When God gets His groove on

For someone who likes nothing better than dancing for hours as a mental reset, I cannot hold a tune in a bucket. Yet, aurally and kinesthetically, music, lyrics and rhythm all combine in such a way to inspire, settle, open and soften my often too-barricaded heart.

Like most of us, music forms a soundtrack to my memories, actions and reactions. Dancing and singing for hours to Abba as a kid. Mooning over Mark O’Toole and Bono. Sobbing into my pillow as a confused prepubescent to John Waite Missing You, wounded by my favoured boy dancing with the taller, prettier girl at the school barn dance (barn dance, seriously?!) The heart-galloping slow dance at the school disco (finally, a disco) to Frankie’s ‘The Power of Love’. 73407_1705795166174_1276861220_1922123_6042004_n

Fifteen, and spreading my wings with edgier, older, and way-more unsuitable suitors. U2 edged out by Jethro Tull, Fleetwood Mac, Springsteen’s denim derriere and Thunder Road. Leaving school, and drag-racing motorbikes to a mix of Foreigner, Def Leppard, Queensrych and Rush. 80s big hair and shoulder pads replaced with black biker jackets and torn jeans. Moving to Ireland and coming full circle to U2 again, and adding in The Band and Van The Man.

Then it all went quiet

Somehow, in my new-age, yogic befuddled wanderings, I allowed music to escape my life. The only reason I can imagine was in my misguided striving for non-attachment I secluded myself from anything that made me feel too much. Overlay a brush with depression and I’d numbed just enough to forget how important music and lyrics are to my soul.

God hadn’t. Waking me with Jennifer Warnes’ at 3am, over and over. Tugging on my heart and head so I listened. As I journeyed to faith and church, it was the lyrics in the hymns that first snuck into my heart. As my head wrestled and resisted, it was the worship words and chords that buried in and kept whispering on a relentless loop.

Another soundtrack to life began unfolding. Every moment He calls me for growth, there seems to be a new song, a new lyric. I have learnt to listen.

“Darling, don’t be afraid…I have loved you for a thousand years, I will love you for a thousand more” shoved into my head relentlessly in the weeks after my Mum died. At the time, still new age and seeking, I put it down to a lovely sign of comfort from her and ‘the beyond’. Now, looking back, God was using grief and suffering as a megaphone. I just hadn’t quite accepted the frequency.

“Won’t you let me hold you, I just want to hold you, like Bernadette would do” waking me at 3am over and over during that life-altering Easter weekend.

During the Christianity Explored course, Good Charlotte’s Right Where I Belong suddenly resonated, even though I had listened to the Cardiology album for years without noticing the song.

Standing in church and the lyric ‘my Jesus’ in Man of Sorrows having such personal impact that I couldn’t sing for the tears that clogged my throat.

Even the timing of U2’s newest album made me smile. The band that had formed the soundtrack to much of my teenage rebellion appeared free in my iTunes and sang A Song For Someone to my cautious Christian heart.

Before Christmas, weakened at a cross-roads of marital pain and relationship growth, turning on the car radio to Josh Groban’s You Raise Me Up and understanding the strength that truly backed me.

More recently, as I stepped carefully to forge a new path that blended work, life and faith, praying His will not mine, I would hear and see the lyrics of Oceans (Where Feet My Fail) almost everywhere. Shoved into my head to wake me at 3am (oh, there You go again), on Facebook banners until, finally, I downloaded the song as a reminder.

The hymns and lyrics of worship, the drumbeats that ask my heart to respond and my body to move, all point me to the personalised relationship that God seeks.

We all have our divine ‘love language’, I believe. Our own brand of ‘you-ness’ that God fingerprints as He knits us together, singing over us. Our own unique way of ‘getting’ Him.

Fearfully and wonderfully made, perhaps it lies dormant until the right lyric, the right melody, the right moment stirs our hearts.

Chastity fail. Getting back on top….

I’m getting back on top…of purity, that is. What were you thinking?

So I’ve looked at why Christian Girls Are Easy, and how, despite purity pledges, true love is struggling to wait for marriage. Your comments have been hugely helpful, thank you, as have been the snippets of dating advice from the smart-alec pastor (SAP). I’m particularly impressed by his entrepreneurial thinking. festisite_costa-coffee

Forget purity pledge rings, he has lined up a range of DIY bundling & tarrying kits, with the SAP logo embroidered on them. The branded beans, for those important ‘getting to know you’ coffee chats are an inspired touch. Shortly followed by the new coffee chain, SAPbucks, opening near churches nationwide…

It’s not what you do, it’s why you do it

There’s a misconception that Christians should be pure and chaste (including no sex) because it’s ‘in the rules’ And by ‘following the rules’ you get into God’s good books. This misunderstands the Good Book. That we are loved more than we can possibly imagine by God is shown by Jesus’ death and resurrection. There’s nothing to do. No ledgers. No self-flagellation. Jesus washes it all away.

Yet that doesn’t means there’s a hall pass for sinning over and over. God asks us to be confident in our relationship with Him because of the gift of Jesus. And it is a relationship. Draw closer, He asks. Read my words. Observe (follow) them. Not from legalistic obligations or “do what I say or there’ll be trouble” but simply because they are His words and we are motivated to out of love. Not to tick the ‘good deed’ box but because, OMG, I am so loved, how can I not?

