Baby Nate, Christmas and THIS chair

11-month old Nate is son and grandson of local business owners I know, with whom I’ve worked for a couple of years.dsc_8529

Nate is battling a rare disease called Langerhans Cell Histiocytosis (LCH), which affects only 1 in 200,000 children. Nate has tumours in all his organs and bone marrow. In order to fight the disease that is in so many parts of his body, Nate is currently undergoing chemotherapy 4 times a day. He has already had 12 blood transfusions.

Baby Nate has been hospitalised for three months now and the Doctors have not given any end date to his hospitalisation. He is one of three children and for his parents Alan and Kristy, maintaining a mortgage, providing food, paying for general bills and maintaining ‘normal’ for the other children has been very hard.

So, yesterday, a group of local businesses got together to host a fundraiser. A fast week of planning had resulted in an event location being secured, significant prizes being donated, the fundraiser being promoted and a wonderful show of support. A local photographer donated his services to take Santa photos. We found a jolly man, a red suit…and we needed a chair.

If you’ve been into a shopping centre lately for Santa photos, you’ll know a desk chair on castors or bistro club chair just doesn’t cut it. We needed something a little more substantial. Oddly enough, just four days out from Christmas, most of the Santa chairs were in use.

I know churches have an array of fancy looking wooden chairs. Surely I could track one down that would suit? Most of the churches I know have switched to a more comfortable seating-style for worship, but maybe there was something gathering dust in an storeroom? After a few calls, one church offered a lovely wooden Bishop’s chair.

Now, I’ve only met one Bishop and he didn’t strike me as the type of chap who worried overmuch upon the sort of chair he perched his bottom. So, by extension, given this was a cause to help a little child, I didn’t worry over much about any ‘religious’ connotations (or blasphemy) attached to plonking a fat, red-velvet-clad bottom onto a Bishop’s chair either.

Until I shared this photo (below) expressing my thanks to the church that had given the chair, saying we had raised nearly $8000 in two-hours for Baby Nate and his family, and how popular the Santa photos had been as part of the fundraising.

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“Please, please do not say where you got the chair if anyone asks,” was the fast reply.

Huh? You see, for me, a church isn’t a chair. Yes, this chair may indeed be a symbol of the bishop’s teaching authority but it’s a symbol. Cathedra is the Latin word for a chair with armrests, and it appears in early Christian literature in the phrase “cathedrae apostolorum”, indicating authority derived directly from the apostles.

Remember when Jesus rebuked the disciples for turning away children? If he was sitting on some fancy big chair at the time, he’d have let them clamber all over it. If the prostitute wanted to drape herself across the same chair while she washed his feet with perfume, Jesus would have shifted over to make room. So let’s not freak out about protecting the symbolism of a beautifully-carved chair if  – in a community example of loving their neighbour – a sexy santa and bloke holding a beer have given their time and money to have their photo taken to perch atop it.

The image above is a great metaphor for the church and modern society right now. This community rallied together to help a suffering family. It was a little bit beery, yes we played into the stereotype of blonde Mrs Santa, but the underlying reason – the motivation upon which we all perched – was that a bloke who walked the earth two-thousand years ago taught something counter-cultural. To pray for enemies, to turn the other cheek, to love your neighbour as yourself. 

The church may feel hidden underneath modern day secularism. It may feel the pressure of offering something different. But this sort of image gives me great hope. Because – whether you love Jesus or dismiss him – it is  from his teachings 2000 years ago that creates our heart-pull to help others.

Jesus started the love thy neighbour movement. The chair upon which these people sit is a larger rock. It may get hidden, it may be worrying to see it draped in red velvet, exposed flesh and holding a beer, but delight in the fact that it is there. Amongst it.

I didn’t tell people where the chair had come from, exactly. But I did share it had come from a church. And, without fail, everyone I told had the same type of reply:

“That’s brilliant! A church let us use this sort of special chair for this?! Wow. That’s really cool they’d let us do that.”

You see, out there in ‘secular’ world, too many people still think churches are stuffy, pompous places containing fun police. Caught up in symbolism and right use of furniture. Hushed reverence. They’d never imagine a church would give a Bishop’s chair for such a use.

And yet a church did. The wobbly, freaking-out moment seeing the photo had nothing to do with how the chair had been used and everything to do with what other Christians may think about how it was used.

Let’s not turn it into that. Let’s not be a community that judges how the hands and feet of Christ offer help and puts Jesus’ teachings into a well-carved, ornate structure that is removed from the real world. Instead let’s just keep pointing back to Him.

