What’s different about Matt?

In the early hours of this morning, a wonderful young man got to go hang out with Jesus and have God wipe away any tears. The resurrection body I believe he now walks in will be healed. He will no longer need the cane/walker/wheelchair/reclined bed that became his progressive modes of transport as the brain tumours that robbed him of his faculties grew. He will be able to see clearly again. Walk straight and tall. I have no doubt he will be dancing with joy in front of the Lord Jesus. IMG_6383

Matt battled brain cancer for over a decade. The man who first bounded up to me close to three years ago, after I shared in church how I’d recently become a Christian and been Lipton’d in a river, was exuberant and without filters – something I adored because I love a lot of joy, a lot of laughter and a lot of cheekiness.

I did not know him before – before the myriad of brain operations and medications that not only removed tumours and surrounding brain tissues but, along with those, the neural pathways that wire our social inhibitions.

Yet the Matt I knew was likely different to the Matt his parents, siblings, wife and children knew. That takes some getting used to, don’t you think? Watching your loved one’s character shift and change as an insidious sickness slips through their brain.

Best of all, Matt was head over heels with the Jesus fella. Which made watching him face the end of his life – as the Doctors told him there was no further operation, no further drug that would stop these damned tumours doing their worst – truly amazing.

“I’m Ok,” he’d tell us all. “I’m going to heaven to meet Jesus. I just want you all to make sure my wife and two boys are well cared for, and for my boys to get to know and love the Lord Jesus like I do.”

There was something different about Matt. It may have been the removal of those neurons that wire us to worry about what people may think or feel – but I believe it was his whole-hearted embracing of his identity in Jesus.

I recall taking him out to lunch, and those impatient synapses couldn’t order food quick enough, have a glass of coke placed in front of him fast enough. I felt oddly protective – don’t you dare judge this man by how impatient he appears – but, more, it was a gift to sit with someone who damn well knew that time was short, and he no longer wanted to play along with the illusion. I loved the crisp, clean intensity he brought to it.

There was something different about Matt. Every nurse, doctor, patient – anyone  he’d have encountered – would have experienced it. The pure peace with which he talked about the end of his life. It wasn’t the scoffing, bluster of,  ‘oh, when it’s your time, it’s your time’ that dismisses the pain. Nor was it full of fear.  It was peaceful. Beautiful. Matt walked into the very promise that Jesus offers all who believe in him: you will have eternal life. I will draw you in, hold you close, overcome all death and suffering. For my yoke is light.

“I wonder what it will be like?” he asked me one day over coffee. I’d taken him out after church – he’d been too tired to attend – and shared we’d sung I Can Only Imagine – a hymn that asks precisely that question: when we meet Jesus what will it be like? Will we fall to our knees and pray? Will we dance? Sing Hallelujah? Will we be able to speak at all?

“I love that hymn!’ he exclaimed, starting to hum the tune. It will be my enduring memory, sitting in a crowded cafe over Sunday lunch, the pair of us belting out the hymn at the top of our voices in a crazy cappuccino chorus. The look on the face of the bloke at the next table? Priceless.

“I don’t know what death will be like,” he said. “Maybe I’ll just go ZAP, fall asleep, switch off? Like a computer?” I remember replying totally inappropriately, knowing his lack of filters would welcome mine: “Well, can you not do it here with me, in this coffee shop? Or if you do…can we maybe pray for some warning? So I can at least try to get you up and out, at least off the premises? Less paperwork for these poor cafe owners…”

He grinned mightily at me before suggesting another hymn to sing.

There was something different about Matt. He remained other-focused. “Are you still studying at bible college?” he would demand of me. “How are the kids? What’s Big T up to?” It doesn’t automatically assume that all Christians are other-focused (Dear God,  I know I forget so often!) but it’s testament to how much Matt sought to walk like Jesus that even in the midst of the most sorrowful time of illness (for goodness sake, you’re DYING, Matt, who gives a flying fig about my bible study?!?) he wanted to know.

Sidenote: Truthfully, if I was studying knitting, or the migratory habits of the lesser spotted dung beetle, I think Matt would have been less concerned. He was always all about Jesus. Bible college beats dung beetles, after all.

