The cost of honouring life

At 19, Clare became pregnant. Was it intentional? Her mother didn’t share – perhaps she didn’t know – if Clare intentionally came off the pill, if there was a reaction to antibiotics, or she’d had a stomach virus. baby-barefoot-blur-415824

Regardless of how, sperm had met egg and cells were dividing – life had begun.

Clare was in a steady relationship with her boyfriend. It was likely steadier than her home life, which had seen its share of trauma and upheaval through family breakdown.

Her father had remarried, to a younger woman not much older than Clare herself. A second family had been born. It was a messy break-up – her mother had had an affair, walked out of the family home – all rolled up in the mess of alcohol and emotional abuse from both sides of the family tree. For Clare, life, love and relationships were not simple. Are they ever? In the mess of the break-up, Clare and her siblings had opted to live with their father.

Clare’s father had himself a new family, one that looked secure. One where two new babies were loved and cared for. Babies that were taking his attention. Is it too hard to imagine that Clare observed that and thought, ‘Well, why don’t I become a Mum too?’

We all seek love and acceptance. Perhaps Clare was seeking to create her own, secure, family unit. Something that allowed her to share in the extra love and attention that she had been lacking.

Regardless of why sperm had met egg and cells were dividing – life had begun.

But there was a difference between Clare and her father in regards to parenthood. He was married. She was not. As it turned out, her boyfriend – the one who supplied the sperm – did not want to be married either.

Clare was brought up on Sunday mass and Catholic rosaries. Given the science that human life begins at conception, the Church’s opposition to abortion is the principle that each and every human life has inherent dignity, and thus must be treated with the respect due to a human person.

Sperm had met egg and cells were dividing. For Clare, and her father, a life that had inherent dignity has begun and was to be treated with the respect due to a human person.

Clare lived in a small town. The inherent dignity that she was affording her unborn wasn’t offered to her. Clare’s inherent dignity was ignored in the age-old whispers and slut-shaming that so commonly accompanies small minds and small towns.

Her boyfriend’s inherent dignity – the young man who had not looked after his sperm, nor respected the consequences for Clare, and whose family was more concerned about what being a dad at such a young age could do to his career, was far, far less maligned.

Clare was sent away. Before her body began to really show that sperm had met egg and that life had begun. To a place where the baby could be born quietly, away from prying eyes, and given away to a family unable to conceive a child of their own.

Clare was sent away from those who gossiped over her inherent dignity. Over six hours away from the family home. It was a long, lonely, difficult time.

Clare kept her eyes closed throughout her labour. She was giving away her baby. She couldn’t look.

Then she returned home. Sobbing in the car for the whole six-hour journey.

Only a few days later, unable to carry the burden of it, Clare did the next brave thing in her life: she demanded to be driven back and to bring her baby home.

But family of origin is a messed-up space. Humans are broken and flawed. It’s a hard thing to forgive being given up for adoption – despite knowing the love and seeing the sacrifices your single parent has made on your behalf.

“Why didn’t she want me, why didn’t she love me enough to keep me from day one?” is the question that has haunted her child ever since the reason for the lack of newborn photographs was provided.

For Clare, the same refrain could be asked of her own parents. “Why did I have to be sent away? Why was there so much shame attached?” A shame that has continued, passed onto younger sisters who spent their years in the same small town feeling like all eyes were on them, waiting to see if they too would make the same ‘mistake’ by having sex and getting pregnant when they ought not.

I wrote yesterday about there being grey in the black and white debate over the bill to decriminalize abortion in New South Wales. Clare’s story comes from the grey space.

She honoured her faith and beliefs. Sperm had met egg and cells were dividing, life had begun. A life that had inherent dignity, made in the image of God, and was to be treated with the respect due to a human person.

But she carried a lot in the grey space. A burden that her church neglected to honour. A burden that society neglected to honour. The father carried far, far less of a burden.

This is the grey. A place where women still have to count the cost of honouring life. Lower superannuation due to leaving work to have children. Gender pay gaps. Unflexible work hours. Mummy wars. Slut-shaming. Job uncertainty. Centrelink shaming. Discrimination. All the minute costs that appear to amount to little in the column of costs when stacked up against the moral positive of HONOURING LIFE. But they are there. And they weigh.