If you read this and feel moved to donate funds to baby Nate and his family, you can do so at: https://www.gofundme.com/saving-baby-nate. If you’re the praying type, please throw words heavenward for this family.

Amen.

 

Oh come all ye faithful…beer drinkers

Christmas carols are coming to a church near you. If you’re anything like myself BC, you may love a jolly singsong of ye olde carol favourites, but possibly fidget in the scripture section. Sort of like, “Yes, yes, we know the story: virgin, baby, no room at the inn, manger, star, kings with gifts, shepherds and angelic hosts. But are you going to do Jingle Bell Rock? Or that Mariah Carey one they sing in Love Actually?”

It’s fairly easy to do ‘-mas’ nowadays. If you pick council-run carols over churchy ones, you’re going to get more ‘-mas’ than Christmas. Taking the Christ part away just makes it sooo much easier to get people along. No confronting conversations about Isaiah and prophecies and someone dying to take away your sin. Makes it easier to get sponsors for the petting zoo and face-painting.

What’s a church to do when competing with -mas? As one church announced recently, you can offer Carols and Beer. I think this is fairly good, given evangelism works best when you meet people where they are at and within their context. Nothing an Aussie likes better than free cold beer. They may not come along for the Christmas message, but if Jesus slips in with the Coopers Pale Ale, excellent! url

But where would we be without social media to discuss sin? Some Christians voiced concern that beer is not an appropriate beverage to be served at church and carols. Hear, hear. Our Lord and Saviour was all about fine wine (remember the wedding at Cana), so let’s at least make it Grange and French Champagne.

I met someone recently who got to know the Jesus fella whilst serving the craft beer at a Men’s Event in a metro church. There he was, doing his job, serving up sensible nips of beer on those fancy wooden paddles for all the men attending. He couldn’t help but listen to the talk. Within a year he was enrolled in bible college and is now in rural NSW leading a fast-growing church. If beer had been deemed an inappropriate beverage that night, he’d likely have not met the Jesus fella. And what really stood out for him? “Well, you don’t expect a church to do a beer-tasting, do you? It made me think I’d missed something.”

The element of surprise. Not a bait and switch, more a beer and save!

I appreciate the damage of alcoholism, alcohol abuse and everything around it. There’s delicacy and I can see why – if the church is meant to be a guiding light, doing as Jesus would for others – some Christians have voiced their concerns. Yet, like any event, it’s about responsible service of alcohol. I’d trust that the beer and carol organisers would not encourage ‘every time you hear the word ‘angel’ take a drink’ games. It’s a large leap from offering a social beer with carols to say that the church is ignoring those who struggle with alcohol and putting temptation in their way.

Yet, even if that was the case, surely a church can be pastorally-smart enough to manage it? I have an amazing friend who is celebrating ten years dry. When we have dinner, I let her choose if I drink or not. Most days it’s a yes, but some days it’s a no. A ‘no’ becomes my prompt to ask what’s causing her to struggle and how I can help?

The same kindness could be extended at a carols where beer is being served – it would take some forethought, planning and a willingness to address the elephant in the room, but it can be done. Broached well, it could be its own pastoral opportunity:

“Welcome everyone to our carol service. You may be surprised to notice that our church is serving beer and also wine tonight. For some, that might be a welcome surprise and may even challenge some stereotypes of Christians being like Ned Flanders (insert pause for laughter). But for others, who choose not to drink for personal reasons, it may be a challenge or a struggle…. and so, what we’ve done is….[insert what suits your community best]….”

Each church is different. Each community is different. So meet people where they’re at. Your church may have a whole bunch of AA sponsors happy to float and mingle. Or there may be a strict confidentiality so you do some pre-work beforehand to have people available to walk alongside those who struggle.

It may not even be needed. But it certainly demonstrates to those folk who are visiting, the ones who are simply there for the beer and the carols, that Christians care. About people and their struggles. Or simply just to offer a cold beer on a hot day to toast the birth of the one who saves.

The dangers of bringing a plus one to church

Christmas, as many ministry teams tell their congregations, is the time to invite non-church goers along to church. I’d done just that. As I sat next to my guest, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit excited. It had been a lovely welcome, everyone had been friendly and gracious. The kids’ minister had us in laughter, the prayers were lovely and inclusive and the music was vibrant and upbeat. My guest smiled over at me. “Nice that it has a relaxed vibe,” she commented.images.jpg

And then the sermon started. Halfway through she glanced at me and whispered, “What’s this all about? I don’t get why this God of yours is all about punishment and judgement.”