I liken my relationship with G&J to first love on steroids. It’s eye-rollingly ridiculous to describe it thus at 40-erm years old, but after close to a year I have not yet found a better descriptor. Remember that somersaulting tumble in your stomach of first love? You want to hang out with the object of your affection all the time. You get a buzz out of being in their company. You want to do stuff for them. You enjoy making them happy. Seeing them smile at something you have done for them lights you up. You derive joy in the offering.

Sex as the wedding gift

So Christians are called to remain pure until marriage because God commanded it. Three times in Song of Songs the Bible says to ‘not awaken love before it so desires’. Which means ‘save it for later’. Words from the SAP:

The Bible refers to marriage and that sex is God’s wedding gift – so to speak – and that sex is this wonderful, fun and exciting thing God has given a married couple. We’ve spoiled what God intended to be a great thing – by taking the wedding present early – by abusing it and treating it as a trivial thing.

Not all Christians succeed in that very difficult task. But many do. And on the dating front, perhaps young Christians are grinding (or not) to a halt because they are really trying to honour God with their bodies and keeping Christian sex where it belongs, within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman.

No point in beating yourself up over it

The tricky bit comes (ahem) when Christians fall off the chastity wagon before marriage and feel they have ‘failed’ in their relationship with God. Yet, like any relationship fracture, it comes down to asking forgiveness and ‘making it right’ as soon as possible. A very tongue-in-cheek (or elsewhere) example:

Dear God,

I’m so sorry. I’m trying my best here but that final slow dance just did me in, his aftershave sends me weak at the knees, and, oh, did you see the way his forearms flexed nailing the boards when we were building that charity hut together earlier? I never imagined missionary (work) would be so tempting.

It was a balmy night on the deserted beach, the moon was high, one thing led to another….and, well, I guess you saw…which is actually weird in a modern-day voyeristic way, don’t You think? Anyhow. Epic chastity fail. So I’m sorry, I’m asking your forgiveness, and for the strength to resist those forearms again when we work on the deck for the charity hut tomorrow… I’m really going to need Your help there. But I don’t like feeling like I’ve let you down, so with Your help, I’ll brush myself off (literally, because You know, God? Sand gets in everywhere. Everwhere!) and give it another go. The chastity I mean. Not him of the sexy forearms. 

In Jesus name… Amen.

Call to action: get out there and go a courtin’ with care

As one wise woman commented about the Christian Girls Are Easy post, “I think there is a bigger generational issue at play here. Teenagers lives these days are much more open than when we courted. Coffee enabled you to chat and find out more. Today if you want to discover more you check out his/her Facebook page or follow him/her on Instagram. I do think an element of the excitement and fun has gone with a lack of courting – potentially this has less to do with the lack of going out for coffee and more to do with social media and messaging.

I actually see young people today taking others feelings more into account before deciding to date and that cannot be a bad thing. I watched many Christian girls – myself included – bounce from youth group to youth group in search of Mr Right Christian Boy and leave behind a wake of hurt feelings and cold coffee!”

I love her honesty.

So the suggestions are: enjoy your G&J relationship. It’s not what you do, it’s why. If you fall off the purity wagon, dust yourself off and turn to G&J (and your friendly pastor, hopefully one with smart-alec stripes) for support and advice.

Have coffee, have fun and be respectful of each other. Ease up on the social media stalking to preserve some of the mystery and keep the excitement of pheromones alive. You can still enjoy a pheromone buzz whilst observing purity.

Instead of watching each other on social media, watch each other, I don’t know, on the sports field! Guys, get all gallant and carry her tennis racket. Girls, any bloke, from 16 to 60, loves a cheer squad. Go watch him be a gladiator on the rugby field. I myself am a fan of the roller disco. Gives you an excuse to tangle legs and fall in a heap on top of each other without anyone raising an eyebrow.

One final piece of advice: if you do happen to find yourself on a moonlit beach with Mr Right Christian Boy / Girl remember this: sand gets everywhere. EVERYWHERE. Better to wait.

Seriously? We’re asking how a church can model love, trust and respect?

Thank-you. For the heartfelt support that poured through social media and across email in response to the blog about my experience of family abuse as a child. I heard from old school friends who were horrified they did not know. Teachers who wanted to know what signs they had missed. Other victimssurvivors, valiant warriors.  And Christians, so many, who urged me to keep going. To push strongly the importance of safe ministry, domestic violence and educating the clergy.images-1

I don’t know. I hit publish then crept away and vomited. I wasn’t strong. I’m wobbling along on Christian training-wheels here, let alone some domestic abuse specialist with insight into ministry.

The irony, only 48 hours ago, after battling with a sermon on using our spiritual gifts, I typed one of my usual, polite, requests for Christian guidance to the smart-alec pastor: ‘I honestly just bash my head on the keyboard and say to GJ&HS, much as I did at 3am that Easter Monday, “WHAT? What on earth did you chase me down for?’

I then (foolishly) added: ‘Will ask God to let me know clearly. And maybe to use some really distinct voice/accent.’