Until there is no cost in this decision, or until the cost of honouring life is born equally by both genders, there will be abortions. Their decriminalization in NSW will not change this.

So how do we work to change our society so women have more possibilities of not having to choose abortion?  I think to do so we must start understanding the cost of honoring life. Christians ought to understand that best. Ought to support that best. Ought to lobby the hardest for the cost to change. After all, we follow someone who paid the greatest cost to let us live.

If you are facing an unplanned pregnancy and wish to talk to someone about your choices with compassion and without judgment, contact Diamond Women’s Support or call them on (02) 8003 4990.

The space for grey and grace in decriminalizing abortion.

There’s been a LOT on social media regarding the NSW Health Care Reform Bill 2019.abdomen-anticipation-baby-1556669 (1)

In NSW, ‘unlawful abortion’ has been a criminal offence in NSW since 1900 under the Crimes Act. In NSW the law allows you to have a ‘lawful’ abortion if the doctor believes your physical or mental health is in serious danger by continuing the pregnancy. The doctor takes your social/family situation, finances and health into consideration when making this decision.

Today, the NSW parliament is set to vote on a bill decriminalizing abortion after an impassioned debate from both sides of the issue.

Is it disturbing that the framework for abortion was still found in the state’s Crimes Act? That in making this major life decision, women and their doctors have to do so with the threat of being charged with a criminal offence?

Some say yes. Others say no.

Those opposing the decriminalization bill say they want to speak “on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves”. Those opposing are concerned that the bill allows abortions to occur in very late stages of pregnancy, in circumstances where there is no medical need, on the advice of two medical practitioners. Those opposing say pregnant people would demand abortion on demand up to the day of birth.

Sydney barrister Larissa Andelman, president of the Women Lawyers’ Association of NSW, said “there is, in fact, more oversight by medical practitioners after 22 weeks” under the proposed law, and “that’s actually more restrictive than it is today”.

In Australia, 0.7 per cent of all terminations take place after 20 weeks. They are usually done due to complications, meaning that the foetus is not compatible with life, or in situations where due to difficult circumstances the pregnant person has not had access to suitable health care earlier in the pregnancy.

I’ve written about my experience with abortion prior to becoming a Christian. Back then, like now, I am concerned about the lack of grace too often displayed in the debate. Back then, like now, I am concerned how churches hold up their doctrine – the sacredness of life – but fail to develop anything useful in practice.

Christian, Muslim and Jewish religious leaders issued a statement that included:

“Abortion does not need to be further encouraged. A pregnant woman requires help and support, not a quick answer which will ultimately harm her. The bill does nothing to provide real choices for women who feel they have no option other than abortion.”

Yes, pregnant women do require help and support. Intimating abortion is a ‘quick answer’ for a pregnant woman – or her family – is graceless. Such decisions weigh heavily and cause harm, grief and pain. But writing that the bill does nothing to provide real choices for women, who feel they have no option other than abortion, mixes contexts. Champion for more choices, please do.

But that’s not what this bill is about. The bill is about decriminalizing this one choice.

Is it a narrow and awful choice for a woman or family? Yes. So, instead of all the noise and ‘thou shalt not!’ how are our churches championing for additional, real, ongoing, supportive choices and programs? How are we touting them as real and vital options? Making pro-life look attractive compared to the “quick answer”?

I don’t have the answers, just observations. Perhaps conversation starters.

Over on the Ministry of Sex, I wrote about the young woman so shamed by her church for falling pregnant outside of marriage – and who chose to keep her child – she attempted suicide. If we are unable to help the parent who is brave enough to honour the sacredness of life, why on earth would we imagine a woman conflicted and overwhelmed by pregnancy – faced with the darkest of choices – would feel secure approaching a pastor for help and advice?

There are highly vocal opinions being displayed in Christian circles. These opinions are being written – in the majority – by men. They appear to very certain of the right and the wrong. The black and the white.

They seem to intimate that if you do not sit clearly in the clear cut choices, you are lacking in Christian conviction. But this is not clear cut. It is not so black and white as they like to write. There is grey.

