Jesus is.. Lost In Translation

Daily I’m convinced that Jesus is lost in translation. And if he was lost in translation to me, I’m thinking he has been lost in translation to plenty of others. Below are a few of the comments that have been directed at me:

  • So, practising Christianity is something ‘you do’?
  • But you haven’t changed!
  • Yet you’ve got your s*&t shorted!Unknown
  • Why do you need the crutch of God & Jesus?

So what has been lost in translation?

The misunderstanding that practising Christianity is something ‘you do’

As a friend asked recently, “so, does this take up a lot of your time?” Umm…G&J take up virtually all my time. I never imagined I’d forgo downloading the latest chiller-thriller on my Kindle for J.I Packer’s ‘Knowing God’, but there you have it. This isn’t, personally, something I can switch on and off after church each Sunday. G&J rappelled into my heart and now urge me to get to know them better. Not from some intellectual theological perspective (too much of that has led to the loss in translation, I suspect) but because I WANT to. I want to know them, not have knowledge of them, because the knowing delivers joy.

Unlike other transient happinesses in my life, this joy just hangs on in there. It isn’t intellectual, it just is. Like riding a bicycle or learning to float/swim, it can’t be broken down into distinct parts and explained so someone else can do it. It’s within. From when I open my eyes each morning to their close at night (and quite often overnight when God pays one of his 3am visits and shoves me awake with blog post suggestions).

“But you haven’t changed!” 

As if my new relationship with G&J would change my martini-enjoying, dance-loving, often sweary, robustly honest approach to life. But there was the misunderstanding that I would turn into the fun police. Put a fish sticker on my car. Stop buying devastatingly gorgeous faux snakeskin boots (as if sanctification would ever stop me buying devastatingly gorgeous shoes).

Sadly, Jesus is lost in translation because of what is ‘expected’ of Christians. The ‘do-gooder’ stereotype. Shiny language. I know I’ve changed, but it probably isn’t in the way people expect. Internally I feel more accountable for thoughts, words and deeds. I am no ‘holier than thou-est’, but, God, He makes me think. Again, not because I have to – grace is freely given, there’s nothing I can do to earn it – but because I choose to. G&J make it easier to love another as myself. The Holy Spirit at work? Absolutely. Left to mine own devices, I’d be as short-patienced as ever.

“But you’ve got your sh*t sorted!” 

I didn’t have -isms and -tions (alcoholism, addiction etc) that secular people expect of ‘born-again’ Christians who “have been saved”. For many observing me, I had my sh*t pretty well sorted.

But there’s all sorts of saving. After a poignant poetry/drama about an incredibly busy career woman who finally found ‘quiet space’ in the understanding of Jesus and grace, the SAP commented to me in his tactful, diplomatic way,”hey, that reminded me of you, Phil!”

I recall feeling affronted. “Steady on, I wasn’t that bad,” I responded, thinking of the character’s incessant hamster-wheel of internal chatter. But, with quiet, humble reflection, I had to acknowledge the smart-alec had a point. I hadn’t filled up my life with drinking or shopping or career addictions. My mind wasn’t busy at that low-level. Oh no, it wasn’t filled with chatter. Or gratuitous ‘stuff’. It was filled with being too damn capable. Always the grown-up.  Responsible. I could overlay it with wit and humour, but push came to shove and I’d always, always, pick up the responsibility rod.

In an odd way, G&J have reminded me to be a kid again. To put down unecessary responsibilities. Or, better, hand them over to them. They deliver plenty of ‘in the moment’ joys that children embrace so well but we adults often forget. There is a huge amount of humour in their relationship with me.  At the risk at turning into my psych nemesis, there is a new freedom in being ‘childlike’ that I didn’t get to enjoy when I was a child due to family circumstances.

See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. – 1 John 3:1 (ESV)

Why do you ‘need’ the ‘crutch’ of God & Jesus?

To term them a crutch insults my faith in them. G&J flank me. Some days they carry me, others they may drag me, but each day they walk steadily next to me. It is my error if I neglect to turn my head and acknowledge their presence. When I do, I walk taller, become lighter and unencumbered.

Crutch? No. Rather armour, wings, shelter – all of those and more. What is lost in translation is that G&J are not some insipid, wafting notions of love, all caftans and peace signs. There is valour and strength that is too often unnoticed:

Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled round your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. – Acts 17:11

That’s not a crutch. That’s Russel Crow winning an Oscar in Gladiator. Or Jack Reacher (in 6′ 5″ literary form, not Tom Cruise). That’s stand up and be counted.

