Church & Domestic Violence. Love your statistics, sorry, neighbour as yourself.

pexels-photo-510725

Australia’s ABC’s 7.30 report and then 60 Minutes current affairs programs have, in the past week, again put domestic family violence (DFV) in churches, due to the misuse of scripture and warped readings of submission, under the spotlight.

Again it caused all sorts of defensive positions. Some Christians took refuge in atheist commentator Andrew Bolt decrying (Christian) reporter Julia Baird and Hayley Gleeson’s quoted research. To paraphrase most defensive camps, very loosely:

“The quoted statistics about evangelical men irregularly attending church being most likely to abuse their wives is offensive and nonsense and too old. So the rest must be rubbish.”

Or, “the ABC hates us Christians, we’re persecuted, so you can’t believe what they’ve said.”

Or, “I was interviewed for that story, I’m doing a lot to help victims of DFV, but they didn’t use any of the footage. Which made the DFV issue in church look worse than it is. And that’s why they chose not to use it. Because they want us to look bad.”

Baird has been called a “shameful Christian” and worse. The phrase “feminist agenda” pops up a lot – giving something or someone an agenda makes it/them sound so dangerous, underhand and divisive, doesn’t it?

What did the rush to redirect to incorrect reporting, bias, errors in statistics and vilifying Baird really achieve? It buried all the stories – the true, researched, on-record, painful stories – of women who had been abused by their husbands under the incorrect application of scriptural submission. As a result, many Christians focused their attention on any errors in the quoted statistics – rather than paying more attention to their neighbours. Consequently they derived false, horrible comfort at victims’ expense.

The rush to legal fact-checking was like the Pharisees questioning Jesus on the disciples plucking grain on the Sabbath. If we keep it about rules, regulations, and berate you for getting a statistic wrong, or not giving another statistic sufficient prominence, we might avoid looking at the real sinful failure here. Which is this:

There are wives who have been badly beaten, raped, made to feel unsafe in their homes, made to feel terror for their own safety and their children – all at the hands of Christian husbands misusing submission and headship scripture. There may be thousands, there may be hundreds, who knows, because the problem is, there’s no up-to-date data in the Australian context. But just because there’s no data – or the data that’s being extrapolated is from another country – is no excuse to blame-shift. Experts recommend we draw patterns from other countries and level those numbers UP because DFV is notoriously under-reported.

In fact the whole crux of Baird and Gleeson’s research shone light on this problem: there is no data and Australia desperately needs it.

I can’t believe I’m having to write this: but just ONE woman saying this has happened to her is one woman too many. More than one woman came forward to speak to the investigative reporters. All with awful stories of abuse. How dare we diminish their voices playing games of smoke and mirrors over data?

Please, all those men who assumed the defensive – “I’m an evangelical Christian and I’M NOT A WIFE BEATER, saying this damages the church, and me as a Christian, it’s wrong, you must stop sharing and spreading this sort of story, the statistics are wrong!” – I ask you to be bigger than that. I ask you to be stronger than that. I ask you to make yourself less in this. I ask you to lay down your lives. Put their stories first, put these women first. Love these sisters in Christ as Jesus does.

As an aside, when the research also shows that regular attenders at church are much less likely to be involved in domestic violence – which was reported by Karl Faase in Eternity in 2015 and also by Baird but less prominently – I’m slightly baffled as to why so much defensiveness and bluster. You faithful, solid Christian guys got paid a compliment…unless, of course, you don’t attend church regularly and are now paranoid everyone will think you’re a wife beater. If this is you, I’m going to gently ask you to man, I mean, Jesus up.

Jesus didn’t roar and bluster defensively. He wouldn’t have said, “Shame on you, Julia Baird for your use of that data that reflects poorly on me and my church.” Or, “Go fetch me more Australian data to support the story the woman shared of how her pastor told her to pray about it when her Christian husband was raping, abusing, and hitting her, and if he killed her first before he repented, well, at least the pastor reminded her she’d be in heaven with me. I need more data, Julia, data. Data thy neighbour. That’s it.”

Jesus is gentle.  Jesus comes back with love. With grace. He reached out a hand to the Samaritan woman at the well who, in my eyes, is the closest we have to a likely DFV sufferer in The Bible. He prevented the stoning of the adulterous woman. He didn’t join in throwing the stones.

