On Tuesday evening a group of my contemporaries gathered in a ‘mini-wake’ ahead of her funeral to celebrate the life of a friend, Monica Brewer. After a short, valiant journey (she didn’t like to call it a battle), she passed away early last week from a cancer that had been diagnosed a fast six months before.
She is not my first friend to die of cancer. She likely won’t be my last. But I wasn’t able to meet them to celebrate on Tuesday night. I was off doing something else. Something Monica played an instrumental role in my undertaking.
I was at my Bible College class. Should I wish, and most importantly should God wish, by the end of this course (a Graduate Diploma in Divinity) I could become an ordained minister. Which I’m certain God, Jesus and Monica are now having a jolly good laugh about in heaven. I don’t think that will actually happen, my being an ordained minister. I still swear waaay too much for that. But God does have a strong sense of humour, so I’ve learnt just to wait and see.
I met Monica through the She Business group many years ago, long before I became a Christian. Christianity was not what I expected in my 40s, and it took much wrestling and cage-fighting to figure it out. One of my wrestles was being a business owner and integrating my faith and work. Soon after I was baptised in the river, I retained Monica as a business coach – totally unaware she had a Christian faith herself.
Monica mixed a no-nonsense planning approach, thanks to her background as an accountant, with a matriarchal firmness I enjoyed. As I said to her at the time, “I don’t need you to talk to me about positive thinking mindset, I need you to call me on my sh*t,” and she did.
She and I worked on developing and rebranding my communications agency. But as GJ&HS swept relentlessly through my life, she could tell my heart wasn’t in it. I wanted a Kingdom-business but I was a new Christian still figuring out the Kingdom for me, let alone a business. It’s like I didn’t know enough about my own faith then to work it all out.
One day – after one of those dangerous crazy prayers – an executive role in an international not-for-profit Christian mission presented itself.
I remember turning up to my next planning meeting with Monica, totally conflicted. We had spent months, after all, planning and structuring this new agency. I told her about the prayer, and what had happened 24 hours later. “I just got goose bumps,” she told me. “Follow this. The agency will always be there for you to pick up. God will do the rest.”
Of course, she was right. He did. With spectacular results. From her encouraging me to walk through that first door, I now find myself studying, writing and preaching. Plus a new opportunity that saw me launch the Ministry of Sex. Yes, you read that right. And no, I’m not administering that sort of pastoral care. Everyone calm down.
The agency has also been prepared for me to pick it up again. Whilst working in the mission, I ran it remotely with an awesome team. Was it a juggle? Yes. Am I ready to focus on it fully, now? Yes.
Monica was part of that too. Three years ago she helped show me how to run a Kingdom business that integrated my faith – I just wasn’t sufficiently mature in my faith to recognise it at the time. During our meetings, our laptops open at her wooden dining table, an overseas visiting pastor (staying with the family as he studied at Bible college) would wander in and out. There was my Kingdom business model. Love God, love what you do in business, serve where you can and do it for His glory. He looks after the rest.
Today was her funeral. I love that they read Proverbs 31, as it encapsulates her perfectly. A woman of Godly character, in successful business, full of energy, with strength in her arms. Facing a cancer diagnosis that she called a gift from God, her faith assured her. I don’t doubt she was clothed with strength and dignity – and she may not have been laughing at the days to come, as the Psalmist writes, but she would have been fearless.
Thanks Monica. The biggest blessing is knowing I get to spend eternity with you in heaven. Dancing, just as we all did leaving the church today, just as you asked.
My eldest started high school the other week. The night before I slept like you do when you know you’ve a super-early plane to catch… a wee bit restless and never falling deeply asleep in case you miss the plane.
Four weeks ago the Millennium Falcon also landed in his mouth – a galactic installation of hinges that drop vertically between top and bottom jaw and connect as bars under his tongue, alongside a swathe of shiny metal tracks across all his teeth. He wobbled over it – for a day I wondered if we would ever see his smile again, his hand creeping up to cover his lips each time he spoke.
It is painful that the orthodontic work that relies on growth spurts and puberty to achieve its objectives coincides with the time when you don’t want to be different, are dealing with more than enough changes, and heading into an expanded new school grouping.
I ought not be surprised at how he navigated his high school preparation with quiet ease, it’s part of his nature. This is where we pray that all we have planted to date gives him the roots and strength to flourish, grow upwards and, yes, away.
