of whom shared a similar look: exhausted. One of them kept saying the right stuff but it didn’t match the sorrow in his eyes. The other two I know well enough to call on any bullshit so simply said they looked rung out, what could be done to help, and had they booked a holiday?
We are a church. A body of Christ. Christ did not tell his leaders to feed the hearts and minds of his flock and let their bleating drain them dry.
We are a church. Which means my hands, your hands, my heart, your hearts, my brain, your brains, my ears, your ears, my eyes, your eyes need to look, listen, feel, and be other focused to help the whole body.
Other focused isn’t simply the people I sit with in the pews, or the people I hope to share Jesus with outside the church: other focused includes the ministry team. The bloke or blokette on stage. How are they doing?
In corporate world, there’s a saying: as the leadership team goes, so too the rest of the organisation. Apply this in a church and it would follow that if you’ve got a pastor in burn out, the church could lose energy too. But, unlike many corporate organisations, we are encouraged as churches to be the body of Christ. To hurt when one hurts. To laugh when one laughs. So we have an opportunity to give energy back when it is needed. That is a gift, a privilege and a chance to grow. In corporate world, trying to serve that way normally means a demotion 😉
However, may I also gently remind all pastors and pastorettes – you have to let us help you. Let us encourage you. Being eminently un-help-able because you think you are supposed to be strong for your congregation and running the show – maybe because a bunch of parishioners have you either on a ridiculously high pedestal of expectations or, worse, are after you with pitchforks – serves no-one.
As for any readers who attend church regularly, I don’t know about you but while I’m thankful ultimately to G&J, it has been the ministry teams in my life who have allowed God to deliver the goods.
Here’s a (now not so) private example: just over a year ago, my marriage hit a serious obstacle. I didn’t know if I was up or down, left or right, all I knew was, regardless of whether my marriage stayed whole or fell apart, I’d found a new strength in G&J that would see me through.
Yet I was still a snot-monstered mess, papering over the heartbreak with my usual acerbic wit. My rock of God was probably more of a pebble for me at that stage, so it really could have gone either way. It could have been easier for me to allow pride and fear win, let the anger hiding the hurt take centre stage, shove all the blame in one direction, fall off the pebble, and slam the door on my marriage.
So in response to a caustic SMS on a miserable, rainy day, the SAP carved out time between a Christmas end-of-year staff gathering,planning for Christmas services, and goodness knows how many other meetings, to meet me face-to-face. He then went on to contact a counsellor he knew and, thanks to the strength of their relationship, the counsellor agreed to see Big T and I immediately and intensively – although he’d already shut up shop for Christmas. The counsellor admitted to me later that he would not have done it had it not been the SAP asking.
Throughout the next couple of weeks, Big T and I received the SAP’s texts of support, guidance and suggested bible passages to read. What I didn’t know at the time was the SAP was also in the midst of finalising his new church role for the following year, having to help prepare a house for sale, move house, enrol in a new course of study, continue pastoring in his current role, finish Christmas sermons, still be a SAP to all the other flock in the church, deal with a horrible health scare in his immediate family, be a Dad, be a husband and, somewhere in all that, keep God top and centre and not go slightly insane.
Today, praise God, the pebble I stood on a year ago is a rock, my marriage is the healthiest it’s ever been, and Big T is growing his own pebble of faith into a larger rock too. The SAP doesn’t get all the credit – God, others in our church, and my husband and I also played roles – but it would be prideful, unkind and selfish of me not to acknowledge the effort and energy the SAP puts into his job.
As do all the pastors I’ve met. They may not have the smart-alec stripes that have worked so well for Big T and I, but they have hearts, souls and a passion to do God’s work. So help them out. Be kind. Acknowledge how much they do that you simply do not see because of the nature of their respectful, confidential work: funerals, death bed visits, taking calls from those who stand in front of a bottle after a year dry and need someone to hold them accountable; the wife whose husband has beaten her again and she needs help getting to the shelter; the family whose four-year old has a cancer diagnosis; even, dear Lord save us, having to attend parish council meetings.
Preparing a sermon each week is the tip of a large, often ungrateful iceberg. So be kind. Hug your pastor this week. Say thank you. Ask how you can help. If you’re holding a pitchfork, put it down. It’s Christmas.