I do not always choose love

If you don’t think God has a sense of humour, look at the platypus. Or me. Wired for million miles an hour brain processing. With a scant gift for patience. “Keep up,” I mutter under my breath to those I love the most. godslove

Seriously, husband Big T deserves a medal. In the ups and downs of life, quite often the ‘best’ of me is given out to clients, co-workers and colleagues. My scratchy, irritated self kicks the cat at home.

Big T has a handy trick. He takes the word ‘Love’ out of 1 Corinthians 13: 4-8 and replaces it with his name. Try it.

Phil is patient, Phil is kind. Phil does not envy, she does not boast, is not proud. Phil does not dishonour others, she is not self-seeking, Phil is not easily angered, she keeps no record of wrongs. Phil does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. Phil always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Frankly, some days I find this exercise so confronting I’m literally hanging onto Jesus like a life-raft and swigging down his grace like, well, like an irish alcoholic locked in the Guinness factory overnight.

Does anyone else have this cycle? When I am not patient, I find I am not kind. When impatient, I move quicker to anger. Quite often I struggle to rejoice in the truth because, boy, the truth of me on my impatient days is not pretty. There are days when I do not protect, but instead attack.

Impatient perhaps, but Jesus reminds me I am the patient. The work in progress. The blank canvas of surrender. He did it first. He trusted, hoped and persevered so I can have a relationship with God.

So, because of Jesus and the cross, I too can trust, hope and persevere. I can choose love, accept grace, start afresh each day. Replace ‘love’ with my name in 1 Corinthians 13: 4-8  and cautiously smile because, as Jeremiah 31:3 reminds me, I have been blessed with an everlasting love.

But if you ever bump into Big T? Buy him a Guinness.

Hide & Seek with God

Forgive me Father, for it has been 37 days since my last blog post… I went from livin’ on a prayer and swinging between trapezes to….the vortex. You might know the vortex. A rabbit hole of commuting, packing lunchboxes, getting blood tests, feeding anti-virals to snot-monster, hacking up a lung, kids. A little matter of organising a fundraiser for close to 300 folks, smiling at clients whist chomping on deadlines as if they were smarties (or Valium, or something slightly speedier), taking on a new work gig whilst keeping all my others, and fighting off the Dark Lord.

I feel God slipping through my fingers like water. Which deep in my heart I know to be impossible, but when the 18-hour work days mount up, when the to-do list of simply getting the days done and delivered is banal and repetitive, it’s too easy to be sucked down into the vortex of life, rather than up into the life of the vortex. images

I also know now that my relationship with God and Jesus is strengthened when I write. Sometimes it feels like I pick over my faith bleached-bones like a vulture, others it’s more Satin bower bird, where I pounce triumphantly on a glimpse of azure. Lately it’s been tumbleweed blowing through the nest.

As I’ve written before, the trick to writer’s block is to write. So these words are dragging out across the keyboard like an vagrant being told to move along. There is no azure. Just tumbleweed tiredness. Not even slanging, vodka-cruiser style prayer.

“I want You back,” I whisper.

“I never left,” He answers.

“Then how come I feel like I miss You?” I implore.

“Because you’re looking too hard, Phil.”

Ah. And there it is. The brilliant blue amongst the tumbleweed. That has been worth the deletions and frustrations in getting a measly 390 words onto a blog post. At an average 2.3 words per minute.

God is in my seasons. I am learning, unlike my fast-paced entrance into His world, that our relationship does not always rely on the original, singular hard focus I once required to change course and establish traction.

Sometimes it’s soft focus. Returning back to being in a world of doing. And sometimes the only way you can simply let it be is by blurring out the hard edges. That’s where He waits.

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!

Climb every mountain. Drill for oil. Happy birthday, Mom. Thank-you.

Today my Mom would have celebrated her 69th birthday. It is a beautiful milestone that this coming Mother’s Day I will be sitting in a cinema watching sing-along Sound Of Music, as it was the first movie she ever took me to. mumpphilchair2

She sat the whole time with her hand placed on the seat of the folding cinema chair, as I wasn’t then heavy enough to keep it open with my own body weight. I have an imprinted memory: looking down at her hand on the slightly-itchy upholstery. Long, slim, piano-playing fingers. I see them again, now, as I glance down at my keyboard.

