Can one get too close to God?

I have been at God’s boarding school for the past couple of years. Which is kind of weird, considering I had no clue I was there – but bear with me.

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Source: http://www.jeansinboots.com/the-higher-the-heels-the-closer-to-god/

You see, after the crazy pace and race of the first eighteen months with GJ&HS, it all skidded to an abrupt….I don’t know what. I’ve been trying to figure it out:

Halt? No. I used to blog how I expected it all to wear off, but it certainly didn’t stop.

Cruise control? Like the set and forget, take your eyes off the speedo, and autopilot takes you along in fifth gear. No way. I can’t describe the past couple of years as cruising. GJ&HS (especially HS) were still in action and I was still active in trying to figure out why God had hunted me down in my forties.

Heck, you could call me the conversion chick poster girl: from meditating on runes and crystals one minute to working in an international Christian mission, serving and learning about GJ&HS, receiving a scholarship to complete a year-long Christian leadership course, moving on to study part-time at bible college for a Graduate Diploma in Divinity, leading a new growth group in the church, plus – the real crazy icing on the cake – speaking and preaching in a variety of settings across churches and conferences.

I’ve hung around plenty of UHT Christians now to understand what an anomaly this is. The most common comment I’ve received in the past four years is, “That’s not typical, you know, what happened to you.” (Closely followed by, “You do know you’re not Anglican…”)

The typical getting to know Jesus route involves Sunday school, Christian parents, youth group etc etc.  A nice linear path that appears measured and within certain speed limits. Not my UFC cage-fight followed by full-throttle around the racetrack on a Kawasaki ZZR 1100. I used to feel I had to apologise for it, as if such speed was unseemly.

But so too was the speed at which the Father ran towards The Prodigal Son in Luke 15, so I decided to stop worrying what everyone else thought about the pace, and started to accept rather than worry about it.

The other comment (about my surprising Anglicanism) could be to do with my preference for expressing my opinions with a glint in my eye, ribald humour, red-to-purple hair and leather pants.  Whilst I turn myself over to the HS daily for ongoing application of the J-factor (sort of like the X-factor, just with better gifts, talents and far more kindness and patience than Simon Cowell), I’ve not yet been overcome by a need to return my hair to its natural, dirty-dishwater blond or change my wardrobe.

As the Bible tells me, God loves every hair on my head, He knows what I’m about to say before I do…. and I don’t have to change outwardly to fit. He changes me as He sees fit, but that’s hugely different.

So if I grew more secure in my relationship with GJ&HS, recognised that the three of them were handling the makeover, not I, why have the past couple of years felt bereft?

This is the description I landed on. Bereft. It hadn’t halted. I wasn’t in cruise control. But I felt bereft.  I was still loved, but the tangent and tenor of my conversations with GJ&HS had shifted.

Something was lacking. I was deprived of the almost compulsive need to blog, for example. Despite desperately missing the medium, it felt like my brain was clogged down with chronic fatigue each time I tried to write. What had poured out of me four years ago – for almost two years solid –  felt as unwieldy and as appealing as wet cement.

I was also rubbing shoulders with more Christians than ever before too: learning from them, being inspired by them….

…and being knocked down by them.

It should come as no surprise that Christians behave badly. We are God’s broken people, after all. But doesn’t it wound and take your breath away when it happens? It hurts more – much like the awfulness of churches sweeping child and domestic abuse into hidden corners. It explains our wider society’s struggle to forgive – because so much more than brokenness is expected of God’s people. We are asked to be His lights, His image-bearers, to walk and talk as Jesus would in this broken world – so when Christians behave badly it strikes as so much worse, so much more damaging.

God thrust me right amongst it: the wounding, the lies, the gossip, the inability to forgive as He has forgiven. Verbal and spiritual abuse amidst pious proclamations. The only things that didn’t cross my path were heresy and adultery.

Yet for every illustration of brokenness, God delivered me 20 Christians who lit a path. He knew how much I needed them.

Truthfully, I wanted to both retreat and retaliate with cynicism. To doubt that anything good was at work here. Yet it also took me to new depths of scriptural wrestling, of really listening to the HS and trusting each time He would guide me. While I wanted to distrust, doubt, be suspicious – all traits of cynicism that eat away at faith – the HS took over. It was like the HS ring-fenced my heart. He showed me when to be suspicious of what I heard, whilst showing me my heart need not be damaged by what I experienced.