Moth diving towards the light

Today is messy. I don’t know if it’s due to Easter, or I’m tired of polishing words for clients, but I want to write without censor. Just to see what happens when I sit and simply let it flow out my fingertips.

the-moth-radio-head-elisa-006I just arrived home from the Easter assembly at school. Where I had volunteered to be a team leader on stage as part of Mission Week. Based on the theme of Jesus being the light of the world, we played a game. My team were moths. The lights went down. And when the house lights came back up we had to do what good moths do when they see the light. Forward, back, messily banging wings and being hit off course. Yet, still, wanting to go towards the light.

There were two other teams. Cockroaches and plants. This is a junior school. So the metaphors couldn’t be too nuanced. Plants grow in the light. Cockroaches scurry to the dark. Moths bounce around trying to get to the light. The takeaway: how do you want your relationship with Jesus and God (the light) to be?

The school minister encouraged us all to be plants. The principal thanked me for my participation. And as I looked over at the (winning) plant team I thought, “wish I’d been a plant…”

Yet, back home, in front of the keyboard, when I really ought to be writing a million other words for a client website, all I can think about is moths. Fine, delicate, powder-coated insubstantial wings. Drawn towards a light that confuses them. I see so much of my Christian journey in that imagery.

Once, very, very early on, my witticisms about The Life Of Brian in an email prompted the SAP to suggest meeting up for a chat over coffee (well, chai for him). I suppose when you are faced with a seeker using Monty Python as a yardstick for getting to know Jesus, a good pastor recognises the value of early intervention. For me it was a moth day.

There we sat in a busy cafe, with the SAP using language rich with God, Bible and Jesus. Back then was the first time I had ever properly sat down with a ‘qualified’ Christian and had an adult conversation.

Here’s what I thought as I listened and internally moth-dived: Man, he’s really into this. Not sure I’d ever be that keen. Then, looking around at all the tables close by: And he doesn’t care if anyone hears (which left me feeling both impressed and with edgy images of cafe patrons with pitchforks).

I had possibly attended church twice by then and mentioned the recent sermon about Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. The SAP commented what it must have felt like for Paul and receiving that astounding level of love, grace and forgiveness.

Then, in his describing of it, and which will now always be one of my ‘burnt on the retina’ memories, the SAP’s eyes welled with tears. And there it was. My first, tiniest glimpse into the joy that Christianity has since delivered. I may not have been able to name it then, but it was the initial synapse flare that shoved into my heart: That, I thought. That’s what I’ve been seeking.

The light. Despite my envy of the plant team earlier today, moth-diving crazily into it seems to have worked for me. With the realisation that whether plant, moth or cockroach, it’s always there. Sometimes you just need a glimpse.

Even when it’s in a crowded cafe. From a SAP.

I’m done, Easter’s cancelled

I know I’ve only been a Christian for about a minute, but today I reached an important faith decision. I’m cancelling Easter. Throw as many choccie eggs (fair trade, please) at me as you like, but I’m done. SNF04CRUNCHA682_773694a

Before you think the smart-alec pastor (SAP) has fallen down rather horrendously on his job, I do understand Easter has immense significance in the Christian calendar. That’s the problem. I’m beginning to doubt whether I can do Easter, year in, year out, without, well, breaking a few eggs.

It started because I was trying to be a ‘good’ Christian (rather than the less compassionate one who drops F-bombs and has to stop herself from telling people to swallow concrete and harden up).

I had decided to download a Bible study app about Easter. I’d been plagued by a nagging notion to seek stillness, not unlike the days prior to my Lipton-ing and, given it was Easter a year ago that started me off on this Christian journey, I quietly chose to do some gentle honouring of the event.

I do love a good Bible app. It’s like G&J for the time-poor. Not only does it give me the choice of putting the Bible books in alphabetical order for quick-find brilliance (imagine my shame over a backyard lunch one day when a UHT Christian recited all the books in order), it comes with a built-in narrator! The New international Version (NIV) chap sounds a bit like Garrison Keller (his inflection when he says Jesus makes me grin each time) while the bloke who does the King James Version (KJV) sounds like Anthony Hopkins crossed with Richard Burton. Incredibly Shakespearean, darling.

So there I was, driving to my early work appointment, with Garrison Keller narrating the Easter Reading plan. John 13-21, Luke 22-24, Mark 14-16 and Matthew 26-28. Let me tell you, it was awful (not the narrator, the content).

I was fine with Easter before I became a Christian. But now? As I listened, and re-listened to Easter narrative from each gospel, my heart tore. We (humans) beat an innocent man, spat on him, humiliated him, taunted him, gave him an unfair trial and killed him brutally: crucifixion is death by suffocation, loss of body fluids and multiple organ failure. Not only was I in sorrow due to the enormity of what Jesus sacrificed, I was struck afresh by how little humanity has learnt since.

