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.

If God was Bono…

I doubt God has bad days, given He’s who He is and can see that His plan is unfolding, even when I can’t. But let’s imagine, just for a moment, He does. When suddenly his patience snaps, He turns to Jesus and says, “I’ve had enough.” images-1

I can imagine Jesus looking somewhat taken aback. “You have? Are we going to have to talk to someone about an ark again? Or, do you mean Me? Countdown to Revelation?”

“No, not Revelation yet,” answers God. “But I’m getting a little impatient with how The Great Commission numbers are stacking up. So I’m borrowing an idea from that Bono fellow. Well, actually he got it from Me. I’m just taking it up a notch.”

Jesus by now is cottoning on. “Dad! Brilliant. So generous.”

God: “Well, if U2 can give away over 500 million copies of Songs Of Innocence in one day, just by dropping it into people’s iTunes accounts, I’m going to do the same with the Holy Spirit (HS) straight into people’s hearts. Got to move with the times. Will download HS from the cloud tomorrow.”

Jesus: “There’s going to be a lot of really surprised people. So You’re not going to worry about everyone having to say ‘the prayer’, ‘accepting me as Lord’ ‘letting Me into their life’ being ‘born again’ etc?

God shakes His head. He and Jesus understand that many are put off by the ‘shiny Christian language’ too often employed by church-goers.

“No need. You know what HS is like once He’s in there. It’s a complete system override. I know We told Matthew, Mark, Luke and John it was about one soul at a time, through You to Me, but I’ve a hankering to perform a serious miracle.”

Can you imagine?

Now some readers, like a few iTunes account holders when they got their new, free U2 album, may be imagining how horrified they’d feel over the invasion of privacy: “It’s MY heart!”

But, if for one day, God put aside His gift of free-will to us, and instead went into global HS download? The self-led, selfish aspects of our world would grind to a joyful halt. Dancing in the streets. Peace on earth. Goodwill to all humanity. We’d not be worried about it being our heart anymore. Hell, I doubt we’d be worrying about anything.

One year old & 10,000 readers. Dear God, how did that happen?

oneweekinaugust.com is celebrating over 10,000 readers. Had you asked me 18 months ago if I could imagine myself writing this sort of blog, with a Bible app on my phone, an aural affection for the Pandora ‘Songs of Worship’ channel, that I would have been Lipton’d and be working with a global charity broadcasting the gospel to a few billion people in the hardest-to-reach parts of the world? I’d have checked if the person you knew was the same one whose mind and body I inhabit.tumblr_l2ez3gGb1O1qzoozmo1_500

Scarily reminiscent of Matthew 16:25: For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.…

As my recent run in with the horned mother trucker tested, this blog is not an ego-feeder of readership numbers, shares and likes. It isn’t. Honestly. And yet..

When Jesus told them the Great Commission, his first century disciples didn’t have the benefit of digital media, social sharing and blogging immediacy. When the resurrected Jesus called his followers to baptise all nations in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, there was no internet. No bible colleges and theology degrees. Simply Jesus’ disciples, blessed with the holy spirit, getting out there on foot and letting as many as possible know.

Today it’s all shifted. Ministering and disciple-making is seen as the domain of those who have studied up – with the correct certificate hanging on the wall, and the right stole and cassock hanging in the wardrobe. Which I wasn’t aware of when I started this blog. Too new, too fresh and too oblivious to ‘right’ procedure. Back then, surprised by G, J and the SAP (smart alec pastor), I simply wrote what I observed during my slightly madcap Christian journey. It kicked-off partly as a way to process, partly as a means to ‘come out’ to my atheist friends. But it has grown…into I’m not sure what.

A kind reader sent me am encouraging note after my mother trucker blog: I think anyone who sticks their head up in the trenches like you do, will get shot at by the Evil One.. no surprises. The surprise is the WAY he does it..the bullets he uses, tailored to impact just you. It’s happened to any of us who use our gifts to further the Kingdom.

Me, upon reading that comment, in no particular order:

  • I’m not sticking my head up, I’m hiding behind a keyboard here aren’t I?
  • Further the Kingdom? Dear Lord, I hope you’ve got some seriously good roadsigns up for people. I do head off-piste…sorry..