But my best memory of Matt? Just a few weeks ago. Delivered to church in his reclining bed on wheels, he was there to worship, listen to God’s Word, be around his family in Christ. I looked over and saw my smart, thinking, questioning 12 year-old son, who has had plenty of “WHAT THE?” moments over our family going to church.

He was standing next to Matt, holding his hand, poised on that edge of awkwardness where only young adolescents can wobble. I wandered slowly over. I didn’t wish to intrude, but dealing with incurable sickness is hard for all of us, and I wanted to help my son navigate the waters should he need. Matt was holding onto his hand and I could sense Seb’s social uncertainty: ‘Do I just take my hand away? How long ought I stand here for?’

Seb wasn’t aware that Matt likely didn’t even register he was still holding onto his hand. He just didn’t know what to do. He looked up at me with a faint question in his eyes, and I whispered, “You can take your hand away if you want to.”

Seb tugged his hand away and on the return journey back to his side, squeezed Matt on the shoulder. “I’ll see you soon,” he said. “See you soon too, buddy,” Matt replied. It emerged that Seb had turned up at Matt’s side, unprompted, asking how he was. And I cry as I type this because I know – I know – how rare that other-focus can be in one so young. Heck, even in one so old (like me!) But it was a beautiful, poignant moment that encapsulated how church works. How Jesus works. When one hurts, you all hurt. When we hurt, Jesus hurts. Matt delivered my son a wonderful opportunity to lean into the unknown with love.

Last night Seb and I spoke about God, suffering, pain, hope, the promises of Jesus and Matt. This evening, hearing the news of Matt’s passing, he cried. Yet, at 12, he can see there was something different about Matt when it came to pain and death, and the eternal comfort and hope he had in Jesus.

And for that I will always be grateful.

Rest In Peace, Matty. You sowed so many seeds when you were here. Good, faithful and cheeky servant, I look forward to seeing you again. Enjoy singing your hymns and getting your groove on in heaven.

Amen.

Spray on Jesus. Don’t sweat, he won’t let you down.

The irony is not lost that this journalist turned PR chick who has rolled her eyes plenty over shiny-suited TV evangelists is currently undertaking a bible college subject on evangelism. I always used to say BC that G&J needed a PR team. Then they shove me onto the training program. Serves me right.

I feel I have arrived at a personal sweet spot: develop a PR campaign for all of G&J’s ideal customers, figure out the tactics to engage them, and then pray it goes viral.

A few pastors may clutch their breasts at this. Before I started the course, one admonished me: “Don’t go in there and refer to evangelism in marketing terms!” No smart-alec stripes on that pastor.

The SAP, however, retains his. When I admitted I’d lasted until 0930 on day 2 before the F-bomb slipped past my lips, he replied, “That’s better than I anticipated.” The HS wasn’t sufficiently awake at 0930 to press the bleep button. Sorry cohort.

For the first couple of days we’ve been looking at cultural texts, biblical narratives on those texts, and the opportunity to look at them through the G&J lens. So, for example, what movies, books, adverts etc. can we spot that allow us to insert a biblical perspective?

I’m enough of a cynic – and way too long a journalist, PR person and newspaper headline writer – to know I can massage a message out of anything. Play me this Lynx ‘Soulmates‘ advert and I’ll package up some ‘spray on Jesus, don’t get left on your own, find your true soulmate’ evangelism before you can say chlorofluorocarbons.

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After all, Lynx won’t save you and give you an eternal loving relationship, but Jesus will. See in the video advert how the guy unceasingly tried to get the girl across age after historical age? That’s exactly the lengths God goes to for us!

These aren’t bad evangelistic ‘hooks’. Any pastor who has hunted for an exegesis application (fancy words for ‘how to apply this bit of scripture to modern life’) to portray a sermon’s Big Idea will understand the importance of scene setting so the audience understands context.  My problem is, I like to be wooed. Some of it seems to be a bit, well, obvious. It makes me squirm.