It makes me think about God’s heart bursting with love and pride over us too. Those moments when we walk in His light, when we say no to the stuff of the world and turn to His promises instead, do the three of them give each other a quick high five? A trinity fist-pump of encouragement:
“YES! He navigated away from the porn site.”
“Oh, yes, look! She was so scared in her heart she’d be rejected, but she offered to pray for her work colleague.”
“She went to youth group when everyone else went to the party and got drunk. She’s going to get some stick about it on Monday, but she did it!”
“Their son didn’t get invited to the birthday sleepover because last time they picked him up early on the Sunday to get all the family to church. It hurts them as parents to see the exclusion. But they’re still sticking with church.”
Walking Christianity in a world that is set up to mock and challenge you for your beliefs is much like walking into puberty and a new high school with your mouth full of metal. It looks weird, it can feel weird, a lot of the time you struggle to talk – sometimes breathe – and you can feel the pain of blisters as you rub up differently to ‘the norm’.
Thinking that G&J are watching our journeys and cheering us on, helps, no? And not just cheering, but actively helping, with those wonderful God-shoves of the Holy Spirit. The book of James reminds up to persevere with joy – isn’t it cool to imagine the joy that GJ&HS get from us doing just that?
Like me with Master 13. Just bigger. Much bigger. A God-sized heart, bursting with love.
I was asked to give a talk a few weeks back: how to keep your ‘Be Happy’ new year’s resolution longer than February.
The original topic given to me to talk about was Hot Tips to Happiness. I pondered discussing great cocktails and great sex but decided while the audience (non-Christian parents dropping their kids off at a church-run summer event) might enjoy it, it likely wasn’t the best context to discuss gin and g-spots…
But being happy seems to be the goal nowadays. Do X, achieve Y, add in a dash of Z and, ta-da, happiness! Working at RedBalloon a few years ago, the tag line was “Creating A Happiness Revolution.” In RedBalloon’s case, at least it wasn’t the pursuit of buying stuff that made you happy…rather the pursuit of experiences, doing things – either solo or with friends and family – that delivered happy. Yet it’s still external. Still a pursuit.
Being happy isn’t as easy as it’s advertised.
Our economy is geared up for happy: in advertising, brands want to be associated with smiling, laughing, happy customers, and positivity has been shown to increase sharing and engagement on social media. Billboards tell us to open a coke, open happy! Don’t worry, be happy. Lose weight, marry someone who looks and behaves like Hugh Jackman… these are all things we’re told can make us happy (I’m waiting to test out the Hugh Jackman theory.. just as part of research, you understand).
We see happy, we connect with it, and we all go, yes, I want that. And the mistake we can make is thinking that happiness is something that can be pursued. If I just pay off my debts, I’ll be happier. Get that red dress, I’ll be happier. Have a cleaner house (by the way, no-one lies on their death bed saying they wished they’d spend more time cleaning!).
C.S Lewis, of Narnia fame, once described suffering as God’s megaphone. When my Mum died six years ago, when I was grieving her, I was very aware of what I was experiencing internally. To go off and find happy externally seemed to make a mockery of what I was feeling inside. It made no sense to look at happiness as an external pursuit. If sad was in my heart, then happiness, it’s opposite, must be in there too.
Proverbs 15:15 says this:
A miserable heart means a miserable life;
a cheerful heart fills the day with song.
So how do we go about encouraging our hearts to be cheerful? Below are some some good daily habits, and then I’m going expand on one area that gets insufficient attention.
Take a daily thank you walk – “Feel blessed and you won’t be stressed” – what you pay attention to that grows. What do you give thanks for every day?
Talk to yourself – Not the naggy, unkind voice we can too often use. Remind yourself of the lovely truths about yourself. Me, I came to a faith in Jesus a few years ago and that really gave me a new perspective on how to talk to myself. In the Bible God tells me that I’m fearfully and wonderfully made and that God’s works are wonderful. Who am I to disagree with God? When you talk kindly to yourself, when you share God’s perspective on yourself, there’s an immense amount of love and happiness that comes with that.
Get more sleep – a great night’s sleep cannot be replaced by a double latte.
Don’t waste your energy on negative things. Gossip. Your past. Stuff you can’t change. Forgive yourself, and others, admit your mistakes and ask forgiveness of others too.