I’m a former journo. I understand the news agenda. Immediacy, conflict, proximity, consequence etc etc. Baird and Gleeson have held up their research to scrutiny and while detractors and trolls will still likely scoff, it reads as solid research to me, not news agenda sound-byte chasing. Solid particularly in light of the lack of Australian data and fear so many women have about going on record.

As I’ve written before (links below), I don’t want to hear more stories emerge about DFV. I don’t want our churches to be viewed as places where wives who have experienced this will not be heard. Where their husbands will be allowed to stay while they themselves lose their body of Christ support. But until we move away from shrill, scared, ‘it’s just a feminist-agenda’, or trying to reduce it to errors in fact-checking, and an unwillingness to listen to women’s voices more fully in some church contexts, I’m afraid the stories will continue to emerge.

I want to thank those pastors who have been quick to say, “I don’t care who you are married to, I don’t care what position your husband holds in your church, if this has happened to you, I am here, I will believe and I will help and support you.” For those who tackle DFV in full sermons, not simply in passing through one or two verses, I salute you.

I contribute to sites written for women to learn what it means to follow Jesus. Some of whom use it as a safe place to reach out. DFV sufferers in the past week have shared to the site’s management team how they value the support and willingness of others to keep speaking out when they feel powerless and voiceless. So let’s be like the Lord we follow. To whom we owe our lives. Shine light, speak out and, please, weep with those who weep.

Other related posts pertaining to DFV on this site:

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

 

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.

Why I can’t put Jesus in a cat video

In a world of expanding waistlines (because we’re sitting longer in front of screens) yet shrinking attention spans, how do you get the good news into a succinct sound byte that cuts through ‘sufficiently’?

What has this got to do with putting Jesus in a cat video? images.jpg

Cat videos are popular, right? They get shared a lot, viewed a lot, and people make cute comments about, “ooh, I want a cat like that one!” So people who want to introduce Jesus make the clunky connection that if they can somehow make Jesus as cute and appealing as the fluffy grey kitten with the blue eyes and white bib, they’re on a winner. Kittens are culturally popular, so how can we use kittens to make Jesus culturally-popular too (and then get lots of shares and likes for him too, yay!)?

No! Number one, people aren’t that daft. Number two, Jesus is no kitten.

Lately, I’m uncomfortably aware that I simply can’t sell Jesus.

Now that’s fairly confronting for a PR chick who spends her life working out what tactics to employ to get people to think and feel a certain way about something. It’s even more confronting when I’ve a major assignment – on designing and creating an evangelism strategy –  due in less than three days and I’m stumped.

I’ve researched my target audience (the ‘sub culture’ using evangelism course terminology) and I understand their blocks to the Jesus message. The next step, if I follow the secular approach to crafting a comms and marketing strategy (which, dumbed down, is essentially an evangelism strategy: what to do to introduce Jesus) is simply list the tactics I’d employ and roll ‘em out.

But I can’t. I can’t put Jesus in a snazzy sound byte or cat video that will get likes and shares. And while I ponder apostle Paul – how he became a Jew to win Jews, Gentile to win Gentiles etc. I also bump up against Galatians 1:10. Am I trying to win the approvals of human beings or God? 

Jesus sells himself, doesn’t he? Whilst one of his last commands was to tell us to go to the ends of the earth to share his Good News, I end up shuddering at deconstructing Jesus’ sales message. I’ve spent hours googling ‘evangelistic tools’. If I write this artful blog, design this snazzy app, and add in some high production value videos of Christian celebrities wearing black clothing under mood lighting, maybe you too will be saved.

It’s just so commercial. I keep imagine Jesus in some sort of Steve Jobs pose, staring soulfully out of his redesigned Bible book cover, wearing a black turtleneck…

After all, none of us are shiny and perfect. That’s the beauty of Jesus. His humanity keeps him approachable and relatable. I don’t want my Jesus to be book cover perfect, with matching merchandise. I need to know he’ll look at my brokenness, my mess, and smile at me gently whilst holding out his grace. He gets to be the perfect one, not me.  Boy, doesn’t that take the pressure off?

But that doesn’t mean we have to make our methods of introducing him perfect. I made the error of thinking I had to, seduced into the idea of finding the best marketing practise for GJ&HS.

But what can compare? How do you improve on brand Jesus? Well, I could blog on about rules, judgement, denominational bickering, and Christian over-use of exuberant, shiny, “have you let the Lord Jesus into your life?” language. I still don’t believe any of that adds anything to brand Jesus.