We all have a story. My Mom’s, I found out after she died three years ago, wasn’t all it appeared.

Until I was in my 40s, I knew my Mom to be a spirited, single-parent who hadn’t made the best relationship choices, but battled on, even when debilitating illness struck. The single-mindedness she displayed didn’t truly surprise me, even though her stubbornness often caused me frustration.

I wasn’t surprised because of what I knew about her: in the 1960s, after oil was discovered in the vicious North Sea off England and Scotland, she was the Geology-degree holding woman who, in horrendous conditions, would fly out to the oil rigs. Women, in those days, did not sleep overnight on oil rigs. Just in case the bromide in the men’s rations didn’t hold, or some such malarky. b98c898486b5c8942eedc68928392015

Born in 1971, this was the backdrop I grew up to. In whipping wind and sea spray, I imagined her standing on oil-rig platforms, legs planted. Doing what no other woman was doing. Little wonder I believed that I could achieve anything I turned my hand to. Not through any sort of prideful need to measure my own worth. But simply because that was my normal. Women drilled for oil, flew across a boiling sea in helicopters, strode confidently around drilling platforms and held PhDs in Geology.

Until she died. Quickly, painlessly, with dignity. And in the weeks that followed, as I sifted through papers, I came to understand it had all been a fabrication. No Geology PhD. No oil rigs. She had been a secretary within the Geology department at a local University. And had been told, no, women did not do that sort of study. And they certainly didn’t fly on helicopters to oil rigs.

Was I angry? Disappointed? I thought about those feelings for about a nanosecond. Then I laughed and laughed. My Mom had looked around at her world, at the story she was being told, and then looked down at me as a baby and quietly thought, “No. That’s not your story. I want you to have a better one. Without limits.”

This Sunday, if she is alive, hug your Mother. If she is no longer with you, send up a prayer of thanks. I will be sitting in a darkened cinema, singing along to The Sound of Music. When ‘Climb Every Mountain’ comes on, I will cry. Just a little. For the woman who gifted me the crampons, rope and vision to tackle cliffs, pikes and precipices.

Happy birthday, Mom, wish you were here.

God’s Yellow Post-It Notes

The joy of Christianity was probably my least-expected discovery. Perhaps it is the freedom that accompanies the realisation that you are absolutely, totally loved and there is nothing you can do to change it. No matter how many times you trip up. There isn’t any kind of ledger to tot up. No need to pressure yourself over good deeds minus bad ones that leave you with some net score. Just remember you are precious, you are loved, you are not alone. The grace of Jesus and the Gospel in a nutshell. Blank yellow sticky note block isolated on white background

Then something else crept in along the edges that left the joy behind.

Awe. At the size and enormity of God’s love and grace. It is the awe that regularly fells me. The shock and awe WOW moments that explode and side swipe my heart. Knee buckling, falling down awe. THAT I never expected.

Take my messy past weeks. God and I were having a few issues. Religion and I were having a few issues. The right to bake cake. In the midst of all this religious overwhelm I forgot two important things:

God. Worship. I was desperately trying to get my exploding head around it all, forgetting that I’d never manage that because, well, religion has a jumbled mess of flawed humanity at the centre of it.

I was using a lot of my messy Psalmesque, vodka cruising style slanging laments at God. Stomping ungraciously, asking, “What are You doing? Where are You?”

I have become used to some fairly explicit answers from God but in the week after Easter, as I dived into work before planning a family trip away, I felt more like solitary echoes coming back to me. My God-frequency was on the fritz.  It wasn’t pretty. A series of 3am wake-ups, vivid dreams, and jumbles of blog post ideas and questions flying around my head. The SAP has commented that watching God and I is often like watching a cage fight. He isn’t far wrong.

I often pray that God will pick a really noticeable voice like Manuel from Fawlty Towers so I’m sure to know it is Him. Yet there is a pattern to how God communicates to me. First a insistent pressing into my head. Then a more relentless shoving. That I managed to ignore twice in three weeks because I was so busy being busy and letting my head explode over cake gate.

I recognise that shoving insistence. At one point I actually said aloud, “Yes, I know, I’ll get to it.” And didn’t. Yet, lovingly, God served me the elegant solution I’d been too busy to get to for seven days before. I apologised…..