Tread carefully in the grey, my brothers. Tread carefully.

There is shame and there is sin in the grey.

In the grey, there is also a confusing purity sexual ethic that likely contributes to unexpected pregnancies in Christian unwed couples. Why? Because these couples daren’t think about having pre-meditated sex, which therefore means no contraception, and then, “oops, well his penis just slid into my vagina and, oh no, I’m pregnant” outcomes. Not pre-meditated sexual sin, no siree. An accident.

So then, in the grey, uncertain of the support they’d receive, fearful of the shame if they admit it, abortion becomes an option.

In the grey, behind those 0.7 per cent of all terminations taking place after 20 weeks, are families with rare genetic conditions. Those who are not in a position to care for a child with a genetic or terminal illness. Those without the privilege of secure housing. Or a partner.  Without the privilege of a high or stable income, paid maternity leave, long service leave, and pre-existing private health cover.

In the grey, are the negligible adoption rates for children with disabilities, let alone those with a terminal illness.

In the grey, there are women who have been pressured into terminations by abusive spouses.

It’s hard in the grey. So let’s lean into the space and have graceful, loving, challenging, respectful and open-hearted discussions.

What would make the pro-life choice attractive?

You see, I would have sperm-proof contraception and a sex-positive sexual ethic in church, rather than young people hiding in shame over thinking abortion is their only choice.

I would rather see the improved education of our young people about sex. Especially our Christian young people. I had sex before marriage as I wasn’t a Christian back then. But I am not ‘lucky’ that I did not fall unexpectedly pregnant.

I was informed. Not simply due to condoms, pills, diaphragms and spermicide creams. But because I knew my cycle, knew exactly when I ovulated and had a healthy sex-positive awareness of myself, my body and consent. Informing your church youth about sex and how not to get pregnant doesn’t cause a rush of pre-marital sex. In fact, research shows the opposite.

In the grey, think not simply about purity, or impurity. Get everyone understanding the rich theology of absolute purity (blog on its way on this one!).

In the grey, have real conversations in church about what an unwed pregnancy looks like in your community. Would the single mother be loved and supported? Or would she feel shame pushing in the stroller? How would the single Father expect to be treated?

In the grey, a young woman on your youth team turns up in front of you this Sunday, confronted and grieved by all that was on social media this week, admitting through sobs that she’d chosen termination because she had been date-raped – and she’d been so ashamed by the notion she was no longer pure for Christ she couldn’t breathe a word. How would you respond?

In the grey, there is the 15-year-old girl who bravely opts for adoption. The young man who is the father wants no responsibility. She finds out at 22 weeks a terrible in utero genetic condition that means the baby would not be adopted. What would you say to her?

As I wrote in my other blog, there are Christians who make huge decisions to ignore their Doctors and proceed with dangerous, life-threatening pregnancies with uncertain outcomes. Yet, despite that, when they prayed over the other choice – a termination offered by Doctors as ‘kinder’ – they felt unable to share how tempting it was with their pastors.

There is pain and there is doubt in the grey.

As this bill is debated, focus not only on the black and white. Focus also on the grey. How can you offer compassion and pro-life choices hand-in-hand and do it beautifully?

As we do, let there be forgiveness in our churches and demonstration of the Gospel of grace. Come up with wild and radical plans to challenge the “easy choice”. Host mass teen sleepovers with robot babies in your churches to show just how much work a young baby is. When young people are venturing into unprotected sex early, seeking love and affection in all the wrong places, can we show them a more loving, fulfilling way?

Like Jesus, let us lean into the grey spaces with love and compassion, not judgment. Let us all take the time to listen.

This is not a space for extremes – from either side. Our media and culture are quick to trumpet that an unplanned pregnancy equals your life is over! That is not the case.

Certain church messaging about abortion drowns Jesus and compassion in religiosity. That ought not to be the case either.

Termination is not the only option. But if it has been your experience, know Jesus offers acceptance, love, forgiveness and hope.

If you are facing an unplanned pregnancy and wish to talk to someone about your choices with compassion and without judgement, contact http://www.diamondpregnancy.com/ or call them on (02) 8003 4990.

Thank you.

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.