Love, serve and care – For centuries, the greatest thinkers have suggested the same thing: Happiness is found in helping others. Jesus said it is better to give than to receive. Through MRI technology, we now know that giving activates the same parts of the brain that are stimulated by food and sex. Experiments show evidence that altruism is hardwired in the brain—and it’s pleasurable.
You don’t need me to tell you five tips, or ten steps, to daily happiness habits. We’ve got google for that! I did it when writing this: how to have a happy life. I got about 14 articles per page, and by page 18 of Google I’d stopped pressing ‘Next’. But there were plenty more. Hundreds if not thousands of articles on how to be happy.
But we’re not. In any one year, around 1 million Australian adults have depression, and over 2 million have anxiety. I suffered from it, and I’m sure everyone knows at least one person. It’s on the rise.
So for all the self-help articles, for all the hints and tips out there, ‘being happy’ must be – if you look at the stats – hard. Or are we looking at it the wrong way?
What if it isn’t about self-help?
For all those articles I googled, the one thing I noticed – Jesus didn’t pop up once. He didn’t get a mention as a way to happiness. Yet the 5 tips above, they can all be traced back to Jesus. Even getting more sleep – like the time in Mark 4, when he and the disciples are in a boat when there’s a massive storm, Jesus is fast asleep in the bottom of the boat, the disciples are panicking, yelling “How can you sleep?! We are going TO DIE”.
How can Jesus sleep? He sleeps because he’s assured of His Father in heaven. Sleep, prayer, thankfulness, forgiveness – these are ways of happiness –– they are all ways that Jesus modelled not because of SELF-help. But because of His trust and the love of his Father in heaven.
And that’s the same for all of us. It’s not about SELF-help, but God’s help.
The Bible has plenty in it about happiness, but defines it differently than our culture. The happiness the Bible advocates isn’t dependent on circumstances. The words for “bless” and “blessed” in both the Old and New Testaments means “well-being,” “flourishing,” and “happiness.”
Itis used throughout the Psalms and Proverbs to describe the happy state of those who live wisely according to God’s design.
Four years ago, I wasn’t a Christian. In fact, I’d done the self-help, new age thing for over a decade. Courses, crystals, books (I even went to a church that channeled an alien) – you name it, I tried it. Searching for happiness. There was always another course, another book.
And then I met Jesus – and may I say, I have never been happier. Augustine (one of the great early church theologians and a wild man before he met Jesus) said a lot of pretty fantastic things. This is one: ‘You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts find no rest until they find their rest in you.’
In Jesus, I have found rest, peace, contentment – happiness – no matter what the external world throws at me.
And, unlike that external pursuit of happiness, of striving, God says STOP.
God says, YOU don’t have to do all the work to be happy. No. I’m pursuing YOU. I love every hair on your head. I sang over you as you knit together in your mother’s womb.
With God’s love and gift of Jesus, there are no rules to get right, no external things to chase. No ladder of rights and wrongs you have to climb up to reach God.
Instead, in Jesus, you meet the God who came down the ladder. Pursuing us. He became human, lived the sinless life we could not, died the death we deserved, then rose again – all in order to ensure a close, forgiven relationship with us. Through faith. And Grace. Nothing else.
Being loved like that, being redeemed by that, no matter what, gives you an incredible blank canvas each day of love, trust and happiness. Jesus died and overcame death for me so I could be in right relationship with God.
And His love is where true happiness and flourishing comes from.
A lovely new friend said to me recently, after she’d gotten to know Jesus, “Phil, it sounds mad, but even the trees seem greener!” It’s not mad – it’s the right order of things. A relationship with God, through Jesus, means we flourish. And when we flourish, happiness is a natural by-product. Psalm 1 tells us that in relationship with God we are like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fresh fruit, always in blossom. Happy.
I want to close with something that Jesus said that resonated strongly with me when I was seeking happiness. You see, we put so much effort in trying to achieve happiness, we can just end up exhausted. Jesus said this in Matthew’s Gospel, and I’m using a more modern message translation as it really speaks into how harried we can become pursuing happy:
“Are you tired? Worn out? Burnt out? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”
If you’re tired out by this pursuit of happiness, and you like this idea of blossoming, flourishing with ease, without the stress and effort, try hanging out with the Jesus-fella for a while. And if you don’t know where to start, drop a comment below and I’ll do my best to help.