Yet, I can’t ignore the numbers. It must make enough pithy sense for people to be engaged. So, completely accidentally, this has become a ‘baptism by blogging’. Digitally dunking as many readers as possible into a river of words, thoughts and my take on modern-day discipleship.

Discipleship – Then and Now

Refer to disciples, and thoughts turn to those early followers of Christ. Praying, worshipping, loving, giving, and evangelising men and women who refused to keep the truth of the gospel to themselves. Yet, God still desires disciples today—ordinary people to give up themselves so God can use them to do extraordinary things. …whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.…

Trouble is, that’s all a bit radical to many in the modern day church. But for the early believers, that was normal. It was what you did once you had hung around with a grace-filled, other-focused man who taught a radical new way to live, performed miracles, was persecuted,  crucified and CAME BACK TO LIFE.

Read those four words in capitals again. Imagine it in the modern day. Wouldn’t that sort of encounter shake you up? Rock your world? Make you want to get out there and yell, “OMG, you should meet this bloke!”

To those early believers, it was normal Christianity. And these men and women—empowered and motivated by the Holy Spirit—turned their world upside down for the sake of Christ. In short, they were true disciples. They followed. They believed.

I’m a fairly dodgy disciple. I fail daily at being Christ-like and other focused. I imagine him peeking out at me from behind his fingers, shaking his head, looking to his left and saying, “Dad, she really didn’t just say that, did she..? Oh..yes, yes she did… Hang on, I’ve got it.” And he leans forward and whispers grace in my ear.

It is those odd whispers that form these blogs. I have to write to pick over the raw gems that God shoves at me. Mostly, it’s an almost physical compulsion to have another go at explaining what too much church and too much religion has lost in translation. My way of gently unpacking the joy that I never expected, the awe that keeps me thankful, and the fun and humour I have in a relationship with G&J.

I don’t think I’ll ever be the “OMG, you should meet this bloke!” yelling type. Instead, I prefer to think of these blog posts as a modern take on 18th century calling cards. A basis of forging an introduction.

Bless you for reading and sharing.

Bile and Bibles: turning the other cheek for my duct tape.

I have a interesting relationship with the Bible. By interesting I mean aggravating. It mostly comes from my own inability to devour it in a day and tick it off the list (have I mentioned the virtue of patience is one I am not especially blessed with?) So at the start of this journey I would happily read anything else related to Christian research in a vain attempt to somehow circumvent the need.

Part of the frustration stemmed from my being a speed reader blessed with ease of comprehension. The gift means I can gobble up most books and analyse their contents at speed. The Bible, however, is another matter. It defies devouring. A passage you read one day can impact only slightly, whilst a month later it smacks you around the back of the head with blinding insight.polls_duct_tape_3113_370440_poll

Yet I have had to get to grips because the Bible turns out to be a rather useful ‘back-stop’. The catcher. For those days when I wonder if the shoving in my head is God or simply my over-active imagination. As my footsteps grow stronger on this faith walk, I’ve developed relationship and faith enough to sense the difference – but on the days when my God-frequency goes on the fritz, or I suffer from personal maudlin terror (PMT), and I can do little but mutter the Lord’s Prayer in a slanging sort of way, throwing open the Bible and seeing what my eyes are drawn to helps.

I ought to write to the developers of The Bible app with a suggested upgrade: shake device to shuffle random Bible verses.

I do take a slightly more methodical approach to scripture than ‘flip n flurry’ – I could not make head or tail of this past year if I didn’t. This is where the internet is both curse and blessing. Blessing because technology has delivered Bible apps with beautifully-voiced narrators that make listening to it a joy. Curse because it’s way too easy to type into Reverend Google: ‘Bible verse about xyz’ and get a fast answer. Read all the Bible? Between google and my eidetic memory for snippets, it’s tempting to skim.

Pass the duct tape

Yet skimming for sound-bytes gives rise to much that is lost in translation when it comes to G&J today. Clobber verses taken out of context are not useful. Like recently, when an atheist reader of an earlier blog suggested I keep my female faith opinions to myself. He posted to me thisUnknown image of a bound and gagged woman, referring to a scriptural passage about women needing to be quiet.

Thank you. Let me turn the other cheek so you may stretch that duct tape across my mouth more easily.