I name it the HS vomit. It ranges within me from a faint queasy seasickness to a full, oily rolling in the stomach when something is off-piste. It has protected me during spiritual abuse, when I have been subtly demeaned, diminished, bullied and told I am ‘only a new Christian’, ‘unable to understand theologically’ or when my gender has been used against me – as if my ovaries somehow get in the way of my understanding God’s Word.

The oily sickness would rise and I would find myself better able to discern the lack of truth being uttered. I would reach for His word and find out just how far scripture was being twisted to suit agendas.

Little wonder I felt bereft. I have felt a little bit of me has been missing. But I couldn’t figure out what it was.

The problem wasn’t me getting too close to God in all this. At times I didn’t feel close enough. It became a dark balancing act: yes, I was learning and growing like a weed, but there were days when I felt so choked by thorns I would wonder what on earth was going on. “So what if I’m working in a mission, so what if I’m at Bible College – when was the last time I had a decent, open, generous conversation with someone about Jesus?” I would implore God. “It’s all so…theoretical. But, agh, (exhale), sorry, Your will not mine.”

Kindly, God placed an image of an arrowhead being sharpened with flint in my mind. Which – you’d think – would be sufficient for me to simmer down. But no. Akin to a petulant Israelite whining about wanting smashed avo on toast instead of manna, I returned: “Okay, okay, I get it. Sharpening. Preparation. But leaving me in the equivalent of a forest feeling frustrated with flint might mean I burn the place down out of boredom.”

As you will no doubt pick up, dear reader, the HS is still working on my download of the gift of patience. Yet in illustration of how much He loves, the very next day I received two calls to preach at two different events. Maybe, just maybe, this strange, bereft time in the ‘wilderness’ was coming to an end…

 

It did. Two and a half weeks ago God picked me up from boarding school – which is the only metaphor I can think of to explain the move from bereft to fullness again.

I’d gone to listen to the SAP preach in a new church. For a variety of reasons, I’d originally cancelled my plans to attend. It wouldn’t be the last sermon the SAP preaches, and the beauty of podcasts hardly made the four-hour round trip a necessity. Yet, once I’d cancelled, God had been persistently insistent, shoving hard at me the need for me to go. in. person.

Maybe the SAP needed some encouragement? So, travel coffee in hand, I blearily took a long drive to attend early Sunday service (taking in a radio sermon en route about Israel travelling widely in the desert… God’s humour ;-))

Outside the church, I had my first clue that maybe this was less to do with the SAP and more to do with me. Overhearing the soundcheck, the lyric “it’s your breath in our lungs” landed like a shock on my chest. Hang on… this intensity was familiar: the same pulling me into God’s embrace that I’d experienced so viscerally in my early Christian walk. One that I had been missing, that had contributed to my sense of bereft.

The sermon packed a similar punch. I physically felt I’d received a filling of my lungs – a full 100%, powerful, oxygenated lung capacity that I’d not experienced for a while. Now, I appreciate the SAP’s talents as a preacher, I do. But this wasn’t about the SAP. This was a Holy Spirit rush.

I remember when my son went for his first school camp, age 5. He was away for three nights, over 200km away. On his return he stood on the steps of the coach, looking out over the crowd of parents. He looked so contained – still terribly young and yet he had grown within himself. Then, scanning the crowd, he saw me. As our eyes met, just for a split second, the mask of accomplishment fell away. It was pure love mingled with relief: you are here and I need you so. I’ve been brave, I’ve grown while I’ve been away…. but, Mum, I’m so glad you’re here.

It was the same for me. It was like God was waiting in the arrivals hall of the airport and pulling me in to Him.

Me: “But, but, hang on…I didn’t think I’d moved? Did I? Oh, Lord, really? Did I go away? I’m so sorry if I did.”

He smiled and pulled me closer: “Not at all. I planned this. Haven’t you learnt the last couple of years about Me, and you, and My people – all the good, all the broken and everything in between?”

I nodded, wiping my hands over my face to clear the tears. “Yes. And there were plenty of times I prayed if were time for me to move on from the situations You had placed me in. PLENTY.”