Well, less than 24 hours later, I heard lots of voices. Strongly. From all of you. How can I ignore voices such as these?

I’ve been involved in a fairly intense debate with a bunch of Sydney Anglican ministers (all men) on this very topic for the last few weeks. I’ve seen some commentary over the last few days acknowledging the issue and saying they need to do something about this, and that a woman should never stay in this kind of situation. They are a very influential voice in the life of this city and getting them on board is a worthwhile exercise, even though I’m sure there’s many who’ll choke on their coffee right now while reading your blog.”

From others, who acknowledged it was their pastor and their faith that got them out their situation, and gave them the strength to rebuild.

And others who had lost faith in the world and were desperately seek a rebuilding: “Phil, go tell those ministers this… God is love, forgiveness and peace. A true man loves his wife, children and life through and with God. Any man that abuses or violates another human being is lost from God and needs help. Women and mums stay hoping it will change or waiting for the best moment to get out. When we do get out, with our children with us, it takes a lot to rebuild faith and trust in humanity. Fixing this starts with listening, acknowledging and working with everyone…. We all suffer from the destruction of it and it needs to stop. As men leading churches… teach men what it takes to lead a family through leadership, personal responsibility, love, forgiveness and peace. Teach the women how to value themselves as the goddesses and glory that they are. We need honour back in common conversation, behaviour and action. Teach honour and model honour, love and respect in the churches and community at large and then we have a great place to start.”

Finally, sadly and scarily:

“I used to work for a church based counselling service and I ran groups for male perpetrators of domestic violence, kids who witnessed DV and I had behind the scenes involvement with groups for women who had experienced DV. Many counsellors can tell you stories their clients have shared with them of the subtle and overt pressure to endure whatever crap they were experiencing for the glory of Jesus. I’ve had clients who have made themselves very very sexually available to their husbands despite their own wishes because it was their ‘Christian duty’. Most counsellors who deal with Christians can name you men in leadership who are engaging in some form of abusive behaviour but the system is so supportive of them no one will speak up.”

I love my church. Its community has offered me renewal in times of trial. But the overall system of the ‘Bride of Christ’? I dare say it’s as packed full of politics as parliament. The response over the years to dealing with abuse has not been the bastion of truth, justice and mercy one would hope. So the light needs to shine. Light disinfects.

As a new Christian, I don’t want to have to defend my faith. I want to smile and uphold it for the source of joy it is. To say, “How awesome is it that faith and church helped a woman leave an abusive marriage?” rather than be caught in a war of doctrine around ‘submission’ ‘headship’ etc. I don’t want to watch a wave of stories come out about Christian leaders engaged in abusive behaviour that has been been covered up.

Clean out the dark corners. Be less parliament (pharasees anybody?) and more Jesus.

As the comments came in, I kept going back to one in particular: We need honour back in common conversation, behaviour and action. It was a familiar echo of something I had read before, I just couldn’t put my finger on it.

Ah, yes, that big book called The Bible.

  • Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things. (Philippians 4:8)
  • Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. (1 Peter 2:12)
  • They could find no corruption in him, because he was trustworthy and neither corrupt nor negligent. (Daniel 6:4)
  • In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven (Matthew 5:16).

Can someone in church hierarchy please stop for a moment and think: “Hang on, people are asking us to teach honour, and model honour, love and respect in our churches? Shouldn’t we be horrified that so many people believe that’s not actually the case?”

Church doctrine & domestic violence. Stop blaming. Start fixing.

41646jpgVeLBefore I turned fourteen years old, I had defended myself with a knife against a forty-something year-old male who liked to use his fists in places it didn’t show.

I had watched a tea-tray thrown from the top of a three-storey house because his cup was not placed on it – and it wasn’t a leap of my imagination to suppose he would push my mother out too.

I always, always invited people over to stay on the weekend. Because then, possibly, the man of the house, this second husband who professed love for my mother, would keep his societal mask in place and keep his fists off her.

One night I crept downstairs to see her crying in a chair. She said to me: “What will I do if he hits me again?” Again? My brain could not compute that she did not have an answer. All that I saw, every school anti-violence message, every teen-pop magazine I had read told me one thing: there is always an again. No matter the tears, the apologies. So the answer was quite clear: “We leave,” I told her.

Yet still it took months – I suspect now he had her financially isolated – and in the time between my articulating it and the reality of our departure, I lived in a ratcheting high tension.

My grabbing that kitchen knife was a turning point. Perhaps my mother saw murder in my eyes and finally, finally, saw the motivation for change. A 6′ 6” (198 cm) bully turning tail, scampering up the stairs, locking himself away in the bathroom, with me, far shorter, far lighter, in pursuit. After rattling the door knob for good measure, I went back down the stairs, calmly put the knife back in the knife block and walked to school. Shortly after my Mum and I moved in with friends.

All this whilst attending an prestigious private school, where no-one had a clue. He was a fine, upstanding Rotary club member, after all. We were acting out the perfect blended family.

I can’t speak for my mother. I have no idea why she stayed, and why I, the child, had to encourage her to leave. Why it took teenage fingers wrapped around a carving knife hilt to prompt action. What I know is this: as soon as people knew, we were helped and supported. Which is why the recent finger pointing at church institutions for ‘condoning’ domestic violence, for encouraging wives to stay with abusive husbands through some warped reading of ‘biblical headship’ has pressed a few of my buttons.