….and less than two weeks later the same thing happened again. God pressed. I told Him I’d get to it. He shoved. I told Him I’d get to it. And once again He delivered a loving, elegant, caring solution – despite my short-sightedness and willingness to ignore Him for the week prior.

Hindsight is wonderful. So I humbly apologised because, whilst I was diving headlong on my merry way, stressing how I was going to do something, God quietly delivered me the solution. I could have saved myself a week of overwhelm had I listened the first time. So that’s why I get awed. Because in His position I’d be throwing me around the cage-fighting enclosure, thoroughly impatient with my inability to get with the program. But, similarly with Jacob (Genesis 32:22-32), He happily lets me wrestle and waits patiently for me to get it.

I don’t call any of this miraculous. For me, miracles are the roll up your mat and walk variety. These are love notes. Like the yellow post its I sometimes hide in my children’s lunch boxes to remind them that I love them, miss them and please can they eat all the cucumber and raw carrot sticks before the cookies.

“Be as impatient, stubborn and hard-headed as you like, Phil,” God smiles. “I love you and will wait for you to understand. And if you keep missing the point, then I will still gift you the solution, despite your ignoring Me, despite the angst and pressure I see you putting on yourself, despite how I wish you wouldn’t. I gift this to you because I love you. Draw closer.”

And the final yellow post-it note, that shoved into my head as I finished this blog post? This is what it says:

Phil, the only opponent in this cage fight is you.

Love,

God.

Chastity fail. Getting back on top….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sex as the wedding gift

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

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

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

No point in beating yourself up over it

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

Dear God,

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

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

In Jesus name… Amen.

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

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

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

I love her honesty.

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

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

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

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

Love The Lord With All My…..No, That’s Just Not Convenient.

Washed and Waiting, By Wesley Hill.

I’m currently reading Wesley Hill’s book Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and HomosexualityHill is a celibate, homosexual Christian. Given I often try to squeeze around the elephant in the room, I am interested in his perspective. The book wrestles with three main areas of struggle that many same-sex attracted (SSA) Christians face:

  1. What is God’s will for sexuality?
  2. If the historic Christian tradition is right and same-sex sex is ruled out, how should SSA Christians deal with any resulting loneliness?
  3. How can SSA Christians come to an experience of grace that rescues them from feelings of shame and guilt?

Hill does not advocate that it is possible for every SSA Christian to become straight, nor is he saying that God affirms SSA. Instead, Hill comes alongside SSA Christians and says, “You are not alone. Here is my experience; it’s like yours. And God is with us. We can share in God’s grace.”

While some authors profess a deep faith in Christ and claim a powerful experience of the Holy Spirit precisely in and through their homosexual practice, Hill’s own story, by contrast, is a story of feeling spiritually hindered, rather than helped, by his homosexuality.

Hill writes: Homosexuality was not God’s original creative intention for humanity— it is, on the contrary, a tragic sign of human nature and relationships being fractured by sin—and therefore homosexual practice goes against God’s express will for all human beings, especially those who trust in Christ. 

Hill is writing that it’s ok to be a SSA Christian. But it’s not ok, if you are a SSA Christian, to act on those desires and urges. If you’re not a Christian, have no faith or belief in Christ, then you can do whatever with whomever you like.

The SAP’s (smart alec pastor) angle is that it’s nothing to do with sexuality, nothing to do with doing whatever we like, and everything to do with needing to get to know Jesus better. But that’s why he’s paid to be a SAP (well, he’s paid to be a P, let’s be frank. The SA bit is a fringe benefit I’m sure some Archbishops get starchy about).

Anyway, every bit of my itchy before Christ (BC) skin sat upon me uncomfortably when I read the paragraph by Hill. Yet, given Hill is a homosexual celibate Christian, he has far more insight and knowledge into it, so who am I to get offended on his behalf?

That’s the problem. I feel offended because I feel I ought to. I’ve had a far greater secular life than a Christian one. The society I inhabit is all about ‘self’, and worships the popular belief that we as individuals know what is right, best and true for ourselves. My secular ‘BC’ self gets offended on Hill’s behalf because why shouldn’t he have sex with a gorgeous guy, thrive in a relationship, get married, have kids etc? Why, as his book outlines, is he walking the narrow path of celibacy?