Brand Jesus is about real and broken Jesus followers. Who love. Reach out with compassion. Who are brave enough to talk about him and have uncomfortable conversations that are confronting in today’s self-led, self-sufficient world. That none of us are perfect and that’s OK. That you are not defined by your car, house, career, family, schooling, Facebook, waistline, Instagram, sexual prowess, or duck face pose on social media… the list goes on.

I still don’t know what I’m going to submit as my evangelism assignment. I’m not sure the lecturer will accept me writing: pray, have coffee with someone each week, ask them about their spiritual beliefs and keep going until I get the opportunity to read some of the Bible with them. After all, His word does the work and never returns empty.

Maybe if I put all that in a cat video I’ll get a high distinction?

Baby Nate, Christmas and THIS chair

11-month old Nate is son and grandson of local business owners I know, with whom I’ve worked for a couple of years.dsc_8529

Nate is battling a rare disease called Langerhans Cell Histiocytosis (LCH), which affects only 1 in 200,000 children. Nate has tumours in all his organs and bone marrow. In order to fight the disease that is in so many parts of his body, Nate is currently undergoing chemotherapy 4 times a day. He has already had 12 blood transfusions.

Baby Nate has been hospitalised for three months now and the Doctors have not given any end date to his hospitalisation. He is one of three children and for his parents Alan and Kristy, maintaining a mortgage, providing food, paying for general bills and maintaining ‘normal’ for the other children has been very hard.

So, yesterday, a group of local businesses got together to host a fundraiser. A fast week of planning had resulted in an event location being secured, significant prizes being donated, the fundraiser being promoted and a wonderful show of support. A local photographer donated his services to take Santa photos. We found a jolly man, a red suit…and we needed a chair.

If you’ve been into a shopping centre lately for Santa photos, you’ll know a desk chair on castors or bistro club chair just doesn’t cut it. We needed something a little more substantial. Oddly enough, just four days out from Christmas, most of the Santa chairs were in use.

I know churches have an array of fancy looking wooden chairs. Surely I could track one down that would suit? Most of the churches I know have switched to a more comfortable seating-style for worship, but maybe there was something gathering dust in an storeroom? After a few calls, one church offered a lovely wooden Bishop’s chair.

Now, I’ve only met one Bishop and he didn’t strike me as the type of chap who worried overmuch upon the sort of chair he perched his bottom. So, by extension, given this was a cause to help a little child, I didn’t worry over much about any ‘religious’ connotations (or blasphemy) attached to plonking a fat, red-velvet-clad bottom onto a Bishop’s chair either.

Until I shared this photo (below) expressing my thanks to the church that had given the chair, saying we had raised nearly $8000 in two-hours for Baby Nate and his family, and how popular the Santa photos had been as part of the fundraising.

img_5794

“Please, please do not say where you got the chair if anyone asks,” was the fast reply.

Huh? You see, for me, a church isn’t a chair. Yes, this chair may indeed be a symbol of the bishop’s teaching authority but it’s a symbol. Cathedra is the Latin word for a chair with armrests, and it appears in early Christian literature in the phrase “cathedrae apostolorum”, indicating authority derived directly from the apostles.

Remember when Jesus rebuked the disciples for turning away children? If he was sitting on some fancy big chair at the time, he’d have let them clamber all over it. If the prostitute wanted to drape herself across the same chair while she washed his feet with perfume, Jesus would have shifted over to make room. So let’s not freak out about protecting the symbolism of a beautifully-carved chair if  – in a community example of loving their neighbour – a sexy santa and bloke holding a beer have given their time and money to have their photo taken to perch atop it.

The image above is a great metaphor for the church and modern society right now. This community rallied together to help a suffering family. It was a little bit beery, yes we played into the stereotype of blonde Mrs Santa, but the underlying reason – the motivation upon which we all perched – was that a bloke who walked the earth two-thousand years ago taught something counter-cultural. To pray for enemies, to turn the other cheek, to love your neighbour as yourself. 

The church may feel hidden underneath modern day secularism. It may feel the pressure of offering something different. But this sort of image gives me great hope. Because – whether you love Jesus or dismiss him – it is  from his teachings 2000 years ago that creates our heart-pull to help others.