If a pastor has ever intimated you should stay, he is wrong. For anyone who points to ‘wives, submit to your husbands’ as a biblical directive to stay in an abusive marriage, please respond: ‘love your wife as Christ loved the church.’

All the pastors and Christians I have met in the past year would be helping you pack your bags and more. God certainly does not wish for you to stick it out. As  articulated in 2012 (bold type is mine):

“While the Bible calls upon the wife to submit it never calls upon the husband to subjugate or subdue his wife. It is never his prerogative or responsibility….All forms of coercion—physical, economic, social, psychological, spiritual—are inappropriate and wrong for a husband to use on his wife. Some, such as physical abuse, are criminal and should be dealt with by the courts. The Christian husband’s duty and solemn vow is to follow the example of his Lord and lay down his life for his bride. This will always put her interests before his own at whatever cost it is to him. This will mean never using or even threatening force. To subjugate his wife is a complete denial of what he promised.”

There is no reason to believe that the rate of family violence within Australian churches is any lower than in the general population. It is the leading cause of death and injury in women under 45. The Easter period last year marked the deaths of six women and children in a single week. One in three women is affected by family violence, one in four children, and one woman a week dies.

Please re-read my bold type above. Coercion rarely starts in the physical. It’s the wearing down – “you stupid cow, can’t you even sort the laundry properly?” – the gradual, dangerous dismantling of a woman’s sense of self-esteem. My step-father would be apoplectic over a coloured shirt in the white wash.

Physical violence is the escalation. Your husband or partner may never have raised his hand against you, but if you spend many hours of the day thinking about how he might possibly react to everything you do, second guessing how some of life’s simplest choices might upset the balance at home? Get help. Plus – as I chillingly read in another article on family violence – if you are reading this, recognise these signs and share a computer with your husband or partner: please delete your browsing history.

Abusers abuse. To blame it on Christian doctrine narrows the lens too dangerously. As does saying it could never happen in a church.

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, family or domestic violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000.

The SAP ain’t heavy. He’s my…oh, c’mon, really?

The Smart-Alec Pastor (SAP) has thrown a furfy into my creative mix. Remember the ‘Who shot JR?” cliff-hanger in Dallas? It’s kind of like that. I’m debating whether to write him out this blog script via some nefarious misdeed. Then I might have to deal with resurrecting the character, like Bobby Ewing stepping out the shower after it all being a dream.

LovepeopleWhat has he done to deserve such script-writing acrobatics? He and Mrs SAP have gone and prayed themselves into a new gig. Which is awesome and shows the brilliance of God at work. He will, I’m sure, based on my own brief experience, be an absolute blessing to his new congregation.

But, God, just to be a little bit selfish, I do have fun making up SAP adventures (or exaggerating them loosely on real-life examples). Whilst a part of me prays for ongoing SAP story lines, God’s bigger, insistent voice is saying, “Time to go it alone.”

Many times over the past nine months on my new Christian journey, I have asked: “God, Jesus, is this me? I am getting it? Or is the SAP just good at his job?” That’s the danger of new Christianity. You need to connect with God and Jesus and the Bible, not just the SAP delivering it. But you also need the training wheels that someone like the SAP provides to make sure you correctly connect with God, Jesus and the Bible.

Plus there’s the power of personality. The SAP is good at his job because of who he is: a supremely honest, Christian bloke who embraces the imperfection of life. I have wept at his kindness, laughed at his irreverence, and enjoyed a sense of humour that echoes my own.

How many pastors could you immortalise in a global blog under the nickname ‘smart alec’ and have him take it happily in his stride? Then somehow flipping it to laugh at me and teasing that it is my brand of evangelism? Or, better, dealing happily with my response when I told him to go himself and fornicate under carnal knowledge?

Based on all that, I figure he’ll be OK if I do decide to kill off the SAP. Just as he’s off on a new journey, I will be too. SAP training-wheel free. I have no idea what God has in store, but I do find it amazing that literally the week before the SAP made his new job announcement, God delivered two wise UHT Christians to me, both offering to be my mentors. Not one, but two.

I’ve also been introduced to a church looking to grow; the pastor is seeking help of a professional kind to market Christianity in this changing world. Plus, just quietly, I’ve had a hankering to do some distance education of the bible-study kind. But no rush. God’s got the reigns on this. I’ll just pray and step forward as He guides me.

So, in case I do decide to greatly exaggerate the rumours of the SAP’s demise, here’s my kind of epitaph to him:

Dear SAP,

Thank you. You, God and Jesus have all helped me become a better person. I know you will humbly respond that it is not necessarily in that order, but please accept the compliment gracefully.

Not only did you help me become a Christian, you also helped one of the most important people in my life join me along this road. Priceless.

Thank you for being there. For the random emails you would field as this writer processed whatever God and Jesus were pressing her to unpack. I am humbly cognisant that mine was not the only email, the only text message, the only Facebook message that your flock fired off. I only hope that my black humour kept you entertained rather than overwhelmed.

