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.

God uses broken vessels, not timelines and tickboxes

One of the most confusing things I have been asked regularly about these blogs on my 2.5 year faith walk is, “How do you get ‘it’? You have a knack for explaining Jesus, but  you haven’t been ‘doing’ it long enough so you really ought not ‘get’ it.”6847c54c87fc05c9ea4c8eff7e517529.jpg

In no particular order it has been suggested: perhaps someone else is actually writing these blog posts; that I ought not ‘get’ it because I’ve not undertaken theological study; or (my favourite) it would be wiser if someone with a theological degree to read through my posts before I publish them.

I have also received a humbling amount of compliments too; but still many with an air of bafflement. “This is great, I love how you explained it, but you’ve only been a Christian for how long..?”

The above have all contributed to me taking a break from my blogs for a while, coupled with shoves from the Holy Spirit to focus my attentions elsewhere.

Yet I miss it. Writers process on their pages. But I really had to wrestle with why I was writing and what – if anything – God was asking me to do with it.

This started as a place to record and unpack what GJ&HS were doing in my life. It evolved as my journalist head observed what I perceived as being lost in translation between the great news of the Jesus fella and the often stilted, sometimes stagnant, communication methods and stereotypes of church and religion.

After 2.5 years I now see more clearly how God works in phases with us. He has taken me from everything I need, then to everything I trust and now through to everything I want.

Need was obvious (after a cage fight or ten), trust took longer and want… well, want is what I liken to the sense of a growing HS magnet inside my chest that pulls and pulls me to more in relationship with GJ&HS.

There’s been a problem though. What the HS been whispering, what God has been suggesting has felt too big for little ol’ me. Coupled with a hangover of ‘you’re just too new a Christian to get this’ it left me somewhat frozen. A few weeks ago a pastor (not of the smart-alec variety) told me, “you wouldn’t understand theologically what I’m trying to do here.” Wow. That really hooked in.

I recall after my liptoning asking the SAP what all this focus on the timeline of my understanding of GJ&HS was about? As I pondered God pressing me to apply for a role within a Christian not-for-profit 18 months ago, even the SAP said, “well, they may not want you. They may be seeking a more mature Christian.”

What was this? Is one supposed to spend a certain amount of time on one’s knees in pews? Much like frequent fliers, was there a tier status I’d been unaware of?

I’m sorry if I now offend people who have letters after their name as long as the alphabet in regards to theological study, but here goes: the basic premise of Jesus really isn’t that complicated.

Yes, I applaud all those scholars who dig through greek, hebrews, and other ancient texts in order to better deliver understanding of scripture to our modern world – and maybe we’d not have had the Reformation if Luther had been unwilling to do the same. Yet at its heart, Christianity is fairly simple. After all, Jesus called uneducated, illiterate fishermen to be in on the ‘start-up’. So let’s not get over-excited about how complicated it is to grasp.

The key words in the paragraph above being ‘at its heart’. If you let GJ&HS move through your heart, your head may wrestle (as mine did) but I believe it prepares you for everything that follows after far better than if you try to move from ‘head-knowledge’ to ‘heart-understanding’.

My answer to my bewildered compliment-payers: “I have no idea how. It feels right. It flows out of me but (and here I have to say it’s all on the HS) I will always get a pressing to dig into the Bible about whatever I’m called to write about.”

Heart first, with head fact checking. Both need to be applied – even when the fact checking can be an uncomfortable truth to wrestle with! I remind everyone that – by training – I am a journalist. It is ingrained for me to attempt to make anything I write about as accessible as possible for the reader. Why would my writing about GJ&HS be any different?

He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. – 1 Timothy 3;6

Perhaps this is what people have been concerned about? Paul was saying that young converts should not be made pastors regardless of their zeal or spiritual gifts. That there is a depth of character that cannot be developed any other way than through time. It speaks to pride, and no matter what other secular positions of leadership and maturity a new Christian may have held, that experience is insufficient.

I’m going to go with a yes, maybe. But when you’ve got a 40+ convert with a breadth and depth of life experience that God is calling with a vengeance, perhaps encouragement rather than bafflement is a better way to grow new parts to the body of Christ. How many new Christians with fantastic skills and gifts are hesitating over what they can offer church, missions, and evangelising because they have been subtly told “they’re too new,” with the implication that ‘theologically you just won’t get it’?