Jesus started the love thy neighbour movement. The chair upon which these people sit is a larger rock. It may get hidden, it may be worrying to see it draped in red velvet, exposed flesh and holding a beer, but delight in the fact that it is there. Amongst it.

I didn’t tell people where the chair had come from, exactly. But I did share it had come from a church. And, without fail, everyone I told had the same type of reply:

“That’s brilliant! A church let us use this sort of special chair for this?! Wow. That’s really cool they’d let us do that.”

You see, out there in ‘secular’ world, too many people still think churches are stuffy, pompous places containing fun police. Caught up in symbolism and right use of furniture. Hushed reverence. They’d never imagine a church would give a Bishop’s chair for such a use.

And yet a church did. The wobbly, freaking-out moment seeing the photo had nothing to do with how the chair had been used and everything to do with what other Christians may think about how it was used.

Let’s not turn it into that. Let’s not be a community that judges how the hands and feet of Christ offer help and puts Jesus’ teachings into a well-carved, ornate structure that is removed from the real world. Instead let’s just keep pointing back to Him.

If you read this and feel moved to donate funds to baby Nate and his family, you can do so at: https://www.gofundme.com/saving-baby-nate. If you’re the praying type, please throw words heavenward for this family.

Amen.

 

Oh come all ye faithful…beer drinkers

Christmas carols are coming to a church near you. If you’re anything like myself BC, you may love a jolly singsong of ye olde carol favourites, but possibly fidget in the scripture section. Sort of like, “Yes, yes, we know the story: virgin, baby, no room at the inn, manger, star, kings with gifts, shepherds and angelic hosts. But are you going to do Jingle Bell Rock? Or that Mariah Carey one they sing in Love Actually?”

It’s fairly easy to do ‘-mas’ nowadays. If you pick council-run carols over churchy ones, you’re going to get more ‘-mas’ than Christmas. Taking the Christ part away just makes it sooo much easier to get people along. No confronting conversations about Isaiah and prophecies and someone dying to take away your sin. Makes it easier to get sponsors for the petting zoo and face-painting.

What’s a church to do when competing with -mas? As one church announced recently, you can offer Carols and Beer. I think this is fairly good, given evangelism works best when you meet people where they are at and within their context. Nothing an Aussie likes better than free cold beer. They may not come along for the Christmas message, but if Jesus slips in with the Coopers Pale Ale, excellent! url

But where would we be without social media to discuss sin? Some Christians voiced concern that beer is not an appropriate beverage to be served at church and carols. Hear, hear. Our Lord and Saviour was all about fine wine (remember the wedding at Cana), so let’s at least make it Grange and French Champagne.

I met someone recently who got to know the Jesus fella whilst serving the craft beer at a Men’s Event in a metro church. There he was, doing his job, serving up sensible nips of beer on those fancy wooden paddles for all the men attending. He couldn’t help but listen to the talk. Within a year he was enrolled in bible college and is now in rural NSW leading a fast-growing church. If beer had been deemed an inappropriate beverage that night, he’d likely have not met the Jesus fella. And what really stood out for him? “Well, you don’t expect a church to do a beer-tasting, do you? It made me think I’d missed something.”

The element of surprise. Not a bait and switch, more a beer and save!

I appreciate the damage of alcoholism, alcohol abuse and everything around it. There’s delicacy and I can see why – if the church is meant to be a guiding light, doing as Jesus would for others – some Christians have voiced their concerns. Yet, like any event, it’s about responsible service of alcohol. I’d trust that the beer and carol organisers would not encourage ‘every time you hear the word ‘angel’ take a drink’ games. It’s a large leap from offering a social beer with carols to say that the church is ignoring those who struggle with alcohol and putting temptation in their way.

Yet, even if that was the case, surely a church can be pastorally-smart enough to manage it? I have an amazing friend who is celebrating ten years dry. When we have dinner, I let her choose if I drink or not. Most days it’s a yes, but some days it’s a no. A ‘no’ becomes my prompt to ask what’s causing her to struggle and how I can help?

The same kindness could be extended at a carols where beer is being served – it would take some forethought, planning and a willingness to address the elephant in the room, but it can be done. Broached well, it could be its own pastoral opportunity:

“Welcome everyone to our carol service. You may be surprised to notice that our church is serving beer and also wine tonight. For some, that might be a welcome surprise and may even challenge some stereotypes of Christians being like Ned Flanders (insert pause for laughter). But for others, who choose not to drink for personal reasons, it may be a challenge or a struggle…. and so, what we’ve done is….[insert what suits your community best]….”