You have known when to push, when to shut up, when to compassionately hold the space, and when to congratulate me as I wobbled along on these Christian training wheels. You say that you always ask God to keep you out the way so He can do His work, but I suspect He tells you when to get in the way too. Thank you for listening to Him so well.

I pray your new congregation sees just how uniquely the spirit of God works in you. It’s not a typical brand of spirit. It’s rare, refined and aged nicely in whiskey barrels. Let’s hope there are not too many Puritans in your new parish.

Whilst writing this has required a tissue box, the awesomeness of what you and your family are about to do eclipses any tears of quiet sadness at your departure and turns them into joy.

There have been a few highpoints. Meeting G&J being major ones, obviously. Picking up the phone after Easter and being told you knew how this would end. Being hauled safely back up out the water during my Lipton-ing. And then, the other day, hearing you were grabbing this God-given opportunity to again lead a church.

But the biggest and best highpoint? Knowing that even if I do write the SAP out these blogs, I have the blessing of a SAF in real life. Stepping out from behind the keyboard now: I am honoured, blessed and grateful to have you as my smart-alec friend. I love how we can joke around, have fun and then have deep conversations without it getting weird at all.

So blessings on your new Godventure, SAF. You ain’t heavy, you’re my brother. And that’s about the shiniest Christian language you are ever going to see me use.

Hospitals For The Broken: Four Blessings

broken heartWhat I have learnt in the past six months is that churches are not filled with shiny, perfect people. They are hospitals for the broken. Recently was a crap Sunday. A culmination of four days that had left my heart and soul fractured. Living on a fault line, as Katy Perry sings in ‘Grace of God’.

So the perfect day to go to church. Yet also the worst. When you are fragile, exposing your fragility publicly is terrifying. Yet I needed the comfort of faith more than I needed my mask of normality, which is what I had plastered over the fault line to get me through the four days prior. My strength tank was dangerously dry. The bowser of the Bible had nurtured me. Yet even though I was comforted by faith, I sought the magnification that regular attendance at church delivers.

My God it was tough. On my own on the drive over, I just cried. Not sure I can do this  today. Not sure I’m going to be anything but a saline snot heap. Not sure I’m ready to crack that fault line. I sat in the car, parked outside church, wiping away tears, slugging back caffeine and praying for the game face that would get me in the door. Knowing it is a safe place to turn up to in a mess is very different to actually doing it.

Deep breath. Dark glasses. Open car door. Then, blessing one. Someone who was leaving after the earlier service, whom I have never met, was parked close by. He buzzed down his car window. Sent me a gentle smile. Introduced himself and hoped I had a good day. Insignificant in content, but significant to me. God’s gentle reminder of the comfort of His community.

I confess it didn’t bolster me so much that I marched in revived. I sort of slunk in, avoiding eye contact, and immediately revolved straight back out before I even made it to the name badge table.

Deep breaths. Back in. To blessing 2 – a jovial older member who has been supportive of me on this road. He stood talking and introduced me to someone whom I had not yet met, who kindly mentioned how lovely he had found my recent testimony. Which had me hiccuping, excusing myself and diving for the nearest ladies room. Where I replaced the prescription lenses in my sunnies for tissues.

Deep breath again. Exit the ladies room. Make it to the reception table. Where, of course, the senior pastor and connections pastor are standing, right in front of my name badge. FFS God, I’m not getting in under the radar here am I?

“Phil, how are you?” they enquired. Don’t know about you, but when I’m on an emotional fault line and someone asks me that question there’s only one result. Saline and snot. Time to be honest, or at best take refuge in flippancy. “Umm, I’m wearing my game face today,” I admitted from behind dark glasses.

Blessing 3, as the connections pastor takes the conversation to more neutral, less emotive territory: the books for sale, what had I read and what he wanted to read – which just happened to be over in a quieter corner. It felt like a kindly boarder collie gently shepherding me along. And there, right there, he picks up a book on a topic that pretty much covers everything I’ve been recently fractured by. Tears turn to somewhat hysterical laughter at God’s prodding. Let it all out, let Me, let My people help.

Well, obviously, I chose the back row at church. Where a fantastic older lady, for whom I have huge respect and admiration, asked if she could join me. I admitted I was slinking in with my game face on. “Me too,” she replied, as we both pulled tissues out our respective bags. She made me laugh as the Children’s Minister stood on stage announcing that there would be a water theme – complete with a water-filled, bursting balloon fight – as they discussed the birth of Jesus. Exploding membranes. Fluid. We caught each other’s eye like children misbehaving at the back of the school bus. “Probabably not the best imagery, water and birth,” she whispered.

Then God’s humour, His way of showing me that I was noticed – that WE were noticed in the back row. Of all the Sunday’s for the big screen church projector to fail. So everyone in the congregation turned around to face the back of the church to sing hymns from the smaller screen that was positioned directly above our heads. Everyone. Facing the back row. Yes, you are seen, yes, you are noticed, yes, you are loved.

And the finale? Over the days prior I had prayed, wished for a mother figure. Someone wise and maternal from whom I could draw wisdom. That, I admit, is my major hole. I did not have a typical maternal relationship with my own mother. Our roles had been reversed since I was quite young. I have always noticed that gap in my emotional responses, typically tending towards a more masculine ‘deal with it’ over feminine compassion. Not that those feelings are gender-dependent. Simply that I have always ‘dealt with it’ and too often forget that others require more support.