The non Christians (NCs) I hang out with would roll their eyes if I tried this approach. It absolutely has it place (winsomely, not smacking people around the back of the head as clunkily as my puns) in that the message of Jesus is simple. But there’s no need to introduce Jesus to intelligent people as if they’re simpletons.

This has caused me to put my own evangelisation under the microscope. The SAP didn’t need a ‘hook’ to introduce Jesus given I was the one calling the church. Looking back, I may as well have said, “book me an altar call* now, buddy,” but the SAP insists: “I didn’t think I had a chance getting you over the line – but I looked at the evidence and figured God knew what He was up to.”

That’s the gold, isn’t it? God places eternity on all our hearts. He really does all the work. Which takes the pressure off us poor broken vessels whom He calls according to His purpose to help out.

So – please Lord – lead me not into the temptation to use groan-worthy puns and crowbars to connect the dots to the Jesus fella. After all, You know I could spin a message out of, well, almost anything.

Feel like your life’s a car wreck? Lucky you’re with Jesus. You think your premium’s high? Look what God paid. (AAMI stands for Angels Are Major Influencers).

Worried you’re not good enough? Jesus isn’t John West, he won’t throw you back once you’re in his net. Or maybe that’s more a Rexona angle. Don’t sweat,  Jesus won’t let you down.

You see, Lord? I could go on all day. Please help me stop.

That winsome evangelist Sam Chan does it far better than I over on Espresso Theology, if you fancy checking out some examples. He is not led into journalistic, shallow, PR-tempted puns as I am. 

By the way, winsome is my new favourite adjective. My research shows it is used a great deal in regards to evangelism. The previous time I came across it was in a Jane Austen novel, which now makes me think I ought to be evangelising in sprigged muslin dresses and bonnets.

*altar call – church terminology for asking someone to step up to the plate and get to know the Jesus fella.

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.

The testimony blooper reel

I love the bloopers at the end of shows. I think it started as a child watching Smokey and the Bandit movies. I loved how I could move from pure fiction to authentic reality. There was also a massive lesson about failing fast and failing with fun. All these people getting it wrong, stuffing up lines, enjoying it, trying again and succeeding. d5e933bd4c28f20cd1ac927e8a14a7cf38935364324fa876f2d56730d5a0e7a6.jpg

Upon reflection, my getting up on stage to give my testimony almost two years ago was a fairly interesting exercise on the SAP’s part. He’d observed me pinging around like meerkat on speed as I wrestled and questioned with God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. And whilst he knew I was more than solid with what GJ&HS had delivered – I’d not have been lipton’d otherwise – he’d also had plenty of insight into my, um, somewhat colourful communication methods.

I wonder if pastors ever have a moment when they wish for the same nine-second delay button that allows live broadcasters to dump any content that’s off-piste before it goes out to air?

After all, live testimony is a fairly public litmus test of a pastor’s efforts in the soul-saving funnel. Yes, yes, I know, God is sovereign, it’s not really the pastor’s fault if someone doesn’t get it 100%….but, still, you’ve surely got to feel a bit of the pressure.

Something has prompted the newbie to come to (or call) the church, they’ve asked lots of questions, likely attended the gospel 101, Christianity Explored course, totally gotten with the program that Jesus’ grace is an underserved gift and are ready to publicly give testimony. But imagine if something has been lost in translation, and, up on stage, there’s some major faux-pas.

Like the live testimony where the person expressed hope they had done enough.

Whoops. I imagine it caused the pastor a mental forehead-slap, a quick grab of the microphone and a, “Ahem, right, well, actually, before you continue let me quickly open up to Ephesians 2:9.”

Testimony is a funny thing. There are the big, headliner, “Jesus turned my life around saved me from drugs/drink/prostitution” testimonies. Or the no less headlining, but somehow less attention-getting, “I grew up in a Christian home, with happy parents, their solid marriage and embrace Jesus as my saviour because I have seen so much joy in him throughout my life why on earth would I put anything else above him?”