I’d been feeling pretty bummed out about what I was hearing too. Not because it was a ‘bad’ sermon. But for the average person who may have wandered back to church after a long time away? I understand why she asked what she did.

Whilst I knew it was a bit of Old Testament scene-setting in order to relate the gift of Jesus at Christmas time, there’s enough of my ‘before Christ’ (BC) PR persona left to recognise a message totally missing its mark. God & Jesus lost in translation.

You see, the sermon didn’t close the loop. It set the scene, but didn’t make enough of the climax. Jesus, grace and joy deserve an ending of fireworks. Not a damp squib that leaves the listener with echoes of brimstone.

When will pastors understand that the church has done such a disservice to G&J over the years – has lost them so often in translation – that a newcomer is going to hear the ‘negative’ stereotypes one thousand times louder than anything else? You say ‘sin’ and ‘punishment’ and ‘obedience’ three times in a sermon, then please make sure you are saying ‘love’, ‘Jesus’, ‘free gift, not works’ and ‘grace’ at least ten times each to balance it out.

It’s basic message adoption principles: our brains are wired to hear the negatives, so offset each one with at least three positives. Please. Just in case there’s a brand new visitor cautiously finding his or her way back to church that day.

Please don’t pre-suppose knowledge. You may have 99% ‘old faithful’ in the pews, but that 1% newcomer who really needs to get the message – they may not be ready to unpack it. Forget the cliff-hanger sermon series for the next week – because they may not come back. I understand the power of a sermon series, I do. But build it well. Let each week stand alone. Remind, wrap up, and make sure you’re covering off on the grace, goodness and joy each time. Just in case.

I tried to do a fast crisis PR repair job for G&J in the car park before my friend climbed into her car and drove away. But how do you explain it’s a misconception when a 20-minute sermon ‘sort-of’ reinforced the misconception?

I can send her this link, and this one, and this one, all of which I hope explain the real, close, loving relationship God seeks with us, from my own personal experience.

I can try to explain that when the word obedience is used in a sermon, it isn’t because we have a growling, arrogant, up-Himself, punishing God who demands our grovelling to feed His gargantuan thundering ego saying, “I MADE THE WORLD, SO OBEY ME, PRAISE ME, AND GROVEL BEFORE ME, MINION, OR ELSE!”

I can explain when God talks about obedience, it is from the context of His not being human, but of Him being God. He is so much larger, wiser, holier, cleverer and smarter than I. Because He’s God and I’m me.

So being obedient to his precepts means I submit to Him being just that: larger, wiser, smarter, cleverer, more lovely and amazing. By submitting (being obedient) I relax in the total and utter security that He has my back. That He gets the agenda far better than I do. That He loves me with a breadth and depth I cannot imagine, and He only wants what is best for me. So given He has my back, I can relax and trust Him implicitly. Why would I resist (be disobedient) when the other option is me trying to go it alone and quite often making a mess of it?

Of course it means I have to humble myself. Take a hard look inward. It requires growth.

So where does this leave me sharing what I’ve learnt about G&J? I often only get one shot talking about this ‘Jesus loves you’ business with someone. Whilst it’s always God’s will not mine, I really do want to facilitate the best introduction possible.

It takes guts for me to spill my heart to a non-believer. I risk ridicule. I have horrible images of being seen as some shiny-suited, dodgy TV evangelist. I have to be ready to take tough questions on the chin. Yet that’s OK because G&J have my back and for every snigger, for every person who may scoff at my faith, there may be another who unexpectedly finds peace and hope and love.

Pastors, please be aware, for every guest one of your church members brings through the door, they’ve most likely spent weeks before praying, laying the groundwork, having coffee, gently unpacking their guest’s misconceptions of religion and trying carefully to get Jesus front and centre. Anyone who’s doing evangelism well isn’t spraying and praying out a scatter-gun of church invitations. It’s a hand-reared, personal pitch.

So if you’re standing on stage preaching and people in your congregation have invited new guests along? No pressure, but please don’t stuff it up.

Now, all my readers who are pastors may leap to their own defence by citing the great sermon postscript: “But we always say, at the end of each sermon: if you’re new here today, have any questions about what was in the sermon, or want to talk to someone about Jesus and his great gift, come and see me or xyz on the ministry team.”

I’m sorry, it’s a terrible engagement technique so please don’t think it covers you for any sermon misunderstandings by any new listeners.