Seeking maternal wisdom is different to paternal. Or even using male and female peers as sounding boards. Blessing four: the lady who joined me in the back row delivered me gold. Gentle, wise-woman strategies to help navigate my confusion in a more compassionate, Christian-way. Along with the women’s minster she prayed and cracked open that fault line with sensitivity. Let in light and grace.

I went in broken and weak. When I came out I wasn’t shiny. Or new. But I was comforted, supported and strengthened for the next steps on the path.

I think of you through the watches of the night.
Because you are my help,
I sing in the shadow of your wings.
I cling to you; your right hand upholds me. 

Psalm 63:6-8

Sinning, again. And again. And again.

One of the biggest issues I had with Christianity was the whole ‘confess your sins, and all is forgiven’ angle. After all, if all sin is forgiven, why bother not sinning? Why make any effort to live a life that is kind or good?

Problem is, that’s not what Jesus taught. Nowhere did he say, “You can murder, covet and steal, just come back to me each Sabbath (which is a day of rest, by the way, so please don’t murder, covet and steal that day, thanks) and ask for my forgiveness. Then you can start sinning all over again on Monday.”

That’s what has become twisted out of misunderstanding, poor communication and an unwillingness for people to let go of their belief systems about what they ‘think’ they know. It’s comforting to be able to slap at something you don’t truly understand – and worse, spend no time trying to. The danger is non-Christians (NCs) end up spouting ill-informed nonsense whilst feeling falsely superior to those ‘unthinking Christian masses’ in need of a bit of ‘crowd control’ (borrowing a few stereotypes here).

When I look at some of the bigotry NCs shovel (using the definition of bigot as someone who is utterly intolerant of any differing creed, belief, or opinion), I realise true Christians don’t need crowd control. They need a bloody medal. Turn the other cheek? Far out! The SAP amazes me with his generosity. I reckon I’d have punched a few people by now.

For the past five months I have had the privilege to sit with, question, observe and listen to an amazing cross-section of Christians on their journey. For them, this is a life choice not an event. You see, in The Bible, Christians are specifically commanded not to sin even though they have been saved by the death of Jesus and by his grace: Romans 6-v15: What then? Shall we sin, because we are not under the law, but under grace? God forbid.

Not to sin? Whoa. That’s clearly very different to “keep sinning, over and over, and I’ll keep forgiving you.”

This isn’t something true Christians put on each Sunday when seeking forgiveness. It’s a 24-hour, seven-day a week thing. Unknown-1

To live a life not sinning probably strikes you as nigh near impossible. It did to me. Which brings me round to Jesus again (he pops up a lot). My very basic grasp of it is:

If you accept the grace of Jesus, then not sinning gets easier and easier. Because by accepting that grace you become more Jesus-like. And by becoming more Jesus-like, you are then less likely to miss the mark.

Christians work at not sinning, not because they are ‘fearful of some unseen power’ (as suggested recently) but because of the sheer joy they receive. This has been the biggest stereotype-buster for me. The joy. I don’t think the term ‘happy clappy’ is actually an insult to a Christian. I think it means they’ve connected the dots:

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Apostle Paul, Romans 8:38-39)

You don’t need to be Christian to choose to live a good life. You can be kind to others. Do the best that you can. It’s valid, it’s worthy, and, absolutely, far, far better than choosing to lie, kill, maim and steal.

Yet living that life doesn’t make you a Christian. Just like meditating every day, eating vegetarian, and not harming life doesn’t make you a Buddhist.  I slowly started to realise what the interviewer meant in that job interview about Christianity when he said, “But it’s the structure.” It takes some focus on the teachings of Jesus, prayer, a decent dig into The Bible, and getting out our own way.

We can be spectacularly bad at getting out of our own way. Change is often scary. But, mostly, I think too many of us are scared of the possibility of great joy. Which is what Christianity offers. Yet we are so trained for disappointment in this world, we shove it away. So it fascinated me, this joy. Because what I was observing was that Christian joy, unlike worldly happiness, flourished, even when the circumstances around it pointed to the contrary.

It’s a, it’s a, it’s a… it’s a sin

Disclaimer: This video was chosen ONLY because of the catchy tune and title for creative purposes. The use of this video and the subject of this blog should not be construed as any commentary on the sexual preferences of Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe. Or monks in chains. So no-one get your knickers in a twist.

That I have to write the disclaimer above shows just how explosive this small, three letter word is. In a second disclaimer, I’m wandering around the reservation on my own here. Possibly going off-piste. This blog is what I’ve pieced together since this began. I didn’t ask the SAP to do a sense-edit before I published because I wanted it to be a bit raw and messy. And to be as close as possible to how I – as a newbie – have uncovered it. All the errors here are my own.

Sin.

Straight away, all those notions of heinous wrong doings. I think this is why Christianity is so confronting because no-one likes to be told they are sinful, which is essentially what Jesus is recorded as saying in The Bible. I remember hearing it in church and immediately my back went up. “Here we go again,” I thought.