What Hill is gently teaching me – and it brings tears to my eyes as I type – is that his faith in Christ is bigger than this world. He is choosing, radically, to put God and His word ahead of himself. His faith in Jesus commits him to a demanding, costly obedience of choosing not to nurture his SSA desires. Doing so, Hill encourages and challenges Christians with SSA desires to live faithful to God’s plan for human sexuality.

Not helped by different churches sending different messages. One pastor will encourage SSA Christians to live and love in Christ, have sex, be in relationship and come to his church (I’ll call him a populist pastor). Another will encourage SSA Christians to live and love in Christ, come to his church, but, like Hill, encourage them to remain celibate (I’ll call him a scriptural pastor).

The latter will walk with their same-sex attracted Christian friends, loving them well, picking them up, and making sure they are there for them in the same way they would for anyone else.

The former will tell their same-sex attracted friends that all is OK. That other Christians are wrong in interpreting the scripture. That God was mistaken and the Bible is incorrect. That Jesus is all about love.

The latter will worry about the souls being taught by the former, because, as Hill comes back to again and again in his book, it’s not homosexuality but homosexual acts that the Bible lists as a no-no. So the scriptural pastor is counselling based on the Bible while the populist pastor is counselling based on popular, modern-day cultural expectations that ‘we know best’ – revolving around the importance of ‘staying true to self’. I have desires and I can act on them.

The scriptural pastor will be in anguish because he believes the populist pastor is leading SSA Christians further away from Christ. And wouldn’t that just piss you off come his return?

I use the word ‘anguish’ on purpose. The scriptural pastors I meet aren’t narrow-minded, bigoted homophobes. They are desperately saddened and anguished because they believe, with all their loving hearts, that to ignore the Bible (not just on this subject, but on anything) is to lose the way back to God.

For them, there’s a lot of really serious stuff at stake. As Jesus explains in the Parable of the Weeds: this separation from God – Hell – is like ‘a blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ (Matt 13:40-43) and again a moment later in the parable of the fish in the net, (Matt 13:49-50). A Christian does not wish that upon any soul alive. Which is why they share the message of Jesus. Not to judge or accuse. Rather so as many as possible can come to know and trust in Jesus, and be kept safely away from the weeping and gnashing.

Trouble is, it all goes pear-shaped because humans are involved. We are flawed. No Christian is perfect and in trying to explain all this it often gets narrowly interpreted or blown out of proportion. This is an incredibly emotive and difficult topic to write about. It’s easy to be misrepresented and misunderstood. I’ve skittered around it for months.

If I had the answers, then my name would be Mosette and I’d be standing on top of a mountain taking dictation. I can only offer the following observations from my meditating on this for over a year:

1) Some Christians unhelpfully muddy the waters around sin. I have heard UHT Christians (those who have been at Christianity a long, longer life than I) use terms of condemnation around the Mardi Gras march. But where’s Jesus in that? The same Christians rarely talk pillars of salt when faced with an unmarried heterosexual couple having sex. So why make a ‘bigger sin’ out of SSA and mardi-gras? An unmarried heterosexual couple, having children and living together are just as sinful to God. Yet how often are they called out as an example?

2) The Bible isn’t comfortable reading. But there are two really important lines. As a new Christian I battle my way through the scriptural stuff on the topic. The Bible isn’t a flat set of rules I can read objectively and apply unilaterally. It tells me of God’s complex interaction with humanity. It’s a complicated, and at times troubling, holy text. It has more than one voice. It contains letters and laws. Poetry and proverbs. Prophecy and philosophy. Often, probably like many others, I find myself more called by what I want the Bible to say than what it actually says.

Personally I rest on this: Jesus said all the scriptures can be rendered into two commands: To love the Lord with all my heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love my neighbour as myself. Jesus is about love, but he was incredibly specific when teaching how to direct that love. To love the Lord first.

3) What does loving the Lord really mean?  Wesley Hill has chosen to love the Lord with all his heart, soul, mind and strength in a way that my secular, selfish, self-led perspective would never have understood prior to my Christian journey. Now, though? I am awed and humbled by his decision. To give of yourself; more, give over yourself so totally? To love and honour God’s call above all earth-bound needs and desires? It’s a huge commitment that demonstrates Hill’s immense trust in God.