Why don’t churches do more ‘where are they now?’ testimonies and report on some follow up stories? I think many congregants would be greatly encouraged by how and where the newbies are growing in their faith. It would also spread some colour and awareness of how gloriously different everyone’s faith walk can be. Hints and tips could be shared. Honest bloopers too.

Imagine sharing all those lessons about failing fast and failing with fun. Grabbing grace. All these people getting it wrong, stuffing up lines, enjoying it, and trying again through faith. Real life, real church.

Bleepin’ awesome.

 

Like a prayer. Jesus as sex therapist.

Sex is – when done well, with a caring, respectful partner – awesome. Releases endorphins. An orgasm is (in my humble opinion as I can’t speak for a man’s orgasm, not being a bloke) a total mind, body, emotional reset.

Also, a couple’s orgasm is far more satisfying than a DIY solo orgasm. There’s just something about the whole skin-on-skin, intimacy, ‘hey, we’ve both just blown the tops of our skulls off (ahem) together.’ When you’re intimate and comfortable with your partner, you laugh, roll around on the sheets – or across the kitchen counter, whatever takes your fancy – and put some effort into ensuring sex is bloody great fun.

Yes, I’m still a Christian. I’m not subbing for Harlequin/ Mills and Boon romance writing/light erotica. Because guess what, Christians have sex. And hopefully lots of it. Within their covenant of marriage. 12342347_10153357289097689_5032277087355300038_n

Bolting on our newish arrival at Christianity to a ten year marriage – and 20 year relationship – has taken some effort for Big T and I. What God desires for us both within our marriage is fairly different to what we had arrived at under our own steam. Thankfully, God has no desire for me to batten down my own desires, wear chastity belts, ankle-skimming skirts and keep my head bowed modestly.

Yes He loves me, this I know, because He gave me the Song of Solomon sealed section of the Bible as the place to go.

Shall I tell you the secret to a cracker of a Christian sex life? 

Prayer (and stop your jokes about Madonna songs).

I’m 100% serious. His ‘n’ Her Prayer. When I shared this little gem with the SAP he spluttered somewhat. “Phil, in all my years of pastoring, I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone tell me they use prayer as foreplay.”

But think about it. What’s the biggest frustration women have with their men? Here’s a typical sample:

  • “I don’t know what he’s thinking.”
  • “We don’t talk enough.”
  • “He doesn’t understand me.”
  • “I tell him what I want, but I think it goes in one ear and out the other.”

In defence of all the husbands, women too often say one thing and mean something else. Which is a minefield for a man who simply says what he means. But this communication breakdown has an awful impact on a healthy sex life, purely because women’s desires are linked with their brain whilst men’s are linked a lot lower.

Big T could have had the most hideous day on earth, come in the house, trip over a pile of laundry and smell burnt dinner, but if I sashayed out the bedroom in my dodgiest ugg boots and tattiest dressing gown, crooked my finger and said something about no clothes underneath, he’d be, well, up for it.

But us women? Wired differently. Foreplay starts the moment we open our eyes in the morning. It’s all in how our brains and minds are engaged. In the scenario above, unfair as it reads, if I come home after a terrible day to a great dinner, laundry packed away, with Big T freshly-shaved and smelling yummy? His odds of come hither, finger-crooking success are greatly increased. Terribly unfair. Blame that serpent. Prior to that I bet Adam and Eve were at it like…well…

So this is where His ‘n’ Her prayer is fabulous because it connects you. Each night I am able to have an intimate, articulate peak inside my husband’s mind. When we pray together, as Big T is being open with God, he is being open with me. I know what he is thinking. The reverse is true.

Regardless of good day, bad day, folded laundry or burnt dinner, it all gets poured out and handed over to God. The clear, undistracted mind I need to really focus on my husband and my sexual response? Delivered. As we pray together with God, we open up more intimacy with each other. The fact that we’ve not had a chance to communicate between home, activities, dinner, kids’ bedtime, homework, late-work, who took the bins out – becomes less of a thing. Prayer as the deliverer of intimacy. Foreplay.

Plus (and I hope I’m not too off piste here), I really get off on the idea as sex as worship. If God designed man and women to be together, and He sees a Christian couple growing closer towards each other and Him as part of their married, healthy sex life, I’d say He’d be jolly pleased.