Fire and brimstone preaching and bible thumping has caused the church a serious image problem when it comes to sin. It either offends the non-Christians (NCs) (“I’m no rapist/murderer/thief” – insert your preferred style of sinner here) or causes Christians all sorts of comparison problems (“Well, I’m not as bad as her!”). It also contributes to why so many NCs think they are going to be judged by Christians and be found lacking.

I think most of us have got the idea of sin all wrong. 

Sin, as defined in the original translations of the Bible, means “to miss the mark.” The mark, in this case, is the standard of perfection established by God and evidenced by Jesus.

So, based on that, the ‘equation’ I came up with is:

I’m not God or Jesus. The only way to NOT miss the mark is to BE God or Jesus. I am patently neither. Then I have to conclude: I’m a sinner.

Say that line a few times. It gets easier. Imagine it’s like an AA meeting.

(Sorry, SAP, if you are now pulling out your remaining grey hairs. I’ll give you a blog post to set the record straight if required. A really small one. Like one of those ‘notices of retraction’ that no-one ever spots in the newspaper).

Now, get ready for the next twist.

No matter what we do, we’re still sinners. Whether you give to charity and go to church each Sunday, or whether you go out on a megalomanic serial killer spree. There is no difference.

Now all the NCs (and possibly Cs) are up in arms. “How dare you compare me to a serial killer?” you yell. Build a bridge and get over it with me. Because much as I hate it (ego, ego, ego), God doesn’t have a sin barometer. Sin just is. There’s no measurement of it. 

If this was a poker game, it’d be feeling like a pretty crap hand, wouldn’t it? Which is why I need to get to the Christian equivalent of a Royal Flush.

Jesus. The lightening rod. The uber-blog post. The central tenet of Christianity.

Distilled down, if you trust in Jesus then all your sin is taken away, all thanks to his crucifixion, resurrection and grace.

Mind-blowing. Rather than try to rationalise it (nigh on impossible) I had to surrender, run with it,  and see where it led. Because of that commitment I made at 3am to God, to step up to the plate and sort out my ‘baggage’ around Christianity. Otherwise I’d still be stuck unhelpfully stereotyping ‘religion’, ‘church’, and ‘sin’.

Rather than being a struggle, accepting the gift of forgiveness and grace is meant to be easy. But I had to put all that ‘Christianity’ baggage down first, so I could free my hands to grasp it.

“We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.” – Timothy Keller.

Pride (In the name of love) of Lions

Another hangover from ‘church’ and ‘religion’ was my (limited) exposure to churchgoers who struck me as, how can I put this politely? Well, not quite ‘present’. I can’t lay that all at the feet of the church though, as I’ve had plenty of exposure to new-age spiritualists who would spend so much time looking at and chatting with angels and spirit guides to the left and right of my aura, I’d constantly look over my shoulder to see who else was behind me when we had a conversation.

While it seemed quite appropriate for spiritualists to have their ‘head in the clouds’, when it came to Christians it made me think about cults. Blame Karl Marx. All that opiate for the masses stuff. Think of the stereotypes: if you’re sitting in a pew each Sunday, you’ve left your brain out in the glovebox of your car. If you’re a Christian, it’s like you’re believing in Santa and the Tooth Fairy.  But if you’re a wiccan, or enamoured with Gaia, that’s perfectly acceptable.

Thrown to the lions

I’ve noticed on this journey than non-believers seem to think it’s perfectly OK to challenge Christians on their ‘magical thinking’, yet the same amount of bias rarely appears to be thrown at believers in other faiths, be they historical or new. rc-camera-buggy-meets-a-pride-of-lions-008

Since setting off on this pursuit, I’ve had both funny and hurtful conversations. Been on the receiving end of 2UE style rants. Jawdropping, goldfish gasping silence when I casually mention I’m off to church. Surprised friends giving me books such as Dawkins’ ‘The God Delusion‘ – to try and balance my mind, perhaps? They would be apoplectic if I lent them The Bible. Why? Because if a Christian suggests someone read The Bible, the non-believer typically assumes the Christian sees them as somehow ‘less’. The immediate response is, “I don’t f-ing need saving.” I’ve done the same myself: “How dare you? I don’t need you to pray for me!” Yet meditating on and sending love & light to friends has been acceptable in the past. Figure that out…

Forget opiate for the masses. This is not a journey for the faint-hearted. Particularly at 40 (something) years of age! I’d quite enjoy a shot of something to take the edge off because, wow, Christianity digs into my pride. images-4Particularly given how much stock I have put into yoga and non-attachment over the years. I hadn’t packed that pride down quite as effectively as I liked to think! I know how things should be done, I can make my own decisions over what is right and wrong, and I can damn well do it on my own, thanks very much.

I did not want this. I did not seek it. Some of the time, I’ve been bloody annoyed about it. The SAP has been told to go himself and fornicate under carnal knowledge as I’ve pulled this apart. But I couldn’t ignore it.

I’d already read plenty of books against. But it makes me a pretty woeful journalist if I didn’t spend some time exploring the ‘for‘. I’d never bothered with the other side of the argument before, intellectually or emotionally. You reckon’ my aethist friends are surprised? How about me?! In the early weeks this agnostic veered between horrified and, well, more horrified.