Eleven years ago right now I’d finished around 17 hours of labour. After firmly refusing to go to hospital because, with the firstborn – 22 months before – they sent me home twice. No way was I going to hospital until things were serious in the contra-aaaahhh-ction department.
Number two was overdue. Which challenged all my journalist, deadline-orientated, thinking. Number one had arrived on his due date, after all.
I believe God sends you the children you need. Aren’t they the most glorious, confronting, gap-analysis mirrors of our very best and worst traits?
Number one is my introvert, reflective, deep-thinking mirror. I understand number one with his phlegmatic approach to life. He is more mellow and methodical than I, but, like me, hides well how deeply he feels. He takes peoples’ measures quickly, succinctly and does not suffer fools gladly.
Gestating number two likely had less of my attention because I was busy living and parenting with number one. It was less ‘beautifully-planned nursery’ and more ‘hand-me-down Bond WonderSuits’. So then – like now – number two devised her own way of gaining attention. Overdue? Yes, and I’ll stay that way until you really focus on me.
After acupuncture in an effort to get things moving, the practitioner said to me: “I get the strong sense it has something to do with the name you’ve chosen. And the nursery.” That evening, Big T and I finally spent sometime getting the nursery more organised. As we sat together on the small sofa placed for night-feeds, we changed the orginally-chosen name to Grace. In less than 30 minutes the first contraction began.
Fast forward a few years and it was her name, uttered in my first phone call with the SAP that set him thinking that maybe, just maybe, God was chasing me down. I’d failed to notice quite a few signs over the years before. Like the name-change.
Number two feels every emotion deeply – and she lets us all know. From extremes of joy to extremes of frustration, phlegmatic is never an adjective we will ascribe to her. Until I really knew God and Jesus, I never understood grace. But I watch it each day in the daughter whose name we changed.
You see, she may veer from sheer frustration and anger one moment, to joy and wide smiling love another – but she never holds a grudge. Sure, she may sweat it – for a while – but she can also forget it in a flash. She forgives. She tells me when I’ve hurt her feelings. And vice versa. And we hug and it is gone.
I’m sure life will deliver its bruises to her, but I pray she holds onto the peace, redemption and love of the one from where we chose her name.
On her birthday, I am reminded of God’s long-range plans for me, for all of us. I imagine God explaining:
“Phil’s going to take a while to get with the program, son. So I’m just going to do this small thing with Ecclesiastes 3:2 and her daughter, regarding a time for everything and a time to be born. Press upon her a different name. A few years later, that name’s really going to stand out. For her and that SAP fellow I’ll have pick up the phone.”
It once again shows me how personal and loving our Abba in heaven is when it comes to wanting a close relationship with us. He plays a long game to relentlessly pursue us with love. With Grace.
Did this three years ago yesterday (hint: wasn’t a swim safety program). As I blogged at the time, it wasn’t the easiest of decisions. I only admitted quite recently to the SAP that on the day of dunking, I almost didn’t turn up. “Like I wouldn’t have driven over and dragged you down to the river,” he answered.
Hmm. It’s not like you can hold people down in baptism against their will. That would be known as..well.. drowning. But I got his point.
My sudden onset cold feet had little to do with my faith in God and Jesus, and more to do with my faith in me at the time. The SAP could likely see quite clearly that G&J had me embraced, secure and held up. It was ME – with all my quivers over being worthy of such unconditional love – that had me teetering.
Now? I look back on that woman and wonder, wow, who was she? There is little from back then I recognise. Which is the beauty of a crazy, radical, loving journey with GJ&HS. They did all the work. I surrendered. Perhaps not totally gracefully (cagefight with God, anyone?) but no-one’s perfect here. That’s Jesus’ gig.
The HS is good. And kind. And patient. But even He’s going to roll his eyes at my preference for ribald language, cheek and a large gin or four. I imagine the discussion of my HS download – after I got to grips with being head-over-heels with the Jesus fella – being an entertaining board meeting in heaven.
The difference now is I sit with ME secure in how I’m fearfully and wonderfully made. Back then, I sat behind the ribald, the cheek, the gin (ok, I’m kidding a bit with relying on the gin, ease up with the AA intervention, SAP), and prayed I could let some love in.
“Be vulnerable, ” God would whisper to me, oh, so often, these past three years. That was the hardest lesson of all. Saying I am vulnerable, and then actually doing vulnerability, are worlds apart.