I will blog of His faithfulness? That’s it?

shrugIf my past five years being a Christian had ALL been cage fighting wrestles, as per my last blog post, I’m sure the smart-alec pastor (SAP) would have expired. Or accepted a mission role somewhere remote without cellular or internet. I think I might have burnt out too. But sometimes, sometimes I miss it. The neon. The unmissable insights that God is taking action in my life. Don’t get me wrong, I love the quiet prayer yurt times. But the WHOO HOO moments are fantastic.

Last post, I explained how I’d not written because I worried how boring my faith travels might sound. Sedate, safe, Bible-reading, Bible-college attending, preaching Phil. Compared to the ‘skidding, whoo, WHAT is going on?’ from three-to-five years ago. I’d made me the arbiter of interesting. Not God. How foolish.

I worried at it like a kid with a fidget-spinner. I wanted to blog, but what about? I realised – as Godspiration began to strike less over the past three years – I had egocentrically put my own, somewhat pious parameters around it: “I won’t blog unless I am called to.”

Really? Who kidnapped me, made me editor of the universe and puffed me up with such writing importance??! Unless I’m called to. Dear God. Anyone would think I’d been marinating a bit too long in theological college and mission. Ah… possibly.

I thought the only way to keep writing about GJ&HS was to either get all Bible study exegetical each blog (yikes) or draw out what they were up to with me. But, truly, all eye-rolling nonsense about waiting to be called to write aside – I didn’t want it to be about me!

“Write about your new story being part of the old, old story,” advised the SAP. Which – three days ago – made zero sense.

I imagine God and Jesus doing the divine forehead slap. Then – offering more kindness and patience with me than I ever manage with myself or others – agreeing: “She’s not quite picked up on the point, yet. Let’s try again.”

As they so often do, they used an early morning wake-up call today and a pressing to listen. This time to an Exodus sermon. Finally, what they were trying to tell me clicked.

(Sidebar: If you don’t understand how Israel wandering around in the wilderness for 40 years in the Old Testament makes sense of God’s massive, crazy promise in Jesus in the New, it’s well worth the 29 mins. Link at the end).

The main point of the sermon: look at how faithful God was – and is. He made these massive promises to His people that, frankly, looked impossible.

How was God going to create a massive nation using the dry and likely limp fertility of two old age Israelites? But He did. Through famine, slavery and desert dust He went from one man with no land to a nation overloaded with loot – blessing after faithful blessing poured out, promise after promise kept.

How much more then His promise to us in Jesus? That one day every knee will bow, every tongue confess, that there will be no more tears or pain, and the world that so cuts and grieves us one day will be but a mirage in the review mirror as we step into His eternal banquet. As we step into God’s house, His home, His peace.

But while we wait, what do we do? asked the preacher. Do we give up on the promises entirely? Make them small and attainable? Make them more suitable to our small, not God-sized lives? Refuse to accept the super-size me God serving on offer and simply settle?

Oh. That struck. Like me: settle for a quiet life that stops writing, Phil, because, gosh, you think you might sound a little like Ned Flanders going on and on and on and on about what GJ&HS are doing in your life.

No, the sermon reminded me, as God ricocheted through my headphones and shook my heart. No. The promises of God are not to keep me comfortable. So what if me writing about God makes me fret and worry about looking self-centred (here she goes, writing about her GJ&HS encounters again)?

The preacher asked: “how do we maintain our trust in the promises of God while we’re facing the brokenness and the famine and the hardship of life right now? How am I going to say to my children, and my children’s children, that the promises of God are good and never fail? How do we maintain our faith in the massive, preposterous promises of God to us in Christ?”

The sermon suggested: first to look for the places where we see God at work. The small signs that He is still rolling out His love and blessings.

Yes, Phil, God whispered, for you to see the small and large ways I have changed your life today and over the past five years as part of My larger gathering of you to Me. 

All those God shoves, all those answered prayers, those crazy Godincidences I used to blog about so often, that blew me away and took me out with awe-full tears at the heart and the knees? They were never simply exciting new God news. They were blogs that strived to unpack GJ&HS. To examine more closely, like a bower-bird returning to the blue shiny glistening gem in the dirt of life, how they were building and sustaining my faith.