By the way, this doesn’t occur every time Big T and I pray together. But His ‘n’ Her prayer does appear to increase the likelihood of it happening.

So if you ever ask what I did last night and I tell you I spent an enjoyable time in prayer and worship with my husband? I’ll be telling the truth.

Note: Someone told me today there are historical peaks in babies being born nine months after revivals. So I think I’m onto something…

God’s blowtorches & blessings

It never ceases to amaze me that people manage to sell (and get sold on) the prosperity gospel. God may refer to pouring out His blessings, Jesus mentions how the Father clothes the birds and flowers, so how much more will He will do for us etc. but there’s nowhere in the Bible about life being easy, rolling around on piles of dollars, strewn on satin sheets, all because God desperately loves us so much He wants us to be uber-wealthy.

Prosperity gospel reminds me of law of attraction /universal manifestation teachings. Whereby the believer is told to use God/ the universe as a power to achieve whatever the believer wills. Thought creates. Think a million dollars strongly enough and it will appear in your life. 122408_Blowtorch_448x336

Whilst the truth of biblical Christianity is just the opposite: God uses me, the believer, not the other way round. Rather than the Holy Spirit (HS) being my magical manifestation magnet, instead the HS resides within to help me do God’s will. Because, heaven knows, I’d be up the proverbial creek without a paddle trying to carry out God’s will without it!

Yet the most hilarious bit about the prosperity gospel is, well…. does no-one read the fine print nowadays? I have many joyous phrases to describe my journey with GJ&HS, but “winning lotto” and “gee, isn’t it a smooth road without hiccups?” aren’t ones that spring to mind.

God has His crucibles. His ways of achieving the growth of those who love Him:

The crucible for silver and the furnace for gold, but the Lord tests the heart. – Proverbs 17:3

He will sit as a smelter and purifier of silver, and He will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, so that they may present to the Lord offerings in righteousness. – Malachi 3:3

The crucible metaphor being how heat purifies metal to its purest form, just as times of trial, tribulation and suffering refine our faith.

It sounds so lovely, doesn’t it, precious metals and crucibles? Conjures up images of tastefully-crafted jewellery at the end. But let’s not forget the sweaty, burning, eyes closed against the furnace heat part.

I refer to such times as God’s blowtorches. Personally, the last few months? They have not been the simmering sense of a frog warming up in a pot, but a blasting heat that requires an asbestos grip on Jesus’ divinity because…wow…so You think I need that much refining, Lord? Ouch.

After a series of intense weeks, the SAP picked a shift in my tone from: “Yes, just little bit of testing, but, oh, such joy to be embraced in the trials. I’m totally meditating on James 1 2-4, whilst colouring-in a mindfulness page I’ve designed based on the same Bible passage..” …to something darker. Think Steven Seagal meets Jason Statham.

The SAP suggested it was all part of God’s refining rather than one isolated lesson for me to grasp.  So refining is a lesson in itself. Yet it was fairly obvious I’d reached flash point when I began slanging back at God with blackmail threats:

“You know those awesome gifts of engagement, communication, and ‘sell ice to Eskimos’ You gifted me with, Lord? Well (through gritted teeth), you really don’t want me using them against You rather than for You. I reckon the atheists would love me on their team…and I’m feeling just pissed-off enough right now to do a really awesome job. Ease up on the damn blow torch!”

Thank heaven for answered prayer. I suspect God answered The SAP’s respectful one – “I’ll pray the blowtorch turns off,” he kindly offered me – over my full-frontal tactical assault.

And in His constant, loving, amazing, God-only way, the next day His gentle Yellow Post-It notes of care began to appear or, rather, I was able to see them more clearly. Perhaps the SAP added in something about scales from my eyes in his prayer too?

Like the meeting – after a time of attempting to introduce more prayer into a Christian workplace and feeling a resisting silence to change – when a team member, without prompting, suggested prayers directly afterwards.