God smiled. “And what did I say?”

Me: “You kept saying, “No. Not yet.””

God (smiling): “Yes, and I know it drove you nuts. You slanged and wrestled with Psalms. But you did as I asked, dear heart.  Plus you had to seek Me in My word first. Which you did before, but not as much as you have done as a consequence of the past couple of years.”

 

 

It explains my idea of being at God’s boarding school. I was bereft because the level of intensity I’d experienced when I first got to know GJ&HS had altered. At the time, it was a real, vivid, loving intensity that God knew was so desperately needed in order to reach through the cynicism and armour I had erected around myself.

Nor do I want to imply that God withheld His love. That either of us moved. But I needed to learn how to stand on Him as my rock, not as my giddy fairground attraction. The most wonderful part of the past two weeks has been recognising I now have both.

Talking conversion on national ABC radio

If you’d told me five years ago I’d be on national radio discussing my embracing of the Jesus-fella, I’d have told you to go away…. but a lot less politely.

It began with a message from a journalist friend:

“Radio National has a show called God Forbid. James Carleton is the host. The late great Richard Carleton’s son. He has asked me for the name of someone who ‘converted to Christianity preferably from another religion.’ He is doing a show about conversion and has someone who converted to Judaism, wants a second panelist. I told him I know someone who converted to Christianity from a secular background and he’s interested. I think you would be excellent because of the fresh way you communicate.”

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Calvin & Hobbes (c) 2014 Bill Waterson.
After some research calls with the presenter James (and a sharing of this blog which means he now knows a lot more about me than I about him), I was off to the studio for two hours of recording.

Half an hour out and I was messaging the SAP saying I was ready to do a Jonah (run off to sea and jump in a large fish). This plagued me: “what happens if I make some massive theological error and end up making my faith in Jesus look just weird and awkward?!”

My Before Christ standing joke was that G&J needed a PR agent; I never imagined they’d hunt me down for the gig! And now, here I sat in the ABC’s Sydney recording studio, doing just that.

It only struck afterwards that God opened this particular door not simply because of my quirky way of expressing my faith. But also due to the 20 years of journalism and PR experience with which I entered the studio.

Without it, I’m not so certain how I’d have gone. Without it, I’d likely not have enquired beforehand about the conversion background of the other panel member. Without it, I’d not have contacted a past guest on the show and done my research on the sort of presenter and journalist interviewing me. After all, I wouldn’t send one of our agency’s clients into a media interview unprepared – I wasn’t going to do it to myself or G&J!

It was a little disingenuous for the ABC to say it was a program ‘just’ about conversion. A newbie, freshly entering their relationship with the Jesus-fella, could have been left portrayed as some mystical thinker without rhyme or reason to back up their faith decision.

The questions would have been far harder to answer without a grasp of the Bible. So God was right to put in a journo thinker with some bible college under her belt because Christianity could have had a media thumping. Particularly when compared against the involvement and training described by Ike Curtis, the 21 year old convert to Orthodox Judaism who was the other guest on the panel.

You see, the very simplicity of Jesus and his gift of undeserved, amazing grace is quite a ‘What The?’ moment for many. Let’s recap: God crams all his heavenly magnificence into an earthly body, to live a sinless life that saw him mocked, scorned, beaten, spat upon and murdered in the most painful way…for ME? Why?!

Because He loves. Every hair on our head and wants us back. God pursues us with an intense, reckless, all or nothing kind of love.

It’s insane that sort of self-sacrificial love. It’s confronting. It demands surrender. In our self-led, self-directed lives, it demands we be less when all our egos want to do is show that we are more. It makes no sense! It doesn’t follow any sort of rules. It’s illogical. Just trust and just be loved. Huh? It can’t be that easy, surely?

It can. And compared to Ike describing his food rules and training to convert to Orthodox Judaism, I am grateful it is.

I did have one unfaithful wobble: would my faith sound too simple? Does the complexity of having a second kitchen and fasting and not combining certain foods – let alone ceremonial washing and circumcision – make a faith more explainable? Rules suit our ordered, lineal thinking minds. There’s been a rise in younger Christians attending traditional, methodical, Anglican Prayer Book liturgy services, after all. In a world of uncertainty, we seek structure.