And then what this preacher said? The most important thing to do, to learn from Exodus is to keep telling the story of God’s faithfulness. “You’ve gotta tell the story,” he said.

A cracking one liner, delivered with Canadian-accented colour.

THAT line? Right there, today at 3am, wet my eyes with God’s love.

“You’ve gotta tell the story,” said this preacher.

“Write about your new story being part of the old, old story,” said the SAP.

Who gave me this talent with words? Who created my tongue?

Phil, you’ve just gotta tell the story.

I don’t have to make the story. Heck, I don’t even have to be the story. I just gotta tell it. Over and over, sharing the bower-bird shiny blue gems. Because it gives me hope.

So, much as it feels a little presumptuous and scary, I figure, dear reader, it gives you hope too. Of what He is doing in your life and mine, your family’s life and mine, in the lives of the people around us.

So I’ll keep telling the story of those God shoves, of the quiet Yurt times and the crazy who-hoo times. I will blog of His faithfulness.

Phil, you’ve gotta tell the story.

Thank God I’ve got one hell of a subject.


Link to Exodus: The Story So Far.  Exodus 1: 1-24. By Marc Rader, Gymea Baptist Church

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.

hhgod.jpg
Source: http://www.jeansinboots.com/the-higher-the-heels-the-closer-to-god/

You see, after the crazy pace and race of the first eighteen months with GJ&HS, it all skidded to an abrupt….I don’t know what. I’ve been trying to figure it out:

Halt? No. I used to blog how I expected it all to wear off, but it certainly didn’t stop.

Cruise control? Like the set and forget, take your eyes off the speedo, and autopilot takes you along in fifth gear. No way. I can’t describe the past couple of years as cruising. GJ&HS (especially HS) were still in action and I was still active in trying to figure out why God had hunted me down in my forties.

Heck, you could call me the conversion chick poster girl: from meditating on runes and crystals one minute to working in an international Christian mission, serving and learning about GJ&HS, receiving a scholarship to complete a year-long Christian leadership course, moving on to study part-time at bible college for a Graduate Diploma in Divinity, leading a new growth group in the church, plus – the real crazy icing on the cake – speaking and preaching in a variety of settings across churches and conferences.

I’ve hung around plenty of UHT Christians now to understand what an anomaly this is. The most common comment I’ve received in the past four years is, “That’s not typical, you know, what happened to you.” (Closely followed by, “You do know you’re not Anglican…”)

The typical getting to know Jesus route involves Sunday school, Christian parents, youth group etc etc.  A nice linear path that appears measured and within certain speed limits. Not my UFC cage-fight followed by full-throttle around the racetrack on a Kawasaki ZZR 1100. I used to feel I had to apologise for it, as if such speed was unseemly.

But so too was the speed at which the Father ran towards The Prodigal Son in Luke 15, so I decided to stop worrying what everyone else thought about the pace, and started to accept rather than worry about it.

The other comment (about my surprising Anglicanism) could be to do with my preference for expressing my opinions with a glint in my eye, ribald humour, red-to-purple hair and leather pants.  Whilst I turn myself over to the HS daily for ongoing application of the J-factor (sort of like the X-factor, just with better gifts, talents and far more kindness and patience than Simon Cowell), I’ve not yet been overcome by a need to return my hair to its natural, dirty-dishwater blond or change my wardrobe.

As the Bible tells me, God loves every hair on my head, He knows what I’m about to say before I do…. and I don’t have to change outwardly to fit. He changes me as He sees fit, but that’s hugely different.

So if I grew more secure in my relationship with GJ&HS, recognised that the three of them were handling the makeover, not I, why have the past couple of years felt bereft?

This is the description I landed on. Bereft. It hadn’t halted. I wasn’t in cruise control. But I felt bereft.  I was still loved, but the tangent and tenor of my conversations with GJ&HS had shifted.

Something was lacking. I was deprived of the almost compulsive need to blog, for example. Despite desperately missing the medium, it felt like my brain was clogged down with chronic fatigue each time I tried to write. What had poured out of me four years ago – for almost two years solid –  felt as unwieldy and as appealing as wet cement.