Listening to those 14 chapters in close proximity, the similarities jumped out. I found myself wishing that something would change. That, somehow, there would be a different ending. That Jesus’ prophecy about Peter disowning him three times before morning would alter. That Pilate, asking the crowd did they want Jesus or Barrabus, would throw up his hands in disgust and say, “Don’t you get it yet? The dude who performed all the miracles is the one you want, not the red-neck who started the riot.”

It was like listening to a car-crash. Groundhog Day of the worst order. No matter that I knew it unfolded the way it did to fulfil scriptural prophecies from the Old Testament and the Psalms, from the dividing of Jesus’ clothes to the piercing of his side, to resurrection: “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days” – I still hoped I would hear a plot change. Some new twist that would redeem humanity’s inhumanity to another.

Worse, when I shared with the SAP about how harrowing I found it, he answered he finds it the same. Still. After all these SAPing years. Which means I’ve got some sorrow-filled Easters ahead of me. So that’s why I want to cancel it. Or at least bury myself behind the cushions until the worst bit is over.

Of course, I know I can’t really. Whilst the Easter narrative leaves me hollow over how flawed humanity is, it does offer the promise of something more joyful. Yet paid for so awfully – “to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28) – in such circumstances.

Yet the cliff-hanger of the Easter story is not Jesus. It’s me. And every other flawed, imperfect human and what we might choose to learn from Jesus, his crucifixion and resurrection: This is my commandment: Love each other in the same way I have loved you. There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:12)

Dear God, can Hugh narrate The Bible app, please?
Dear God, can Hugh narrate The Bible app, please?

Christian Girls Are Easy

The SAP had another chai-spluttering moment when he read that headline. Yet it is his fault, given he alerted me to a problem that appears to be invading church youth across Australia, possibly even the world. No-one seems to be getting any. And by ‘any’ I mean courting. Courting is apparently dead in the church. Caught between friendship with fellow female young Christians and wrestling with what’s written about scriptural purity, it appears there are scores of young Christian men frozen by indecision.

This is not good! It’s hard enough getting people along to church in this reaching, secular world. If all our young Christians end up so frozen by purity that they can’t even ask each other out for a coffee/cake/gentle get to know you, what chance have they got of ever getting together, tying the knot, and bringing lots of young baby Christians into the world?

I am reminded of the World War Posters – Christianity Needs You!Your+Church+needs+you

As readers will know, I’ve been longer secular than Christian. You really don’t want to know the full story of how my husband and I met. Suffice to say it had something to do with me getting my name on a plaque on a pub in Bathurst that required me to drink 100 pints of Guinness. Big T was brave enough to stand out from the easy-on-the-eye, yet conversationally challenged local stock and station agent with whom I had been attempting a dialogue. Big T plonked a diet coke down in front of me and the rest is history. I did still get my name on the plaque, though.

What I rarely share is that God has His hand on our relationship from the start. You see, as Big T walked into the pub, my housemate, who knew him already, pointed him out. It sounds like a cliche but I looked across the pub and it was like the molecules in the room shifted. A literal judder of the air. And no, I hadn’t had that many pints of Guinness! I hadn’t even made eye-to-eye contact with the man, but the impact was palpable. Then clear as a bell in my head: “That is an incredibly significant person in your life.”

I attempted to quickly converse with the conversationally-challenged local stock and station agent because I was freaking out! I was an enlightened, double-degree holding, career-minded woman whose predecessors had won her the vote. What was all this sappy, our eyes didn’t even meet across a crowded room and I was getting the shivers, business?

But God found a way. May have taken a while for me to cotton on (sorry God) but He found a way.

Based on the above, the lesson is that God really doesn’t need any help in bringing a spouse into your life. So get over worrying about that bit.

Yes, marriage is serious. But coffee does not equal marriage. It does not mean, “and with this latte/double shot/soy/skim cappucinno, I thee wed.” But you do need to at least make the effort to try out a few beans (am I using a really bad metaphor here, given everyone may now turn their minds to grinding?) to see if you blend!

You’ve got Christianity in common. Which I why I used the headline. Do you know how hard it is in the secular world to meet someone, fall in love, stumble through the ‘rules of dating’ (Lord, save me from the rules of should I call him after 3 days or will I look too desperate?), get married, have kids and then stay together when the reality sets in that the chemistry they unleashed during dating simply isn’t enough? There is such a thing as peaking too early.