There’s absolutely no way I’d have wandered up to a stranger my first day in church, especially if my head was overflowing with their sermon’s berating notions of sin and punishment, and asked to discuss it further. Like my guest at Christmas, I’d have been sprinting to the car park as fast as my legs could carry me.

Grace Holds.

This post starts after the Lindt cafe Sydney siege and the breaking news today that eight children have been stabbed to death in Queensland. One as young as 18 months.

It starts less than 24 hours after our quiet, leafy suburb was teeming with police and their dogs, searching for the person who chose to hold up our local liquor store, threatening the young bloke behind the till with a needle injury.

Yesterday I suggested on social media that our local community buy a case from the local bottle shop today. Small scale #Illridewithyou. Today I went in and my heart was gladdened to hear the owner say how busy she was. Thank you community.

Today I sat in our local cafe next to our Como institution. Close to 90 years old, Mrs R lives independently – my family first got to know her almost ten years ago when I walked past her house with my newborn son. She had a quiet tear today thinking about how long she has lived in this peaceful suburb and how distressing it was to hear the news of yesterday’s robbery. After she left, the cafe regulars worked out how to make sure she was tended, to offer her love and comfort, without intruding on her independence. Thank you community.

It would be easy for me to say, after the events of the past week, that it appears God has turned his back and shut the door on our bewildering world. But then I see Jesus in each person who bought a case of wine or beer from our local bottle shop today. In the compassion that strews Martin Place with flowers. In the love that tends to a 90 year old woman to ensure she is held safely in our small community.

Grace holds.

Grace

It felt like Christmas time…. 2000 miles

Sydney to Perth is roughly 2000 miles. From one side of the country to the other. Which is how I feel about my spiritual travels over the past six months. I’m in the same country, but on the total flip side.

Which puts this coming Christmas into a whole new perspective. So far, I’ve had 42 Christmases upon this earth. Yet this will be the first where I get it. Yes, I’d been called to ‘get it’ before  – there was a reason why a practising agnostic would creep into midnight Christmas Eve services and be moved to weep, after all – but 2014? 2014, I suspect, will be very different.

It may have ‘felt’ like Christmas those 42 times before. But only to the extent that I recognised it as a a religious festival, happily accepted the public holiday, and, in a silent midnight eve moment, paid quiet attention to the pressing on my soul. That there was more to this day than turkey, brandy butter, wrapping paper and wine. Before pushing that attention into the ‘too hard’ basket and looking away. Telling myself that it was only the carols that called me…nothing more…

No-wonder that God tired of the subtleties. I wonder how many others He sees at Christmas services, all drawn towards the quiet joyfulness (even when they are unaware of what they are drawn to) and decides, “No more gentle prods. You, you, and you. This coming year, you’re all on the Wake-Up To Me Fast Track.”

Yet, we have free will. We can stick our fingers in our ears, ignore, look the other way. God meets us where we are at. Jesus extends a hand. It’s up to us whether we join the dance. But if you have that pressing on your soul? That you want to ignore because it’s too damn scary and who knows what could happen if you opened up that feeling and peeked inside? Or perhaps, like me, or my hubby Big T, you carry such a Christian hangover you could never imagine the ache in your head being less important than the ache in your heart?

May I just say, it’s a fairly awesome dance. Even when you have forgotten the steps or are worrying you are going to tread on someone’s toes. And, for those who know me well, they recognise it is ASTOUNDING that I am about to write an invitation such as this:

If, under the tinsel, the cheer, the busyness, your heart is whispering for more…. then I invite you.

If you are asking, “Is this really it?” as you fight the Christmas shoppers, as you wince at the credit card creaking… then I invite you.

If you feel like you are stumbling into this holiday period with a sense of having just made it by the skin of your teeth…. then I invite you.

Not to throw yourself in the doors of your nearest church (unless you wish to).

Not to join me at a variety of Christmas services (unless you wish to).

Not to do anything except pause. Take a breath. Listen to the quiet whisper in your heart. And then, just pray. Or meditate if it makes you feel less freaked-out about the whole thing.

It doesn’t have to be fancy. It doesn’t even have to be ‘right’. But just give it a go. There is a structure to ‘right’ prayer but I don’t think God and Jesus are going to get that bothered; if they’ve not heard from you in a while they’re going to be more excited about the fact you’re ‘phoning home’.

Keep it simple. Hi there. Thanks for everything. Show me.

And, if you really fancy changing up your 2015, you could pray for your own SAP.

Amen.