I was also rubbing shoulders with more Christians than ever before too: learning from them, being inspired by them….

…and being knocked down by them.

It should come as no surprise that Christians behave badly. We are God’s broken people, after all. But doesn’t it wound and take your breath away when it happens? It hurts more – much like the awfulness of churches sweeping child and domestic abuse into hidden corners. It explains our wider society’s struggle to forgive – because so much more than brokenness is expected of God’s people. We are asked to be His lights, His image-bearers, to walk and talk as Jesus would in this broken world – so when Christians behave badly it strikes as so much worse, so much more damaging.

God thrust me right amongst it: the wounding, the lies, the gossip, the inability to forgive as He has forgiven. Verbal and spiritual abuse amidst pious proclamations. The only things that didn’t cross my path were heresy and adultery.

Yet for every illustration of brokenness, God delivered me 20 Christians who lit a path. He knew how much I needed them.

Truthfully, I wanted to both retreat and retaliate with cynicism. To doubt that anything good was at work here. Yet it also took me to new depths of scriptural wrestling, of really listening to the HS and trusting each time He would guide me. While I wanted to distrust, doubt, be suspicious – all traits of cynicism that eat away at faith – the HS took over. It was like the HS ring-fenced my heart. He showed me when to be suspicious of what I heard, whilst showing me my heart need not be damaged by what I experienced.

I name it the HS vomit. It ranges within me from a faint queasy seasickness to a full, oily rolling in the stomach when something is off-piste. It has protected me during spiritual abuse, when I have been subtly demeaned, diminished, bullied and told I am ‘only a new Christian’, ‘unable to understand theologically’ or when my gender has been used against me – as if my ovaries somehow get in the way of my understanding God’s Word.

The oily sickness would rise and I would find myself better able to discern the lack of truth being uttered. I would reach for His word and find out just how far scripture was being twisted to suit agendas.

Little wonder I felt bereft. I have felt a little bit of me has been missing. But I couldn’t figure out what it was.

The problem wasn’t me getting too close to God in all this. At times I didn’t feel close enough. It became a dark balancing act: yes, I was learning and growing like a weed, but there were days when I felt so choked by thorns I would wonder what on earth was going on. “So what if I’m working in a mission, so what if I’m at Bible College – when was the last time I had a decent, open, generous conversation with someone about Jesus?” I would implore God. “It’s all so…theoretical. But, agh, (exhale), sorry, Your will not mine.”

Kindly, God placed an image of an arrowhead being sharpened with flint in my mind. Which – you’d think – would be sufficient for me to simmer down. But no. Akin to a petulant Israelite whining about wanting smashed avo on toast instead of manna, I returned: “Okay, okay, I get it. Sharpening. Preparation. But leaving me in the equivalent of a forest feeling frustrated with flint might mean I burn the place down out of boredom.”

As you will no doubt pick up, dear reader, the HS is still working on my download of the gift of patience. Yet in illustration of how much He loves, the very next day I received two calls to preach at two different events. Maybe, just maybe, this strange, bereft time in the ‘wilderness’ was coming to an end…

 

It did. Two and a half weeks ago God picked me up from boarding school – which is the only metaphor I can think of to explain the move from bereft to fullness again.

I’d gone to listen to the SAP preach in a new church. For a variety of reasons, I’d originally cancelled my plans to attend. It wouldn’t be the last sermon the SAP preaches, and the beauty of podcasts hardly made the four-hour round trip a necessity. Yet, once I’d cancelled, God had been persistently insistent, shoving hard at me the need for me to go. in. person.

Maybe the SAP needed some encouragement? So, travel coffee in hand, I blearily took a long drive to attend early Sunday service (taking in a radio sermon en route about Israel travelling widely in the desert… God’s humour ;-))

Outside the church, I had my first clue that maybe this was less to do with the SAP and more to do with me. Overhearing the soundcheck, the lyric “it’s your breath in our lungs” landed like a shock on my chest. Hang on… this intensity was familiar: the same pulling me into God’s embrace that I’d experienced so viscerally in my early Christian walk. One that I had been missing, that had contributed to my sense of bereft.