Fewer people today think of marriage as a Christian institution. Oddly, it has become something to tick off the to do list. “I must get married before I’m 30..35..40..etc.” say many women. So, guys, listen to me when I write this: Christian girls ARE easy, because, if you are Christian too, you will already understand what’s in her heart.

Jesus is in her heart, right? So start with that.

There is so much I could blog on about: purity pledges being one. And I will. But, in the famous words of Napoleon: not tonight, Josephine. I have a headache.

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

Washed and Waiting, By Wesley Hill.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Highway to hell or stairway to heaven?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can I Take This Elephant To The Mardi-Gras?

Rainbow-elephant-2I feel a bit like a stranger has stomped through my soul wearing a hefty pair of Dr. Marten boots. I’m not quite sure how it happened, or even if I can point a finger at one particular interloper, but, to describe it in very female terms, I feel like my faith is suffering from PMS.

Mood swings. Irritability. Tiredness. A desire to inflict blunt instrument trauma. Itchy in this Christian skin. Why now? I’d floated on post-liptoning life into Christmas, gently enjoyed the eddies and flows of a reflective January, and arrive truly excited for growth both spiritually and professionally this year.

Yet I feel like my soul has broken out in hives. That from last year’s happy dance over reaching some Christian summit I’ve just looked up and seen a mother of a mountain. My faith is acting like a petulant teen. It wants to stomp its feet, head back down the mountain and get completely blind on apres-climb liquor.

“I don’t want to read a useful Bible verse and pray to feel better,” it whines at me. “Pass the vodka.”

Is it really my faith whining petulantly or an echo from my 42 years ‘before Christ’ (BC)? From re-arranging my molecules whilst holidaying with an old friend who knew me BC yet hadn’t seen me ‘after Christ’ (AC), to something as simple as sex, I am suddenly cranky, restless and resistant. My New Christian Dr Jekyll is being challenged by my older, less Christian Hyde.

BC/AC

Sadly, the old friend with whom I holidayed is not on social media. This blog and my whole hound of heaven year had gone unnoticed. A passing comment that I’d been attending church led to long aethist viewpoints. My Liptoning in the river left her speechless. The adjective ‘God Botherer’ was used. As I smiled and held onto patience, my Hyde began to itch.

Simple as Sex

If only sex was simple. Trouble is, it’s tied up in values, beliefs and religiosity. My many years BC have given me some fairly open-minded views about sex, that don’t necessarily sit well AC. Take 50 Shades Of Grey, currently on billboards as the movie approaches. Where does Christianity sit with the 50 Shades genre? After all, Christians have sex. Some of them, after prayer meetings, even commit to having sex with their husbands every day for a year. Yet sex with pain and humiliation? Books that ‘normalise’ using sex as power? Suddenly there’s no grey. Kim Gaines argues that the lens of Fifty Shades delivers an unrealistic view of sex and power while Christian sex therapist and doctor, Patricia Weerakoon warns Christians to stay away from the movie and the books, given it normalises “unconventional sexual behaviour”, including bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism.

My BC Mrs Hyde rolls her eyes and wonders what the fuss is about. It is fiction. If you’re a consenting adult and you’re daft enough to sign a contract with a billionaire who has S&M proclivities, then you know what you’re in for. I repeat, it is fiction. If you read it and take from it an unrealistic view of sex and power then, I would venture to say, as it is fiction, you had an unrealistic view to start with.

Yet, I can’t simply ignore Christians’ concerns because – and this is where my faith starts to whine petulantly – I did opt in with the whole baptism bit. It holds me accountable despite any nagging wishes to hide behind Christian-ish.

I realise some of my itching and wriggle-room seeking is because, if I challenge it on Fifty Shades, there’s nowhere else to look but at the elephant in the room that is the Christian view of sex. Within a loving, heterosexual married relationship.

The elephant in the room – everything else outside of this view, including same sex marriage and same sex sex – derails me often. The fuss about Fifty Shades has me standing in front of the elephant again. Wondering if I want to run away with it and join the circus. Or Mardi Gras. Oh, boy. Or girl.

(The irony that I have no wish to be tied down to exploring sexual mores when discussing Fifty Shades, by the way, is not lost).

The SAP once pondered why God hunted me down. I replied perhaps He wanted me to lead the change-communications campaign for the church and same-sex marriage. Crickets chirped.

There are churches that would wrap my elephant in rainbow colours and lead it in a mardi gras. It would make me far less itchy in this AC skin. Trouble is, my elephant and I keep coming up against pesky scripture and Jesus’ line: “I do not condemn you…Go and sin no more.” John 8 1-11.