Plus, to be brutally honest: in Australia today Christians – and the church – are hardly embraced with open arms. You’ve only got to look at some of the same-sex marriage commentary (hating, homophobic bigots, anyone?) or the latest news coverage on domestic violence in the church, and it’s enough to make anyone wonder WHYI’d reach such a decision.
The answer: irresistible grace.
Ask me if I’m religious and I’m likely to have bile rise in the back of my throat. Dear God, I never want to be religious. The toughest words Jesus had back in the day were for the religious rulers, the Pharisees. No, I just want to try to walk a little bit more like Jesus each day.
Which isn’t about me being judgmental or trying to follow churchy rules. I still think that’s where Jesus gets lost in translation. It’s actually more about me throwing my arms open wide and going, “TA DA! I am so utterly loved in the Jesus-fella despite my many, varied and colourful failings, and LOOK, look what he gets to do with me. Fixer-upperer. Holy spirit makeover.”
I was happy to dunk down in that river three years ago because of the sheer love and grace that Jesus showed me when he walked to the cross on my behalf. My journey over the past three years has only continued to show how wide and long and high and deep that love is.
I’ll never be the pin-up poster girl for religion. But I pray I can be a pin-up for Jesus. Who is now covering his eyes and saying, “Don’t type that! D’you know what some people will make of a line about me and pin-up girls!?!”
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.
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.
11-month old Nate is son and grandson of local business owners I know, with whom I’ve worked for a couple of years.
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.
“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 churchlet 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.
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.”
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…
Sometimes I take a skim back through the first bogs I wrote about this journey to God through his son Jesus. It is a reminder of not how far I have come, but of how far they have brought me. Radical renovation. The fixer-uperer. I suspect God and Jesus look at all of us and spot potential.
I came to a heart understanding of G&J long before my head caught up. It is my heart that keeps me in step, or reminds me when I’m out of sync. Whenever my God signal goes on the fritz it’s usually because I’ve been over-thinking.
Which makes it kind of hilarious that have I wound up in one of the most brain-dominant, intellectual denominations. I’ve written enough publicly now to receive some intellectual critiques. Suggestions how I could have better presented doctrine. While I graciously take it aboard, and enjoy the perspectives, I’m happy to say I don’t write in order to defend my head understanding of God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit.
I write to celebrate them. The way they touch my heart and make me cry over the gifts they send me, even when I’ve been spending too much time in my head.
2016 started up with a bang for our household. Challenges and sadness. Lies and egos. Death and more death. A time when the heart stutters and my head sought to butt its way through the obstacles, because if I plough through fast enough that hurt may just be outrun.
I have learnt a few lessons in the past 18 months or so. Rather than ploughing through, I now plough down with a Psalm or two. As I dragged myself out of my head and back into my heart a week ago, spitting plum stones and tears at a scripture passage, all I could say was, “I really need some encouragement right now.”
I know, this is hardly the ACTS approach to prayer (Adoration, Confession, give Thanks, Supplication). But ACTS is head structure and I needed to take heart. Given my dialogues with G&J are typically like an ongoing conversation, it may feel to them that I have a ACTSTCASASTACTSAAASTT morse code kind of prayer stuttering and beeping away…or even SACT when I’m slanging…
The amazing thing about staying in my heart with God and Jesus is how quickly they respond. It’s almost like when I withdraw into my head they shake their own – not in a negative way, but in a ‘Really? Are you going to try that again? Ok, dear heart, we’ll be here when you’re ready’ and they wait kindly and patiently for me to sort it out.
Within ten minutes of my prayer, I took a call in my office sharing encouragement over some changes taking place on quite a broad level at the Christian charity I am involved with; the next day there was an engagement spike in a campaign we had been testing; and then small yellow post it notes of God’s love started appearing all around, day in, day out. Even just hours ago, battling with an emotional dragon, there popped a perfect article into my inbox. Today? Of all days? Really?
I can’t dismiss them as coincidence because they are too specific, too personal and too bespoke tailored to what my heart seeks when they happen. The lesson – as always – is staying out of my head and simply having faith in what I know in my heart.
God and Jesus don’t want our heads. They want all of us. But especially our hearts. Spitting plum stones and slanging Psalms. Shaking metaphorical fists and then being moved to weep because the amount of love they pour out is simply too overwhelming to pack into this broken human vessel.