Yet the difference between Ike’s food rules and my seeking comfort in the regular, familiarity of a traditional Anglican Prayer Book service is vast. I can take comfort in its familiarity, and find it opens a new way of dialoguing with G&J, but I don’t have to do it. There’s no need to add anything with Christianity. It’s Christ alone. Not Jesus PLUS. No extra rules. Jesus is the rule breaker.

God Forbid as a radio show seeks to explore and showcase different religions. Yet this wasn’t a simple, ‘what is your Christian convert story?’ There was a sense of, “well, but why?” – if you’re a convert then explain and justify your decision. I didn’t notice Ike receiving the same sort of question. Possibly because the interviewer focused upon the rules that Ike was explaining in Orthodox Judaism. A wieldy set of rules make a religion much easier to ‘explain’ or understand. No strange, heart-led, soul-shaking, unexplainable bits.

We no longer live in a world where the Christian church and faith is automatically respected. Once one’s money, stance on religion, politics and sex were deemed impolite topics to discuss at the dinner table – let alone on national radio! Not so nowadays. Now it’s up for poking, prodding and questioning – with the expectation of having all the answers to defend your faith choice:

If you’ve converted, Phil, justify why. If there are odd peculiarities to your faith (ie: you’re an intelligent, career-garnished woman, why would you be in a Sydney Anglican church, those un-progressives don’t let women DO anything was one angle pursued) you’d better be ready to justify your choice too.

I was happy to because the answer is and always will be: Jesus. Amazing grace. All the other bits of religion I usually roll my eyes over anyhow.

It was an enervating couple of hours. I had to defend that my faith wasn’t simply coincidence or a product of culture; when tackled about Anglicanism and gender I switched it to talk to how counter-cultural Jesus was when it came to speaking to women in first century Israel as recorded in the Bible. When James played me two recorded sound bytes, with topics of proselytising and the Great Commission bumped up against a quote from the Sydney Anglican ArchBishop, Glenn Davies talking building churches and  baptism, I was happy to challenge James on how the two topics weren’t exactly correctly related and explained how one (baptism) was a response to Jesus. Not a “dunk as many people as you can to build a church” story angle.

That he looked over my shoulder at his producers and said, “let’s not get a journalist next time,” when I gave that answer made me smile.

After all, it’s hardly dramatic is it, when your guest tries her best to always point back to Jesus. Not the stuff of worldly, ooh conflict, news agendas.

There was one response from Ike that was edited out before the final show went to air. After I gave my story about meeting the Jesus fella, and Ike was invited to share his story on converting to Judaism, he said, “I’ve never had an experience with God like Phil just described.”

Which made – and still makes – my heart sad. I pray he does.

If you want to have a listen, the link to the recording of the show is here. 

 

Brace yourself: Jesus and orthodontics

My eldest started high school the other week. The night before I slept like you do when you know you’ve a super-early plane to catch… a wee bit restless and never falling deeply asleep in case you miss the plane.

Four weeks ago the Millennium Falcon also landed in his mouth – a galactic installation of hinges that drop vertically between top and bottom jaw and connect as bars under his tongue, alongside a swathe of shiny metal tracks across all his teeth. He wobbled over it – for a day I wondered if we would ever see his smile again,  his hand creeping up to cover his lips each time he spoke. IMG_9450-e1423232292342

It is painful that the orthodontic work that relies on growth spurts and puberty to achieve its objectives coincides with the time when you don’t want to be different, are dealing with more than enough changes, and heading into an expanded new school grouping.

I ought not be surprised at how he navigated his high school preparation with quiet ease, it’s part of his nature. This is where we pray that all we have planted to date gives him the roots and strength to flourish, grow upwards and, yes, away.

It makes me think about God’s heart bursting with love and pride over us too. Those moments when we walk in His light, when we say no to the stuff of the world and turn to His promises instead, do the three of them give each other a quick high five? A trinity fist-pump of encouragement:

“YES! He navigated away from the porn site.”

“Oh, yes, look! She was so scared in her heart she’d be rejected, but she offered to pray for her work colleague.”

“She went to youth group when everyone else went to the party and got drunk. She’s going to get some stick about it on Monday, but she did it!”