A chapter later, Paul writes to Timothy: Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity. (1 Timothy 4;12)

The principle that Paul was explaining is that maturity is not always associated with years. Out of all the people Paul had trained, Timothy’s heart was the closest to that of the Apostle Paul (Philippians 2:20). Timothy was the one anointed by God to carry on the work of the church at Ephesus, and he had to fight any cultural barriers that would cause the older people not to respect his authority because of his young age.

Paul reminded Timothy not to let others despise his youth. We are all responsible, to a large degree, for other people’s opinions about us. I am reminded to be more obedient to God than to people’s opinions, even if on a heart/head level they are somehow bound up in a scriptural opinion that recent converts ought not grasp this GJ&HS business so easily and emphatically.

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. James 1:17

All good things come from God. And my somehow being able to grasp and explain GJ&HS in such a way that connects with people is a good thing, no? God doesn’t work on timelines and tick boxes. He has grabbed me, this broken vessel, and in His grace, has poured in some surprising gifts. A gift of writing. Of speaking. Of encouraging people to grow, because I’ve always felt strongly that if we are all not growing then we are dying.

Throw in the past 2.5 years of falling head-over-heels with GJ&HS and where does that lead me?

a) Setting up a religious cult

b) Going to bible college.

 

While the thought of a) gives me many blog post ideas, it truly looks like it’s b). Took me a while – I have spent weeks praying He closes doors, this is too big for me, this is overloading for me, all of which are loud echoes of take this cup away from me. Me.

Incorrect insecure pronoun. Who do I want? To Whom do I surrender? And while the dreams that God is pressing upon my heart feel way too big for me, they aren’t for Him. He uses broken vessels in the funniest of ways. I take heart knowing He will smile at my imagining my vessel as a broken bottle of gin turned into a lamp-stand.

Which also gives me my next blog post idea: the freaked out, I can’t quite believe I’m doing this sinner’s application to bible college.

Stay posted, I’m sure I’m going to have lots of new material…

Onan did what?!

I first came across the name Onan not in my exploration of the Old Testament, but in my Dad’s exploration of the family tree. Great-grandfather Onan. GGF almost became the namesake of our first child before Big T and I did some research and realised our son would likely attract a merchant banker nickname if we did so.B0220000WH0000007580505051419WIIN00AFA,proud-to-merchant-banker.jpg

At the time, close to eleven years ago, why my GGF had an Old Testament inspired name didn’t even blip on my radar of interest. It simply sounded like a pretty cool name, until we turned to Genesis 38-9.

Recently I was chatting with my Dad, on our regular FaceTime connection between Australia and the U.K, about life, blogs, and faith walks. Recall, despite a C of E schooling, I didn’t grow up in a Christian household, although Dad will most times sign off our calls with, “God bless.” Regardless, his classic line pretty much sums it up: “You know me, Phil, I dislike anything organised, whether it’s automobile clubs or religion.”

During the call, he suddenly said, “Well, you do recall your great grandfather Onan was significant in growing one of the largest Baptist churches in the centre of England?”

Onan did what?! My jaw dropped. Big T howled with laughter. Dad looked a little baffled by the hilarity. “I’m sure I told you,” he added. Apparently there are two original foundation stones from the church preserved in a UK museum. Owned now by an American Baptist church (let’s pray not Westboro).

So GGF Onan was involved in one of the oldest Baptist Churches in the Black Country, known as Messiah or Cinder Bank Chapel. It is said that practically every Baptist chapel within a ten-mile radius, can trace its origins in some way back to it.

My Dad may have mentioned it, but I dare say at the time I didn’t resonate with preachers and church planters in my ancestory DNA.

I have to wonder what got lost in two generations?

When I asked the same, somewhat baffled yet humbled by God reaching through family generations to call me back, the SAP responded: “I wondered too, but then I just gave thanks that He had, along with, through you, your family.”

The reminder that God’s ways are not our ways, His timing not like ours. And yet – as two other UHT Christians exclaimed when I shared my gob-smackedness -the power of faithful prayer. “Your great-grandfather would have prayed over the generations to come in his family. He’d be whooping in heaven right now.”

I look forward to meeting GGF Onan in heaven. Thanking him for his faithful prayers. Asking him if he ever got teased at school for his name. But most to give praise that his seed (boom tish) – whether a ten mile radius from Cinder Bank Baptist chapel in the centre of England or through generational DNA to Sydney, Australia – spilt on fertile ground.

Dear friend, I understand you don’t believe..but

This is an open letter to all my gorgeous, loyal, non-believing in God, Jesus or the Holy Spirit friends. There’s a few really important things we ought to clear up. Good-Friend-and-Best-friend-quotes

1) Please don’t freak-out when I say the name Jesus.