Their radical renovation skills work best when I stop rationalising in my head and start allowing in my heart. When I throw everything wide and offer them holy squatters rights. Allow the HS building squad to move in and do the fixer-uppering.
Not only was the weekend Valentine’s Day, it was also world radio day on February 13th. I used to work in both BBC and ABC radio donkey’s years ago and, after producing a three-episode series on divorce over three generations, some lovely souls at Radio National gave me an award. So whilst I love to write, I’m fairly aural – probably why God shoves songs and lyrics at me in the early hours to get my attention.
Which He did fairly strongly in June last year regarding a job application, meaning today I write this as operations manager of the Australian arm of Far East Broadcasting Company, a global not-for-profit that uses radio and internet to broadcast the gospel into impossibly hard to reach places.
Not simply broadcasting tracts of scripture. Christ’s love may be captured in the Bible, but it was also seen through his acts, so FEBC’s radio programs cover education, social issues, literacy, and health. Practical love and help broadcast in the listener’s own language, produced by volunteers who come from the communities they are broadcasting to. This is no ‘fly in, fly out’ mission. It is vine and trellis, tent-spreading mission with longevity, insight and understanding.
In Northern India, rife with sex trafficking, fathers hear FEBC’s radio programs and are educated to understand that their daughter being sold ‘to a better life away from poverty’ is actually a life of brothels and hopelessness. As a direct result of FEBC’s radio programs about legal rights and the importance of each individual, no matter their gender, there has been a drop in young girls trafficked and the number of female foetuses aborted.
As Ebola ravaged Sierra Leone, FEBC’s first response disaster radio programs offered practical health advice on dealing with the virus but also shared Christ’s hope. That there was love in amongst the horror. Last October, in response to Typhoon Koppu, the Philippines First Response Radio, in partnership with FEBC Philippines, used the suitcase radio station (pictured) in partnership with OCHA, The Office of Civil Defence (OCD) and other NGOs to get vital health and infrastructure messages broadcast.
You see, like God, radio gets in. On a loop. It may be the background noise to everyday life, but the message is there. From mobilising Russian Christians to adopt over 50,000 social orphans out of terrible situations in orphanages, to offering the means to educate new pastors via Bible Correspondence courses for effective church planting in Mongolia, I have been slack-jawed by the breadth, depth and width of the work that FEBC does. Which can all start from a tiny, A$30 wind-up or solar radio.
Could I EVER have imagined myself working there? Well, given the first Christian job I applied for knocked me back for having no faith and set me on a path to Christianity, I’ve learnt to be cautious with what God imagines! There’s a danger in praying ‘over to You.’
He has heard me mutter, “what were You thinking?” plenty of times in my short time at FEBC. I bring a default of commercial leadership to this Christian not-for-profit because, dear Lord, I’ve only being doing this G&J biz for not quite two years. The wiring is sometimes off. There can be a tension in that – there have been plenty of meetings when I’m on my knees ahead of time. Only recently I was battling with what I term ‘commercial rigour’ and the SAP gently suggested I used ‘good stewardship’. Ah, yes. Same intent, yet more positive and Christian.
The BC (before Christ) me wants to sprint at speed, get stuff done, and struggles with impatience. Re-wiring to ‘lead like Jesus’ does not happen overnight, no matter how much of the Holy Spirit God is gracious in bestowing. “Because that would be too easy,” He whispers. Some tests are needed to prove mettle. Thank God for grace.
I’ve also learnt that working in a Christian mission is harder than secular. Harder to get stuff done. Not simply due to lack of funds or skills, as often can be cited in NFPs. It may read as ‘woo-woo’ but when you work in a mission that spreads God’s word across the globe, I’m certain the horned mother-trucker throws extra obstacles. I have learnt I cannot race and get stuff done at all unless I pray for God’s help, blessing, guidance and, yes, protection too, first.
It has proved both my biggest challenge and greatest blessing (discounting coming to G&J in my 40s!). If you want to know more about a cost-effective mission that you or your church could be involved in, please take some time to learn about FEBC Australia’s work, especially if you didn’t know they turned 50 last year. This month’s story in Eternity is a great place to start. Download is below. Happy World Radio day! http://issuu.com/biblesocietyau/docs/e66_p1_p20_final/4…