Or – in the middle of my worst blowtorched stresses, as that voice in my head began to ask how seriously I had got this wrong, that God really was a spaghetti monster in the sky and wasn’t this just a freakin’ mess and why not go back to how it used to be, because surely it was easier then? – sitting with two Christian women who demonstrated total commitment in their faith, an unwavering certainty that prayers would be answered, that God’s hand was in everything. Intelligent, Godly women, one older, one younger, who through shared prayer reminded me that their faith in Jesus’ sacrifice came not through spaghetti monsters but seeing God work in their lives over and over.

They didn’t even know, those two women, as they sat across the table from me, how close my fingertips had come to breaking point hanging off my blowtorched cliff.  But listening to them talk, hearing the clarity of their certainty, was my chance to draw faith from their faith.

There’s a lesson for us all. You never know who is listening and watching, how God is using you in one moment, and the unexpected encouragement that moment can bring to someone else. Salt and light.

The same day, God drew me back to the longer passage in James 1:

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do.

I realised I had missed a major point on perseverance. There I had been, with ground teeth and bleeding fingernails, grittily persevering. “Just hang on,” I would grind out to myself. “You can do this.”

I had been focused on the wrong two verses: the ‘most famous’ first two, the ones held up as the lights to be guided by in testing times. “Just hang on, Phil, because, on the other side of this, you’ll be whole and complete. That’s the deal.”

Trouble is, the harder I hung on, the more effort I put into this back-breaking perseverance, the more sweat-drenched and slippy my grip became.

No-where in the passage does it say enduring in the sense of being ground down. No. James’ emotion is pure joy. As for the work of perseverance so I could be mature and complete? James doesn’t write that I’m the one having to do the work. The elegant solution, the best approach, the one that would take the pressure off my clamped jaw and anguished, exhausted brain? Verses 5 and 6 leapt out at me:

If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.

I didn’t need bleary perseverance and gritted teeth. I needed wisdom – God’s. And I needed to get my head back into His game so I could draw on His wisdom without doubts. Otherwise I was going to be swamped.

Finally, it filtered through. “I’m so sorry. I’ve been unstable, haven’t I? I don’t have the wisdom here. I need Yours. Please.” Even better, after all my slanging, all my challenging ungratefulness, I could hold onto His promise through Jesus: that He would give it to me generously, without finding fault.

The wisdom He whispered made me smile and hiccup, and get a little snot-monstery. “Count your blessings, dear heart. The way through the blowtorches are to count your blessings.”

I am recognising God’s methods with me: Pressure, pressure, blowtorch, refine, okay so now you’re hanging on by your fingertips, dear heart, so… pause. You’ve taken too much on yourself. Here’s a hint. Why not lean on Me? Ask Me? Let me encourage you? Ah, yes, there you go. See, look, you’re still here, now get your breath back, get the growth, rumble with the joy and get back out there and FLY.

So I am back to swigging grace like Guinness, chomping humble pills like Smarties and remembering the one with all the wisdom. Whilst holding onto the greatest lesson of all. Crucibles refine and the way through my blowtorches are to count my blessings, because blessings are our paths to pure joy:

  • Children who are heathy and nourished
  • A husband who never fails to make me laugh: from impersonating a Cath and Kim power walker to being a doofus over helping me stretch a hamsting when I’m taking life too seriously
  • A job that not only delivers regular income to our household, but challenges, stretches, satisfies and allows me to contribute to something bigger than myself
  • A business. With fun-loving clients who trust me and let me have fun too
  • A house. With a room for each child and more to spare
  • A roof that does not leak
  • Running water. Electricity. WiFi!
  • Indoor plumbing
  • Friends. Whose doorsteps I could turn up on at 3am knowing they would help
  • Faith. That God has my back. That Jesus has it covered
  • Access to healthcare
  • The ability to worship in public. Read the Bible in plain sight
  • A SAP
  • Shops without food shortages
  • Answered prayer
  • Blog posts that are read, shared and commented on across the globe
  • Being Loved. Crazy, radical, God-driven, let me lay down My son’s life because I want to be right next to you always, loved.

Just wow. So many blessings. So many joys. Plus, after the blowtorches? Growth. Always growth.