Each church is different. Each community is different. So meet people where they’re at. Your church may have a whole bunch of AA sponsors happy to float and mingle. Or there may be a strict confidentiality so you do some pre-work beforehand to have people available to walk alongside those who struggle.

It may not even be needed. But it certainly demonstrates to those folk who are visiting, the ones who are simply there for the beer and the carols, that Christians care. About people and their struggles. Or simply just to offer a cold beer on a hot day to toast the birth of the one who saves.

Sorry SAP, it’s all greek.. I mean God.. to me.

Lately I’ve had a few questions about the SAP. Where has this scarily forthright man of the cloth disappeared to?  Why aren’t I recording some SAP adventures? Is he MIA? foundsheepgreek

Yes and no. With almost two years in a church that has grown by around 40 per cent since he and Mrs SAP relocated to lead it, God has been incredibly busy in the smart-alec corner of a remote Aussie outback town. So you can imagine the SAP has been equally as hectic. Pastoring. Getting to know his new parish inside and out.  Nimbly translating God’s word from Hebrew and Greek each week without a guidebook to produce HS-led sermons. Plus the usual hatch, match and dispatching.

And the events. Oh my gosh, the events. The SAP has become the evangelising ninja of runsheet organisation. It warms the cockles of my public relations heart. Easter outreach. A massive dinner with a leading television performer. The other day he sent me an Instagram photo of his Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired Gingerbread House, and the upcoming Carols in the Red Dirt look to have the whole town rocking. Did I mention the brave Persecute The Pastor he hosted in the local pub? I’m not sure how many schooners he ducked as he did the equivalent of soapbox preaching standing on a wobbly bar stool, but the numbers in the pews speak for themselves.

At a time when many churches are shrinking, far behind the dusty wake of population growth, it’s a pleasure to see God in action within the SAP’s new church.

I am kidding slightly. Not about the growth. Or the evangelising events. But the SAP is dealing with more city carbon monoxide grey than red dirt. In his region there are 40 churches of his denominational ilk.  20 have under 100 people.  Ten of those are under 50.  And they are shrinking. So the church where the SAP works is bucking a trend.

Now I know it’s all God. But, as an outside observer, I’d also add that it’s much to do with the energy, personality, and sheer smart-alec-ness the SAP prays into his gigs. After all, the same God is in those ten churches with less than 50 congregants around the corner.

So what’s the difference?

It makes me wonder. Should smart-alec pastoring be a mandated subject in every theology degree?

SAPing isn’t on theology curriculums. Greek and Hebrew take centre stage, along with units like Church History, Sacraments, Jesus and the Gospels, expository (a fancy word for ‘what does this bible verse mean and how can we relate it to everyday, modern life?’) and – depending on where you enrol – training in preaching.

What do we do with personality?

I suspect personality can be a problem in bible colleges. What if a personality gets in the way of God’s word? Could an individual be tempted to think FIGJAM not FIGJAG? The tabloid fall from grace of ‘preachers with personality’ understandably gives people pause. If we stay safe, don’t rock the boat, keep charisma firmly away from everything, and stay well under God’s word, then nothing can go wrong. Don’t shine too much. Don’t challenge. For goodness sake, just keep your head down in the Greek and the Hebrew. Which is likely the equivalent of snorting bromide for someone with a smart-alec personality.

Languages recently got a dusting down on social media between biblical language heavyweight scholars and everyday juggling pastors who really just want to introduce Jesus to people who need him. The latter couldn’t give a flying FIGJAM about passing greek exams and learning to translate the original manuscripts. I asked the SAP’s opinion, given additional Greek study is a three-line whip he currently has to do as part of the ‘essential skills’ in his new job description (I was kidding earlier about his nimble weekly translations).

“I want to get on with what God has called me to do – preach in a way that people seem to understand easily that relates to their world on a Monday morning.  When that happens I’ll use my Greek like I have done for the previous 20 or so years: when I’m really badly stuck on a bit of exegesis I’ll consult Don Carson or one of the many other fine scholarly commentators we’re blessed to share God’s green earth with, or I’ll pick up the phone and ask a mate who is particularly gifted at Greek.”