1 Timothy 2:11-12 is a useful clobber verse for anyone who wants to punch Christianity for being behind the times on gender equality. Yet with a better reading of The Bible, and perhaps accompanying it with something like John Dickson’s Hearing Her Voice, my critic may have recognised the difference between apostolic teaching from the early church and today, given apostolic teaching has been preserved in the canon of New Testament scripture. So Dickson writes that while the first generation of Christian women were prohibited from laying down foundational, apostolic teaching which would become doctrine, tradition, and, finally, scripture,  once this doctrine had been preserved in Scripture, women may teach it.

Dickson also quotes a Bible verse where Paul does not specify gender, a verse that shows that the opportunity to minister in the Corinthian church was open to whomever was gifted. “When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson [or teaching: didachē], a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation” (1 Corinthians 14:26

Seems I can ignore the duct tape for another day. And keep on digging into that pesky, Holy text.

It Takes All Types…. To Be In A Book.

I need your help to write a book. If you’ve read these posts for any amount of time, you hopefully understand that whilst I take G&J seriously, I rarely take myself seriously. Life is too full of joy, daftness, fools and jesters for me to take myself seriously. But there are days imageswhen I get a little self-intense. Oddly, those days seem to happen within a tight window once a month. Let’s call them Personal Maudlin Terror days. Often relieved by chocolate and soy milk (think plant oestrogen, lads).

So, in between soy lattes yesterday, I dipped into personal maudlin terror. And had what only can be described as a Holy F%$& moment. 2 Corinthians 11-19 had risen up and slapped me about the head. Putting up with fools gladly because I am wise? Well, I’m either not wise or my definition of gladly is very different to St Paul’s.

Despite knowing fantastic grace, I hit the skids of, “Well, if you’re not suffering this particular fool gladly, Phil, then what hope have you got? Seriously, who are you to think you’ve any chance of being all kind, giving and Christian if you can’t even get to grips with someone whom you feel ready to batter with a tyre-iron?”

(I don’t often have such homicidal urges, BTW. Just between soy lattes on certain days in the month).

As I reached into my wardrobe to don sackcloth and ashes, the oestrogen fog lifted. God’s yellow post it note of grace floated down.

It takes all types. Retired teachers. Recovering gambling addicts. Dieticians. Make-up artists. Economists. Psychologists. Business consultants. Mouthy, cheeky communication consultants. The woman in front of me in the supermarket who had bought one of those motivational ‘rules’ signs for her home because it included ‘Say Your Prayers’. Smart-alecs who become pastors.

Removing the tyre-iron from my fist and brushing the ashes off my forehead the SAP reminded me, “I’m a pastor, Phil. If that doesn’t give everyone hope, nothing will.”

It takes all types. To bring heaven on earth. To walk as a Christian. I’ve met many this past year and their stories range from the everyday to the astounding. People who grew up in Christian homes and can imagine nothing but the peace and joy they draw from it. Others who rebelled against the same Christian upbringing only to return to the fold after looking for love and failing to find it in dodgy, dubious places.

And because I am a writer, editor, story teller, I want more. All the types. All the stories. I’d like to share them here, but I’d also like to put them into a book. Because I’m sure there are plenty of others (male or female) who have PMT days and need a little inspiration.

So will you help? I’d like to interview you about why you are a Christian today and how you got here. The interviews will be conducted via email and possibly phone. Your story needn’t be extreme, like how God reached down and stopped you from suicide. You may just have heard ‘Amazing Grace’, found yourself in tears and never looked back. You may have failed a job interview and had a Bible fall at your feet. If you prefer anonymity, names can be changed.

It takes all types. Strikes me as a pretty good title for a book.

To express interest in participating, please use the form below or click here. Please share the project, too, the more stories the better!

Jesus. It’s Groundhog Day.

Human nature likes discovering ‘the catch’. Cynically uncovering the trap, revealing why something is really too good to be true, sets us up a smart thinkers. “You can’t pull the wool over my eyes,” we tell ourselves smugly.

Take unrelenting love and amazing grace. “It’s yours,” says Jesus. “I’ve done all the hard yards. Taken on your sin. Now accept my gift. You get to enjoy an unconditional relationship with my Father, who loves you above all else.”$T2eC16NHJIQFHHZvWbECBSW5kzdrL!~~60_35

What, just like that? There’s no hidden exorbitant interest rate hike if I miss a repayment?  Won’t the divine credit collection agency be chasing me with red-lettered demands? I can’t even be a day late paying the electricity bill before computer-generated letters are fired off accusing me of financial mismanagement, of being some worthless layabout who can’t meet monetary obligations. And that’s for an electricity service. How much more then for eternal life?