As for pride? It came round and bit me. As one of the things I take the greatest pride in is being ruthlessly honest with myself. I have a near-sadistical bent for shining the light on my darkest corners.

Accepting does not mean abdication.

My brain is firmly engaged. Because to do this, really do this, means excavating pride. To turn the other cheek. To love. There are far, far easier choices I could make. Crucifixion, anybody?

So why keep going? Well, I like the person I’m evolving into. It may be mystical thinking to some. Yet I cannot deny the ease, joy and trust that has welled up. Do I find myself shaking my head? Each and every day. But more often now in amazement rather than disbelief. It’s precious and surprising.

For the lions, both gentle and rough, I’m not blogging to change minds. Nor am I blogging to convince anyone that this is a journey they ought to be on.

I started this because I communicate best when writing, and it gave me a spot to ponder and process. I share it publicly because if there’s one reader seeking something spiritual beyond Dan Murphy’s, and has failed to find solace in new age, I wanted to give an insight into a choice that, I now realise, has suffered from some woeful misconceptions.

Please notice the word choice. You may not seek solace, you may be just dandy with the selection at Dan’s. And that’s absolutely fine too.

Evangelical stereotyping is a blog post for another day 🙂

Getting to Church. Would my head spin?

One gothic friend used to say he could never go to church because his head would spin as soon as he walked through the doors – a poor reference to The Exorcist. I wasn’t quite at that point when I decided to visit the SAP ‘in-situ’, so to speak, but it wasn’t easy. Sneaking into a Christmas Eve midnight service and not making eye-contact with anyone was quite different to me turning up on any old Sunday, in broad daylight, without a religious festival day as an excuse.

I confess I even did a drive-by of the church before sending the email saying I may attend a service. I was also slightly comforted by an article on their website that made gentle recommendations on how to welcome new visitors.

The designated Sunday dawned bright and sunny. Major domestic that morning over everything and nothing. The appropriateness of trackie-daks as a clothing choice. Sunday best? Did I need to dash out to DJs for a fascinator? On the drive over, the bickering continued. “I can’t believe we’re bloody fighting on the way to church,” I ranted. Not a great start.

We arrive. Paste on smiles. Hold hands. Walk towards the doors. I now understand this is jokingly referred to in the trade as ‘the carpark conversion’. If we slap on a game face, then we may just ‘look’ faithful enough. Which isn’t the point at all, but I hadn’t learnt that then.

The Bolly-swigging PR stereotype I borrow when I can’t remember names.

In the doors. Name badges. Phew. I am spectacularly crap at remembering names so typically retreat to the PR stereotype and call everyone ‘lovey’, ‘gorgeous’ or ‘darling’ in order to hide it. But this wasn’t a room of media hacks, I wasn’t swanning around with a Bolly in my hand, and peppering strangers with endearments would have probably made me look like the wacky OTT evangelist. I have never been happier to see Avery labels and a Sharpie.

I liken our welcome that day to Goldilocks and baby bear’s porridge. Not too cold, not too hot, just right. Everyone was, well, normal. I remember feeling a little awkward when asked had we come from a different church, but no-one raised their eyebrows when we said we didn’t have one. Most importantly, no-one pressured us to come to this church when they discovered we were ‘church-less’. One member of the team did rush over with enthusiasm and I recall bracing myself, only to discover her passion was sharing where to find the barista coffee served after the service. Considering I believe instant coffee is the work of the devil, I appreciated the advice.

Growing up in England, my church exposure was all sandstone edifices and glorious stained-glass cathedrals. Hallowed halls. Pomp and circumstance organ music. Despite my lack of structured Christianity to date, I do love a good, rousing hymn. Dear Lord & Father of Mankind is a particular favourite. Attending my Mum’s weekly W.I. meetings as a kid where they belted out ‘Jerusalem‘ each week probably also played a part.

So the drums, guitars and electric piano didn’t quite fit my experience, but I figured if the church could modernise then so could I. The hymns may not have been the ones from my childhood but the essence was the same. Joy. Grace. Thankfulness.

The sermon that day focused on prayer and how, in times of persecution, prayer increased. I could identify – I’d had a bit of an ‘in case of emergency break glass’ relationship with God until then! The tone was intelligent, in-touch, blending teaching with humour and plenty of relevance to the real world. Without a dog collar or black dress in sight.

There was also a reminder that prayer ought to play a part of regular spiritual practise. As I have weeks when I’m one and zen with my yoga and meditation, and others when I’m hopeless, I understood the sentiment. Plus, as I’ve found over the past months, finding time to have a quick natter with God is often far easier than getting quiet time with my yoga mat.

Post-service coffee and chats were similarly unthreatening. Genuinely friendly people who wished us welcome and wanted to know a little about why we were there. My stereotypes were proving more and more insubstantial. Where was the prideful self-righteousness? I sadly realised that, for those traits, I needed only to take a hard, honest look in the mirror.

After the service, during the afternoon and well into the evening I experienced a sense of what I can only describe as quiet contentment. A peaceful sense of space that reminded me of yoga and meditation, yet with a far deeper sense of….what was it?

And then it struck me. Connection. A spiritual affinity that not even my beloved yoga delivered. Now I had to figure out if it was illusory, or something I could work with.