The sermon packed a similar punch. I physically felt I’d received a filling of my lungs – a full 100%, powerful, oxygenated lung capacity that I’d not experienced for a while. Now, I appreciate the SAP’s talents as a preacher, I do. But this wasn’t about the SAP. This was a Holy Spirit rush.

I remember when my son went for his first school camp, age 5. He was away for three nights, over 200km away. On his return he stood on the steps of the coach, looking out over the crowd of parents. He looked so contained – still terribly young and yet he had grown within himself. Then, scanning the crowd, he saw me. As our eyes met, just for a split second, the mask of accomplishment fell away. It was pure love mingled with relief: you are here and I need you so. I’ve been brave, I’ve grown while I’ve been away…. but, Mum, I’m so glad you’re here.

It was the same for me. It was like God was waiting in the arrivals hall of the airport and pulling me in to Him.

Me: “But, but, hang on…I didn’t think I’d moved? Did I? Oh, Lord, really? Did I go away? I’m so sorry if I did.”

He smiled and pulled me closer: “Not at all. I planned this. Haven’t you learnt the last couple of years about Me, and you, and My people – all the good, all the broken and everything in between?”

I nodded, wiping my hands over my face to clear the tears. “Yes. And there were plenty of times I prayed if were time for me to move on from the situations You had placed me in. PLENTY.”

God smiled. “And what did I say?”

Me: “You kept saying, “No. Not yet.””

God (smiling): “Yes, and I know it drove you nuts. You slanged and wrestled with Psalms. But you did as I asked, dear heart.  Plus you had to seek Me in My word first. Which you did before, but not as much as you have done as a consequence of the past couple of years.”

 

 

It explains my idea of being at God’s boarding school. I was bereft because the level of intensity I’d experienced when I first got to know GJ&HS had altered. At the time, it was a real, vivid, loving intensity that God knew was so desperately needed in order to reach through the cynicism and armour I had erected around myself.

Nor do I want to imply that God withheld His love. That either of us moved. But I needed to learn how to stand on Him as my rock, not as my giddy fairground attraction. The most wonderful part of the past two weeks has been recognising I now have both.

Talking conversion on national ABC radio

If you’d told me five years ago I’d be on national radio discussing my embracing of the Jesus-fella, I’d have told you to go away…. but a lot less politely.

It began with a message from a journalist friend:

“Radio National has a show called God Forbid. James Carleton is the host. The late great Richard Carleton’s son. He has asked me for the name of someone who ‘converted to Christianity preferably from another religion.’ He is doing a show about conversion and has someone who converted to Judaism, wants a second panelist. I told him I know someone who converted to Christianity from a secular background and he’s interested. I think you would be excellent because of the fresh way you communicate.”

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Calvin & Hobbes (c) 2014 Bill Waterson.
After some research calls with the presenter James (and a sharing of this blog which means he now knows a lot more about me than I about him), I was off to the studio for two hours of recording.

Half an hour out and I was messaging the SAP saying I was ready to do a Jonah (run off to sea and jump in a large fish). This plagued me: “what happens if I make some massive theological error and end up making my faith in Jesus look just weird and awkward?!”

My Before Christ standing joke was that G&J needed a PR agent; I never imagined they’d hunt me down for the gig! And now, here I sat in the ABC’s Sydney recording studio, doing just that.

It only struck afterwards that God opened this particular door not simply because of my quirky way of expressing my faith. But also due to the 20 years of journalism and PR experience with which I entered the studio.

Without it, I’m not so certain how I’d have gone. Without it, I’d likely not have enquired beforehand about the conversion background of the other panel member. Without it, I’d not have contacted a past guest on the show and done my research on the sort of presenter and journalist interviewing me. After all, I wouldn’t send one of our agency’s clients into a media interview unprepared – I wasn’t going to do it to myself or G&J!

It was a little disingenuous for the ABC to say it was a program ‘just’ about conversion. A newbie, freshly entering their relationship with the Jesus-fella, could have been left portrayed as some mystical thinker without rhyme or reason to back up their faith decision.