It’s OK, it really is. I’m not about to grab holy water and douse you in it. But being friends with a Christian and expecting not to hear the word Jesus pass my lips is like being friends with a passionate West Bromwich Albion supporter and being surprised when they bring up the Baggies.

I get it, I do, because not so long ago I sat on the other side with you watching Christians myself for signs of rabid evangelising and judgement. Back then, when I sat with a Christian who bought up the J-man, I’d get itchy. “Oh man, they’re going to ask me to church.”

2) I may ask you to church, I may not.

Depends. I’m not in the business of shoving Jesus down people’s throats. If you fancy a good singsong at Christmas, then, yes, I’ll extend the invite.

If you’re struggling, and I see you going through some hard times, and it seems to be a suffering you’re facing over and over with little respite, then, yes, I’m probably going to ask you along. Not because I want to shove Jesus at you. But because I love you and don’t like to see you hurting. Jesus and his church have helped me through some seriously challenging times: a friend’s death, marriage needing a defibrillator, job uncertainties, and children’s health issues, to name a few.

Maybe I’ve watched you try other avenues to alleviate the suffering and you’ve told me it’s not working. So, having been there myself – looking for pain relief in a myriad of places without success – I can put my hand on my heart and tell you this helped me. So that’s why I’d ask you – in case you find some relief in coming along too.

3) I’m going to pray for you. Deal.

You were an awesome friend before I became a Christian and you’re an awesome friend now. So you are going to get added to my prayer list, because that’s what Christians do. Even if you don’t believe in G, J& HS, when you are going through tough times (and when you’re not) I’m going to pray they care, support and help. So don’t look like a rabbit in headlights when I say the P word. Try a little faith in my faith.

4) Expect me to knock back invites that are on a Sunday morning.

I need to go to church. My soul needs to. It fulfils me. It’s like going to see the best lover you can imagine and learning more about what makes them tick. With that level of attraction – a somersaulting butterflies in the stomach happiness – it’s definitely an every week thing. I grow stronger in my faith and I learn more about myself in church each Sunday. So please don’t roll your eyes when I decline the invites or think I’m in some happy-clappy cult. I don’t love you any less. But doing church each week makes me a kinder, more patient, more other-focused soul. Which (I hope) delivers benefits to our friendship.

5) Please don’t treat me differently.

I’ve changed but I’m still me. You’re likely going to swear in front of me – that’s fine. I’m not going to freak. I am likely to be just as sweary with the F-bomb but not so much with the G&J. I still drink. I’m not going to judge you. That’s precisely what a Christian ought not do. If you’ve been hanging around with judgey Christians, please let me know. I’ll try my best to show you how flawed Christians really are. It won’t take much, as you already know I’ve got plenty of flaws and I really like to let them all hang out!

6) Your support is appreciated.

When you ask me what I did at the weekend and I tell you I went to church, can we try and avoid the awkward silence? Tell you what, why not ask me how it was – just as I’d ask you how the picnic/footie/breakfast in the city/cycle in the park was for you on Sunday morning. It doesn’t mean I’ll unleash a floodgate of sermonising and bible passages at you. It means you are a caring friend who is willing to take an interest in what I’m up to, and for that I am grateful.

7) I understand it may feel weird.

After all, I was an anti-Christian, anti-religion soul just two short years ago. You might feel I’ve headed down a path you will never understand. But we celebrated our differences before I met the Jesus fella, so let’s keep celebrating and respecting those differences. I don’t need you to believe in God and Jesus to justify my faith, just as you don’t need me to not believe to justify your not believing in them. Of course, if you do need me to not believe to justify your non-belief, that’s a whole different conversation.

8) This isn’t wearing off.

Believe me, I waited for it to wear off, I did! Yet here I am, two years later, still writing a blog about the journey, and helping run a Christian not-for-profit that has an amazing impact on lives around the world. It doesn’t wear off. Instead it just gets better. I never imagined the joyful, head-over-heels feeling that emerged in my soul would last – or could even improve. But it does.

Although, at the risk of sounding like a shiny-suited evangelist, I’ve got to ask. Doesn’t what happened to me ever make you wonder?

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.

I Like My Pastors The Way I Like My Steak

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.imgres.jpg

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.

Maranatha in the mirror. Hosanna

Is regards to worldly horror, is Paris any different to drowned refugee toddlers? To the bombings in Beirut? No. Only a few short months ago, I struggled with the horned mother trucker after a small boy washed up on the beach. Paris, however, has delivered me a new clarity. That light will overcome.