4) Biblical truth is rarely popular or palatable. God’s word can be uncomfortable and inconvenient in a society that puts self first. Which is why you have such a striking difference between what populist and scriptural pastors teach. As a Christian, I need to look closely at my own heart and discover if I am motivated by what I want the Bible to say than what it actually says. Because if I only take what I want it to say, massaging it so I find it more popular and palatable, then I am putting myself first. I become God in our relationship. And that never works out too well.

5) Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. After all, Jesus persevered for us no matter what. He was faithful no matter what. Hill is trusting, hoping, persevering. He is sticking to what God asks of him because, even though it is not popular or palatable, it is what God asked – commanded – of him. Loving obedience is the crux of our relationship with God and trust in Christ.

That love line is pesky isn’t it? In our self-directed, secular world, we are told ‘all we need is love’, that ‘love is enough’. Yet love without protection, trust, hope, perseverance, truth and grace? It becomes hollow. A sound-byte. A hall pass.

6) God’s truth can’t be convenient only when I need it to be. God packed the Bible full of inconvenient truths. But performing bible-reading gymnastics, to make those truths more palatable, can have an awful impact. Like headship. Some Christian men have perpetrated domestic violence by reading ‘submit to your husbands’ as some awful permission to abuse. Playing God in their relationship, they ignored the instruction ‘love your wife as Christ loved the church’. Yet, for their wives, and the clergy who help them, the ability to turn to that final, ultimate scriptural truth is, for many, a literal lifeline. Imagine if it could be ignored. So I love how the Bible, and Jesus, gives a clear directive on this one.

Ah, right. So I sometimes only like the truth when it suits me and my beliefs, my desires. Which then makes it all about me, not about Jesus and God.

But this, ALL of this, from Bibles falling off shelves, to being pursued by an impatient Hound of Heaven, to getting the courage to be Lipton’d in the river, to hold up all my secular beliefs to scrutiny and be challenged – it’s never been about me. It’s always been about G & J. It’s had to be. Otherwise I’d have stopped a long while back.

So in my relationship with them, I just pray that I may bring but a small measure of the courage, faith, commitment  and strength shown by Wesley Hill. That God will save me from convenience, from reading only what I want to read. And that I may always love with protection, trust, hope, perseverance, truth and grace.

Amen.

Highway to hell or stairway to heaven?

As Billy Joel sings in Only The Good Die Young, why go to heaven when all the sinners, who obviously know how to party, will be having a blast? Stop hiding behind that stained-glass curtain, he tempts young Virginia. What respecting young virgin could resist the sax of Billy? Heaven, to my teenage thinking, would be full of boring souls who didn’t know how to have a good time. Hell, on the other hand, would be the venue to party. billy-joel-musician-quote-i-did-write-a-letter-to-the-archdiocese

Quite early in our email discourse, as I wrestled with G&J, the SAP wrote that I needed to tell the devil to rack off. I remember reading it with narrowed eyes, as we communicated via the very modern trappings of the 21st century, wondering why we getting, to my mind, all dark ages. ‘Christians don’t seriously believe in hell and the devil, do they?’ I wondered at the time.

In 2003, a research group found 64% of Americans expect to go to heaven when they die, but less than 1% think they might go to hell. Over a decade later, I wonder if those numbers have changed. Not only are there plenty of people today who don’t believe in the Bible’s teaching on everlasting punishment, even those who do find it an unreal and a remote concept. I was the same.

Yet hell is an important part of the Christian faith. If you’re going to embrace the grace of Jesus, then you’re going to have to grab the asbestos cloak and do some fire-walking into hell too. After all, Jesus taught about hell more than any other author in The Bible. Yep, the author of grace, the embodiment of compassion and forgiveness taught about a person going to “hell [gehenna], where ‘their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’ Jesus is referring to the maggots that live in the corpses. When all the flesh is consumed, the maggots die. Jesus is saying, however, that the spiritual decomposition of hell never ends, and that is why ‘their worm does not die.’ (Mark 9:43)

So if Jesus spoke about hell more often, and in a fairly vivid, blood-curdling manner than anyone else, it’s not something to ignore. So what is hell?

Virtually all commentators and theologians believe that the Biblical images of fire and outer darkness are metaphorical. That certainly wasn’t explained clearly to me at my school. As a result, as I grew older and began to think and question, I couldn’t imagine some ‘place’ where fires burnt eternally.

Paul describes the everlasting fire and destruction of hell as ‘exclusion from the presence of the Lord.” (2 Thessalonians 1:9.) Separation from God and his blessings forever.