“Their son didn’t get invited to the birthday sleepover because last time they picked him up early on the Sunday to get all the family to church. It hurts them as parents to see the exclusion. But they’re still sticking with church.”

Walking Christianity in a world that is set up to mock and challenge you for your beliefs is much like walking into puberty and a new high school with your mouth full of metal. It looks weird, it can feel weird, a lot of the time you struggle to talk – sometimes breathe – and you can feel the pain of blisters as you rub up differently to ‘the norm’.

Thinking that G&J are watching our journeys and cheering us on, helps, no? And not just cheering, but actively helping, with those wonderful God-shoves of the Holy Spirit. The book of James reminds up to persevere with joy – isn’t it cool to imagine the joy that GJ&HS get from us doing just that?

Like me with Master 13. Just bigger. Much bigger. A God-sized heart, bursting with love.

 

Gotta have faith-a-faith-a-faith

Three and a half years ago I was rejected for a job. And, boy, it stung. I was geared up to wow them with what I could do only to find out it was irrelevant compared to what I was not (a person of Christian faith). Anyone who isn’t across the hilarious Jesus journey that ensued, you’ll need to go back to the start to read about it here.

A character on this journey who’s received a lot of blog time is the smart-alec pastor (SAP) who picked up the church phone when I decided I’d get into some tyre-kicking, journalist Jesus research. An individual who’s had a lot, lot less attention is the person who decided against offering me the job. The Rejector.theterminator

The Rejector also deserves some blog time. Credit where credit is due. Why? Because he stuck to his faithful guns and wouldn’t concede ground on seeking a person who shared his beliefs to be his proxy in a public situation.

When he explained that at the time, I confess I mentally rolled my eyes and thought to myself: “oh, but I’m in PR, I can handle any message you need me to spin…” Something prevented me from sharing that obnoxious gem, and it was quickly replaced by something that pressed and intrigued: “He really needs me to believe this. And to reply that I can spin it, would – I sense – make a mockery of something he holds dear.”

I didn’t have a clue then of what a true, faith-based, faith-led life looks like. After the recent same-sex marriage campaigns, I’d argue very few Australians do. To many, it seems extreme and irrelevant to hold God’s word as truth, to confess Jesus as their Lord and Saviour, to be obedient to a single God who tells us He knows what’s best for us.  Instead we often prefer to follow our own personal gods of self, career, money-making, self-validation..to basically follow ME, my feelings and my desires. I’m the god of me. No-one else.

The funny thing is, if you spend any time having a read of the Bible, worshipping the god of ME isn’t a new phenomenon. It’s been happening since Genesis 3 when Adam and Eve chomped down on that apple after the serpent waved it at them. We’re wired to want the apple that is described in Genesis as from ‘the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.’

We desire to be the gods of our own good and evil. To know best. That was me back then in response to The Rejector. I knew best.

Now, after my journey with the Jesus-fella, I am far more humbly aware of just how dodgy a proposition that is.

But what if The Rejector hadn’t had faithful guns? What if he’d let those concerns slide? Worried less about the veracity and importance of my faith, and instead focused on filling the short-term need of someone who’d just get the job done. There’s a line in the Bible’s book of Romans (Chapter 12, V2) which springs to mind, and I’m using a modern translation in order to think about it in light of a job interview:

“Don’t copy the behaviour and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.”

The Terminator didn’t copy the behaviour and customs of this world in his interview decision. He refused to weigh up my skills and expertise. In fact, he threw out all my skills and expertise against this one criteria: Did I believe in Jesus?

Nothing else mattered.

Now I (and many others, as we wrestle with SSM laws, freedom of religion laws, freedom of expression, and anti-discrimination) could have bleated about it being unfair (and, well, maybe I did for a day or 5 ;-)) but what I actually wanted to know, deep-down, was this:

Why was this Jesus fella so bloody important that he trumped my amazing skills and expertise? And why was he so important to the Rejector? Thank God I was sufficiently self-aware to recognise something more important than my own self-importance and be intrigued.

And thank God for the Rejector. If he’d copied the customs and behaviours of this world, I could well have found myself in a job with a bunch of people I misunderstood and with no clue, still, of the Jesus fella.

It also reminds me that institutions who use faith as a criteria for a job description have a real need and requirement to continue to do so.

Good game God. Good, faithful guns Rejector.

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…