The questions would have been far harder to answer without a grasp of the Bible. So God was right to put in a journo thinker with some bible college under her belt because Christianity could have had a media thumping. Particularly when compared against the involvement and training described by Ike Curtis, the 21 year old convert to Orthodox Judaism who was the other guest on the panel.

You see, the very simplicity of Jesus and his gift of undeserved, amazing grace is quite a ‘What The?’ moment for many. Let’s recap: God crams all his heavenly magnificence into an earthly body, to live a sinless life that saw him mocked, scorned, beaten, spat upon and murdered in the most painful way…for ME? Why?!

Because He loves. Every hair on our head and wants us back. God pursues us with an intense, reckless, all or nothing kind of love.

It’s insane that sort of self-sacrificial love. It’s confronting. It demands surrender. In our self-led, self-directed lives, it demands we be less when all our egos want to do is show that we are more. It makes no sense! It doesn’t follow any sort of rules. It’s illogical. Just trust and just be loved. Huh? It can’t be that easy, surely?

It can. And compared to Ike describing his food rules and training to convert to Orthodox Judaism, I am grateful it is.

I did have one unfaithful wobble: would my faith sound too simple? Does the complexity of having a second kitchen and fasting and not combining certain foods – let alone ceremonial washing and circumcision – make a faith more explainable? Rules suit our ordered, lineal thinking minds. There’s been a rise in younger Christians attending traditional, methodical, Anglican Prayer Book liturgy services, after all. In a world of uncertainty, we seek structure.

Yet the difference between Ike’s food rules and my seeking comfort in the regular, familiarity of a traditional Anglican Prayer Book service is vast. I can take comfort in its familiarity, and find it opens a new way of dialoguing with G&J, but I don’t have to do it. There’s no need to add anything with Christianity. It’s Christ alone. Not Jesus PLUS. No extra rules. Jesus is the rule breaker.

God Forbid as a radio show seeks to explore and showcase different religions. Yet this wasn’t a simple, ‘what is your Christian convert story?’ There was a sense of, “well, but why?” – if you’re a convert then explain and justify your decision. I didn’t notice Ike receiving the same sort of question. Possibly because the interviewer focused upon the rules that Ike was explaining in Orthodox Judaism. A wieldy set of rules make a religion much easier to ‘explain’ or understand. No strange, heart-led, soul-shaking, unexplainable bits.

We no longer live in a world where the Christian church and faith is automatically respected. Once one’s money, stance on religion, politics and sex were deemed impolite topics to discuss at the dinner table – let alone on national radio! Not so nowadays. Now it’s up for poking, prodding and questioning – with the expectation of having all the answers to defend your faith choice:

If you’ve converted, Phil, justify why. If there are odd peculiarities to your faith (ie: you’re an intelligent, career-garnished woman, why would you be in a Sydney Anglican church, those un-progressives don’t let women DO anything was one angle pursued) you’d better be ready to justify your choice too.

I was happy to because the answer is and always will be: Jesus. Amazing grace. All the other bits of religion I usually roll my eyes over anyhow.

It was an enervating couple of hours. I had to defend that my faith wasn’t simply coincidence or a product of culture; when tackled about Anglicanism and gender I switched it to talk to how counter-cultural Jesus was when it came to speaking to women in first century Israel as recorded in the Bible. When James played me two recorded sound bytes, with topics of proselytising and the Great Commission bumped up against a quote from the Sydney Anglican ArchBishop, Glenn Davies talking building churches and  baptism, I was happy to challenge James on how the two topics weren’t exactly correctly related and explained how one (baptism) was a response to Jesus. Not a “dunk as many people as you can to build a church” story angle.

That he looked over my shoulder at his producers and said, “let’s not get a journalist next time,” when I gave that answer made me smile.

After all, it’s hardly dramatic is it, when your guest tries her best to always point back to Jesus. Not the stuff of worldly, ooh conflict, news agendas.

There was one response from Ike that was edited out before the final show went to air. After I gave my story about meeting the Jesus fella, and Ike was invited to share his story on converting to Judaism, he said, “I’ve never had an experience with God like Phil just described.”

Which made – and still makes – my heart sad. I pray he does.

If you want to have a listen, the link to the recording of the show is here. 

 

Brace yourself: Jesus and orthodontics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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