CS Lewis’ description is one that captured me more than any scenes of fire and lava. ‘Hell begins with a grumbling mood, always complaining, always blaming others . . . but you are still distinct from it. You may even criticise it in yourself and wish you could stop it. But there may come a day when you can no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticise the mood or even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself, going on forever like a machine. It is not a question of God ‘sending us’ to hell. In each of us there is something growing, which will BE Hell unless it is nipped in the bud.’

Now THAT scares me. Unlike my teenage imaginings, hell isn’t going be filled with sinners who know how to party hard. Instead, hell is a soulless world filled with constant whining, complaining, blaming and hating. It’s humanity’s separation from a loving, giving God who marks us with his grace in the gift of His son, and ‘sings over us’ in his joy. It is living life our way, our terms, our choices. Separate.

Yet we all have a choice about what we say, how we think, what we do. Creating hell on earth, to my mind, is literally the quality of our next thought, word and deed.

imagesThere’s a reason why ACDC and Led Zepplin sang about a highway to hell and a stairway to heaven. Sitting in the outside lane on a speeding highway, it’s easy not to think. Set the cruise control and forget. No need to engage the brain. Dumb it down. Disengage. What could possibly go wrong?

The stairway to heaven is slower, takes a little more effort, a little more awareness about qualities and behaviour. Daily I give Him thanks for how God glories in my slow steps. While His grace within me may be one of a ‘million million doors in this world for His love to walk through’, my flawed humanity often forgets to keep that door open. Quite often it’s a case of trapping my (or someone else’s) finger in the door, or slamming it shut as a I stomp about short-sightedly.

Thankfully, climbing a stairway reminds me to look up and look around. Take a breath. Even dance along each step and glory in the joy of the journey. Sometimes hard to remember, but far more fulfilling than cruise control ‘set and forget’.

Dear Lord, not another Stephen Fry post

tumblr_inline_n3hkivssgi1qgp297Stephen Fry’s recent challenge to God at the pearly gates sent him trending all over social media. As a new Christian and a writer/journalist, the responses and posts had me acting like an alerting meercat on speed.

I was enthralled by the arguments bellowed to and fro between atheists and Christians. Some, I happily pondered. Others? Well, some of the UHT Christians (those who have been at this a long, longer life than I) and atheists need to take a Xanax. No wonder people look at Christians strangely when what I read had echoes of two toddlers in a sandpit arguing over whose toy truck is better.

I have joked since the start of my Christian journey that I’ve always believed God and Jesus needed a better PR agent, but that I never expected they’d hunt me down and challenge me to take the job. Seriously, there’s some personal branding work required.

No, I’m not going to start the ‘to and fro’ arguments back and forth here. There have been enough. Yet as a journalist I am going to call UHT Christians on one argument that some latched their teeth into and really niggled me. Namely, Fry can’t challenge God on bone cancer in children because, as Fry is an atheist, he doesn’t believe in God. Simplified, some in the Christian community are saying he can’t have it both ways. Yet they are missing a significant point.

Fry answered the question posed by Gay Byrne: “Suppose it’s all true, and you walk up to the pearly gates, and are confronted by God,” Bryne asked on his show The Meaning of Life. “What will Stephen Fry say to him, her, or it?” There’s little point having a Christian argument that Fry, as an atheist, can’t have an issue with God because he doesn’t believe God exists. Byrne posed a hypothetical. Fry answered. The biggest error was Byrne failed the golden rule of interviewing: never ask a question you don’t know the answer to.

Look at the footage (please google, I’m so saturated I can’t even link it). Byrne is horrified. As an interviewer he handles it terribly. Fry was able to hit the ball out the park. I suspect the show’s producers were expecting Fry to brush off the question – “I’m an aethist, so that question is redundant” – or perhaps secretly hoping he’d say something witty such as: “Oops, looks like I made a mistake. You do exist,” leaving them with the opportunity to pepper social media with headline soundbites such as, “Atheist Fry Admits He Made A Mistake Over God.”

An interviewer worth his salt would have challenged Fry and introduced the topic of sin. Whether Fry believes in God, the Fall, and the saving grace of Jesus’ death and resurrection or not, that was the precise moment to bring it up. The door opened for Byrne to step through with the Christian viewpoint: that pesky apple and the serpent. God’s intent was not bone cancer in children, but health, joy, ease and grace. Which is why He bothered coming to earth as man in the New Testament.