What changed? Well, I had a decidedly trippy God encounter in church (good place to have it) on the Sunday morning after the news of Paris.

There I was, singing away to Hosanna. Dancing a little, which is my thing. My palms may even have been tempted up past my elbows thanks to some excellent drumming and vocals from the musicians at the front. images-1

Recall my journey to G&J: UK-born, Church of England schooled, Christian hangover via new age agnosticism into Sydney Anglican.

It’s an odd mongrel path of faith, not least because I combine British stiff-upper lip with a willingness to pay attention to the songs, signs and symbols that God shoves at me.

As I sang the Hosanna lyrics it all got terribly ‘new age’ in my brain, but really was what the SAP would call holy spirit action. I describe it as God getting cellular because, with a type of bone marrow certainty, He suggested the following as I sang each line:

I see a near revival, Stirring as we pray and seek….. “

God: Phil, the bombings in Paris, Beirut and beyond, the sight of persecuted refugees, of drowned toddlers, they are the pivotal moment. Stirring you and others as you pray and seek.

“Break my heart for what breaks yours..”

God: Phil, this can be the moment that every heart gets broken by what breaks Mine.

“Everything I am for Your kingdom’s cause..”

God: The moment that every Christian begs to be filled with My spirit and turns themselves fully over to My Kingdom’s cause. Phil, what would that look like?

Me: Well, frankly God, as You can see, it literally looks a bit messy (as by this point, my stiff-upper lip has given way to a sort of smiling, sobbing, saline but still joyful singing). But I know what You mean.

It would look like Jesus had come. To all of us. Through all of us. Pretty powerful, don’t you think?

“I see the king of glory, Coming on the clouds with fire.”

Since Paris, you may have seen the phrase ‘Come Lord Jesus Come’ a lot on social media. For those not in the know, this is from Maranatha, an Aramaic word that means “the Lord is coming” or “come, O Lord.”

Christians use it as a reminder of the hope of the coming of the Lord. In the days of the early church, “Maranatha!” became the common greeting of the oppressed believers. Now it reminds us to keep our eyes on the eternal things of the Spirit.

Early followers of Jesus knew there would be no peace because Jesus had told them so (Matthew 10:34; Luke 12:51). But they also knew the Lord would be returning to set up His kingdom, and from that truth they drew great comfort. They were constantly reminding and being reminded that the Lord is coming (Luke 21:28; Revelation 22:12). Jesus taught several parables on this same theme of watching and waiting and being prepared for His return (Matthew 25:1-13; Luke 12:35-40).

So my blogging and asking God for one more day after Paris had a few UHT Christians giving me gentle guidance. Who was I to ask God to delay the second coming?

Respectfully,  I am on the same page as God on this one. It’s His will not mine, His timing not mine. Yet I figure he knew what he was doing when he called a feisty, questioning, direct-marketing, try to sell ice-to-Eskimos, PR personality to Christianity in her forties.

I’m fairly sure He knows I’m always going to push for a few response rate campaign extensions on the Great Commission. Every teenager daughter pushes her Father for just a little extra; I am open and honest with my Abba the same way.

Maranatha may remind me to keep my Christian heart and eyes on the eternal things of spirit and not be soul-swiped by the atrocities of drowned toddlers, bombs and cowardly terrorism. Do I long for him to come on clouds of fire to fulfil my heart ? Yes. But I am human. I have friends who are oh so close to getting to know G&J better than they ever have so I’ve got to be selfishly frank: I’d hate for them to miss out.

So I prayed for one more day after Paris. To keep treading the path and let Jesus spirit fill me so I can try, in my human stumbling way, to do what he would.

As I read vitriol on social media, of trending hate towards Muslims, I believe now more than ever it is Christians especially who need to shine a light in what could become a terrifying darkness. To look in the mirror and pray maranatha:

Come Lord Jesus, Come – fill me. Give me the strength to do what might be tough and hard. To stand up and defend others and not join in the call for eye for an eye. To gently challenge those who may confuse religion with Jesus, who say we shouldn’t even #prayforParis – pray for anything -because prayer is connected to religion and religion causes war.

To be the difference: between man’s twisted religion of rules and Jesus’ actions, teachings and love. To stick to the ultimate two: To love the Lord with all my heart and my neighbour as myself. To not keep quiet when people try to tar that with religious fervour.

To let me pray to You first, then act. To pray for wisdom for leaders, healing for the broken-hearted, and understanding for all. That the love and compassion of your son may be seen in the darkness, and that we remember that his light always overcomes.

I ask this in Your son, Jesus’ name.

Amen.