C’mon, seriously. What’s the catch?

That’s the problem. There isn’t one. After a few months of blogging, I’ve decided that J&G should possibly have made it a lot harder because, quite frankly, there’s only so many times I can write about loophole-free unconditional love and grace. Only the other Sunday I listened to a sermon on how we can be confident in our relationship with God. “Ooh, why?” I wondered excitedly, poised and ready for fresh insight. It says a lot about the perversity of human nature when, on hearing the answer (Jesus, the cross, in case you’ve missed it so far) I thawned (definition below), “Oh, are we covering this again?”

KISS and Tell

Keep It Simple Sinners, then tell everyone.  That’s the good news and evangelism in a nutshell. You’re flawed and may struggle making eye contact in the mirror, but God loves you just as you are, Jesus died so you can have eternal life in heaven, now enjoy how awesome that is, be brave (which is another blog) and let everyone else know.

The End.

(Thawned = a thought yawn; when you are expecting an answer of great mental significance only to realise you have heard the answer before. Often accompanied by Flair-Wick, where you make up different answers in an attempt to make it new and fresh in your brain. G&J Flair-Wick should only be attempted under the supervision of a qualified SAP, to avoid runs off-piste).

Moth diving towards the light

Today is messy. I don’t know if it’s due to Easter, or I’m tired of polishing words for clients, but I want to write without censor. Just to see what happens when I sit and simply let it flow out my fingertips.

the-moth-radio-head-elisa-006I just arrived home from the Easter assembly at school. Where I had volunteered to be a team leader on stage as part of Mission Week. Based on the theme of Jesus being the light of the world, we played a game. My team were moths. The lights went down. And when the house lights came back up we had to do what good moths do when they see the light. Forward, back, messily banging wings and being hit off course. Yet, still, wanting to go towards the light.

There were two other teams. Cockroaches and plants. This is a junior school. So the metaphors couldn’t be too nuanced. Plants grow in the light. Cockroaches scurry to the dark. Moths bounce around trying to get to the light. The takeaway: how do you want your relationship with Jesus and God (the light) to be?

The school minister encouraged us all to be plants. The principal thanked me for my participation. And as I looked over at the (winning) plant team I thought, “wish I’d been a plant…”

Yet, back home, in front of the keyboard, when I really ought to be writing a million other words for a client website, all I can think about is moths. Fine, delicate, powder-coated insubstantial wings. Drawn towards a light that confuses them. I see so much of my Christian journey in that imagery.

Once, very, very early on, my witticisms about The Life Of Brian in an email prompted the SAP to suggest meeting up for a chat over coffee (well, chai for him). I suppose when you are faced with a seeker using Monty Python as a yardstick for getting to know Jesus, a good pastor recognises the value of early intervention. For me it was a moth day.

There we sat in a busy cafe, with the SAP using language rich with God, Bible and Jesus. Back then was the first time I had ever properly sat down with a ‘qualified’ Christian and had an adult conversation.

Here’s what I thought as I listened and internally moth-dived: Man, he’s really into this. Not sure I’d ever be that keen. Then, looking around at all the tables close by: And he doesn’t care if anyone hears (which left me feeling both impressed and with edgy images of cafe patrons with pitchforks).

I had possibly attended church twice by then and mentioned the recent sermon about Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. The SAP commented what it must have felt like for Paul and receiving that astounding level of love, grace and forgiveness.

Then, in his describing of it, and which will now always be one of my ‘burnt on the retina’ memories, the SAP’s eyes welled with tears. And there it was. My first, tiniest glimpse into the joy that Christianity has since delivered. I may not have been able to name it then, but it was the initial synapse flare that shoved into my heart: That, I thought. That’s what I’ve been seeking.

The light. Despite my envy of the plant team earlier today, moth-diving crazily into it seems to have worked for me. With the realisation that whether plant, moth or cockroach, it’s always there. Sometimes you just need a glimpse.

Even when it’s in a crowded cafe. From a SAP.