Imagine where the interview could have gone if Byrne had grabbed the opportunity to talk to Fry about Jesus’ resurrection, forgiveness, grace and saving souls one at a time. With a mind like Fry’s, that would have been an interview to behold.

I am also offended that Fry is accused of being disrespectful. ‘Don’t talk to God like that’, some of the posts bluster. Yet, atheist, new or UHT Christian, why wouldn’t you ask some seriously pointed questions of God? Isn’t that the point of faith, that you can rail at Him (as I’ve alluded to before in vodka-cruiser style slanging Psalms), and draw closer to Him in an incredibly personal relationship? This is a God ‘who sings over us’, who’s like the Father with the Prodigal Son, who rejoices in heaven when just one of his lost sheep come back to Him. A God who loves that much isn’t going to be offended when you ask him a few curly, even disrespectful questions. Parents of teenagers have insight into that!

Give me an opportunity to sit next to God and Jesus on a long-haul flight, and I’d be asking some serious questions too. Whilst I happily glorify Him for love, care and the pretty astounding personal stuff delivered into my life in the past year, it doesn’t mean I’d sit there in dumbstruck awe eating my economy peanuts (I know God and Jesus would fly coach, the New Testament writings about hanging out with the poor and the oppressed pretty much applies to economy and the leg room on a long-haul flight). There are certain things I’d love ‘from the horse’s mouth’ clarity on.

I would have preferred Byrne to elevate the conversation. Whilst I have spent some of the past week overwhelmed by the posts and counter posts that Fry’s comments sparked (I’m a glutton for research), there’s one thing I totally agree on: Apologising on BBC Radio 4’s the Today show for any offence he might have caused Fry said: “I’m most pleased that it’s got people talking. I’d never wish to offend anybody who is individually devout or pious and goes about their religious ways, and indeed many Christians have been in touch with me and said that they’re very grateful that things have been talked about.”

Hear Hear. Perhaps Stephen Fry would care to join me on my next long-haul flight? We can share peanuts.

All the responses to Fry’s interview had me alerting like a meercat on speed.

To wax, or to laser, that is the question…

My post on vulnerability double bluffing caused quite the readership spike. Some who protectively told me my psych nemesis was off base, because “you’re a writer, daaahlink, you must edit, must process, must use humour as part of your art. It is like breathing.” (Use an Ivana Trump accent when reading that sentence). Others who responded a lack of vulnerability was due to a resilient layer built through experiences on the back of hurt and heartache. Which Way to Go - 3 Colorful Arrow Signs

And then there were the vulnerability double-bluffers (VDBs). Oh my. I think we could set up a private Facebook therapy group because so many of you identified.

So are VDBs inauthentic? No way. Let me be clear. We aren’t bluffing others. We are ridiculously real. It’s just that our modus operandi occasionally means we can forget to check in with our current level of willingness to be vulnerable. It becomes a dangerous blind spot.

VDBs are often honest to the point of stupidity. There’s a rawness that needs to be tempered (aka a need for filtering and greater diplomacy) because double-bluffers have often been through the fire, survived it, got to quite like themselves in the process, realised life is short, prefer not to waste time on ‘scratch the surface conversations’ and would rather dive right in to the heart of it. Others may not have survived the fire, they are simply born wired seeking connection and have a lack of patience when it comes to digging it out.

Which makes meeting new people an interesting exercise. It’s like speed dating. The VDB wants you to open up quickly, seeks to crack into that vulnerability, because why on earth do we want to waste time talking about how you earn your money, reality TV shows you may have watched, whether you get waxed or do laser? We want YOU. We want to get past your anxieties, your protective armour, and dance into your soul. What makes you tick? Can we have a real connection? Will you be as honest we can be? Will you be vulnerable?

This is the enigma of vulnerability. Someone has to be brave enough to go first. We all want it, yet most of us are scared to give it. To test those sort of waters requires giving vulnerability. So VDBs, in our desire to forge real, lasting connection, deliver our vulnerability medal stories. ‘Here I am,” we say. “Stripped bare (enough) so you feel safe (enough) to give me some vulnerability back.”