Otherwise the SAP is content to back the Holy Spirit’s capacity to speak through him and leverage the rudimentary knowledge of Greek he already has.

From what I observe, it’s working so far. He and Mrs SAP are struggling to find the room to put out more chairs in their growing church.

God gives us all different gifts: the SAP’s is a willingness to apply imagination and rigour to exegesis so some of the stereotypes about GJ&HS (and the folk who follow them) are busted.

As Christians, if we’re passionate about reaching the unreached and spreading the Good News of the Jesus fella, then we need to meet people where they are at – in their current context – and stop berating and hobbling those pastors who do great jobs despite not having the ‘correct’ unit of study.

Where would the SAP’s time be better served? Studying all hours and commuting to bible college in order to achieve a certain percentage on a Greek exam? Or getting out and about with more of the people in his parish, diving deep into bible study groups, and solidly introducing the Jesus fella to as many as possible?

I can put my hand on my heart and say I’d still be in the ‘unsaved’ camp if the SAP had spent more time in Greek and Hebrew and less in smart-alec pastoring when I first picked up the phone.

Hopefully that is a sobering notion for any church bureaucrats more concerned about pastors passing Greek biblical study units than the souls of the people those same pastors in their diocese are passionate about evangelising.

It’s all God To Me

I did not care then, and care even less now, how the SAP could correctly translate the greek word in the bible for agape as the passionate, radical, hungering love that God has for me compared to the ‘quick, fancy a shag’ love of eros, the more contained, virtuous love of philia. 

Whether from decades of Greek language study or an hour with a theological book by D.A Carson, I care not a whit

Nor do I think God cares. He and the angels held a party in heaven, Jesus strung up a massive banner with my name on it, and there was much rejoicing, celebrating and helium balloons when I got with the GJ&HS program. “Finally!” they high-fived.

Jesus did not stop, pause and say, “Hang on a second, Dad. That SAP fellow who introduced her to me, he only did a year-long study of Greek as part of his undergraduate theology degree 20 years ago. That won’t do, will it? No grace for her!”

Instead, let’s imagine the conversation God has with the person who would take a pastor off their focus of growing and leading a church to bury them in achieving another Greek qualification.

God: “Let me get this straight. You were worried about a pastor who was helping grow My church and ensuring people were being introduced solidly to My son – all because of the amount of Greek he previously studied?

“Yet the church was growing whilst they were there involved there? And beforehand it wasn’t?”

I imagine God may remind us something like this: “With whom am I head over heels Agape? My lost sheep or Greek conjugations? Perhaps you missed that when you translating My word from the original language?”

Let’s play to strengths

Please don’t misunderstand me. The need to protect and be true to scriptural translations is vital. I give thanks for biblical language scholars. I just don’t believe God and Jesus expects every Rev. to have identical skills. Jesus called fishermen to build his church. If we explore the parable of the talents, it becomes clear that God apportions us different gifts.

If your gift is Greek, awesome! Please keep writing worthy scholarly tomes that help others less gifted in biblical languages. Help us preserve and better understand God’s word. If your gift is taking all of the ancient language, comprehending and unpacking the Bible so your everyday 21st Century person realises just how relevant Jesus remains, please don’t feel beleaguered and belittled by being less than nimble in languages.

For church hierarchies, perhaps this requires a long, hard look in the mirror? Facing up to the awkward question that perhaps one denomination is too focused on intellectual sermonising and Christian study, whilst another is a little too ‘loosey-goosey’ with scripture. Too much intellectualism can disenfranchise those needing to understand Jesus, and flakey ‘off-piste’ theology can lead people away from the cross not to it. There’s obviously a balance.

I also wonder how the horned mother trucker is feeling. For every prideful conversation he hears over the ‘right’ language study, the ‘right’ bible college and the ‘right’ amount of translation skills, he is likely smiling. As the body of Christ bickers over whose theological qualification is best, he gleefully rubs his hands:

“That’s it! Stay worried about the Hebrew and the Greek. Lose yourself in it. Get so buried in its dusty history you forget how to share Jesus so he makes sense today. Argue over your theological Grad Dips, Masters and Bachelor qualifications. Feel clever for attending the ‘right’ college and insecure if you didn’t. Suits me just fine.”

For an excellent couple of blogs on this topic, I highly recommend these two by Stephen McAlpine: My Greek is rubbish but I preach Ok and My Greek is OK but my preaching is rubbish.

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…