Which allows us to dive into the heart of the matter fairly quickly. But VDBs need to beware the blind spot. Mine is writing. My preferred mode of communication means I can and do hide behind a keyboard or, if I have to articulate vocally, a phone. In retrospect, that first phone call with the smart-alec pastor (SAP)? VDbluffing on a roll. I dived through job rejection, splashed into suicide discussions, waded into biblical masturbation (Onan’s seed, you had to be there) and, as a vulnerable finale, shared dreams/signs/hymns from God. Ta Da! I mean, seriously, would you share that sort of stuff in a first phone call and email with a complete stranger? Worse, not only a complete stranger, but one who could have been proper, Godly and starch dog-collared? What was I thinking?

Ah. Note the mediums. Blind spot alert. Face to face I’d never have torn those topics apart. Back then I hadn’t learnt about the pure, unconditional, supported love of God and Jesus. All I knew was that I was having some odd spiritual prodding, Bibles were falling at my feet, and it was time to deal. I had to get to the heart of it before my courage failed me. So out came the VDB medal stories, the phone and the keyboard. Let me be vulnerable (enough) and honest (enough — actually, probably too much) so I can check out your willingness to return the same.

And (gosh, I’m really disliking that psych nemesis) that’s the kicker: writing and verbalising behind technology should never be enough. Eye-contact. Sharing vulnerable stories. Letting it all hang out. That’s what God wants, even demands of us.

God, I have since discovered, delivers the best way of rewarding my vulnerability. It’s the joy. The life-preserver I hang onto when vulnerability threatens to swamp. Joy when a line in a hymn takes me out at the knees and the heart. Talking with a Christian I meet at the church for the first time about powerful Godmoments and, right there, face-to-face, all eye contact, no keyboards, we both have tears in our eyes. Vulnerable. Open. Joyful.

So I’m happy to take the first step. Extend the invitation. Be vulnerable. Because it’s the path to joy. And as for the double bluff? Well, I’ll let you into a secret. I originally decided to stop blogging this year. I’d shared my journey with the hound of heaven, posted about my baptism, stood on stage in church and delivered testimony and, well, wasn’t that vulnerable enough? What more could be written?

Then I realised, all of last year’s blogs are today my shiny vulnerability medals. Put together they are the sum of my vulnerability double-bluffs. Whilst first pressing ‘publish’ all those months ago scared me and made me vulnerable, I no longer fret about live posts. Partly because I’m supported by my faith in God, and partly because there’s nothing new (yet) to be vulnerable over.

The true test is whether I keep digging into the joy, awe, grace, and all the corresponding frustrations, sadness and loss that a journey of faith delivers. To publish and be vulnerable and admit, you know, I feel like God has let me down today. That the joy is harder to find. That this bible verse is frustrating the *&^% out of me. That the world is making me weep and I don’t know if I can hold on with patience for this second coming. That vivid Old and New Testament miracles are rare nowadays, so faith is a muscle that requires work. It is not always flow and delight and ease. There are plenty of days when we all struggle with grace.

I take heart from the Psalmists who wrestled with God. Forget worship, humility and subjugation when they prayed. Some of the Psalms read like it’s an all-out slanging match after a few too many vodka cruisers. “What are You thinking?” they yell.

Or Jacob, wrestling with God all night (Gen 32:22-32). Whilst an exhausting struggle that left him crippled – ‘he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched’ – I read it and thought: God is the ultimate World Extreme Cagefighter. Just Jacob’s hip? Crippled by one touch? It really could – should – have been a one-sided fight. Yet God saw ‘he could not overpower him.’ He doesn’t want to win us His way, but rather have us win Him, our way.

I suspect God quite enjoys the fights. That my relationship is strengthened with Him when my vulnerability takes shape not just in humility, but in sheer frustration with Him. Just like any friend who is truly invited in to know my heart, God doesn’t want the best bits. It’s my yelling and stamping and vodka cruiser style slanging that God takes heart in. Because then He knows I’m secure with Him. That I let it all hang out. That I am anything but indifferent.

So, even though it’s from behind a keyboard, I will seek to record both the struggles and the joy. I have not yet killed the smart-alec pastor (SAP) off, Dallas style, in a random plot twist. Perhaps there will be guest appearances. The SAP as John Farnham. Or Slim Shady – guess who’s back, back again. God will tell.