So whilst the Bible does give a clear answer about my elephant, the answer is not to Mrs BC Hyde’s taste. She’s pulling the ‘salt, tequila, lemon’ grimace. Dr AC Jekyll? Well, she fancies lining up a few shot glasses herself in commiseration.

I have climbed high enough on this Christian mountain to understand I do my faith a disservice by seeking a hall pass on this. As well as feeling I insult ‘qualified’ pastor types, regardless if they wear smart alec stripes or not, who are honest enough to stick to biblical truths no matter how challenging and unpalatable they are in the modern world. Doing so turns me into my BC/AC friend, who tried to impose her views over my new faith to make it more palatable to her.

The elephant will always itch at my skin. So whilst I can’t climb over it or squeeze around it, I will instead keep pressing my forehead lightly to its trunk in prayer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The SAP ain’t heavy. He’s my…oh, c’mon, really?

The Smart-Alec Pastor (SAP) has thrown a furfy into my creative mix. Remember the ‘Who shot JR?” cliff-hanger in Dallas? It’s kind of like that. I’m debating whether to write him out this blog script via some nefarious misdeed. Then I might have to deal with resurrecting the character, like Bobby Ewing stepping out the shower after it all being a dream.

LovepeopleWhat has he done to deserve such script-writing acrobatics? He and Mrs SAP have gone and prayed themselves into a new gig. Which is awesome and shows the brilliance of God at work. He will, I’m sure, based on my own brief experience, be an absolute blessing to his new congregation.

But, God, just to be a little bit selfish, I do have fun making up SAP adventures (or exaggerating them loosely on real-life examples). Whilst a part of me prays for ongoing SAP story lines, God’s bigger, insistent voice is saying, “Time to go it alone.”

Many times over the past nine months on my new Christian journey, I have asked: “God, Jesus, is this me? I am getting it? Or is the SAP just good at his job?” That’s the danger of new Christianity. You need to connect with God and Jesus and the Bible, not just the SAP delivering it. But you also need the training wheels that someone like the SAP provides to make sure you correctly connect with God, Jesus and the Bible.

Plus there’s the power of personality. The SAP is good at his job because of who he is: a supremely honest, Christian bloke who embraces the imperfection of life. I have wept at his kindness, laughed at his irreverence, and enjoyed a sense of humour that echoes my own.

How many pastors could you immortalise in a global blog under the nickname ‘smart alec’ and have him take it happily in his stride? Then somehow flipping it to laugh at me and teasing that it is my brand of evangelism? Or, better, dealing happily with my response when I told him to go himself and fornicate under carnal knowledge?

Based on all that, I figure he’ll be OK if I do decide to kill off the SAP. Just as he’s off on a new journey, I will be too. SAP training-wheel free. I have no idea what God has in store, but I do find it amazing that literally the week before the SAP made his new job announcement, God delivered two wise UHT Christians to me, both offering to be my mentors. Not one, but two.

I’ve also been introduced to a church looking to grow; the pastor is seeking help of a professional kind to market Christianity in this changing world. Plus, just quietly, I’ve had a hankering to do some distance education of the bible-study kind. But no rush. God’s got the reigns on this. I’ll just pray and step forward as He guides me.

So, in case I do decide to greatly exaggerate the rumours of the SAP’s demise, here’s my kind of epitaph to him:

Dear SAP,

Thank you. You, God and Jesus have all helped me become a better person. I know you will humbly respond that it is not necessarily in that order, but please accept the compliment gracefully.

Not only did you help me become a Christian, you also helped one of the most important people in my life join me along this road. Priceless.

Thank you for being there. For the random emails you would field as this writer processed whatever God and Jesus were pressing her to unpack. I am humbly cognisant that mine was not the only email, the only text message, the only Facebook message that your flock fired off. I only hope that my black humour kept you entertained rather than overwhelmed.

You have known when to push, when to shut up, when to compassionately hold the space, and when to congratulate me as I wobbled along on these Christian training wheels. You say that you always ask God to keep you out the way so He can do His work, but I suspect He tells you when to get in the way too. Thank you for listening to Him so well.

I pray your new congregation sees just how uniquely the spirit of God works in you. It’s not a typical brand of spirit. It’s rare, refined and aged nicely in whiskey barrels. Let’s hope there are not too many Puritans in your new parish.

Whilst writing this has required a tissue box, the awesomeness of what you and your family are about to do eclipses any tears of quiet sadness at your departure and turns them into joy.

There have been a few highpoints. Meeting G&J being major ones, obviously. Picking up the phone after Easter and being told you knew how this would end. Being hauled safely back up out the water during my Lipton-ing. And then, the other day, hearing you were grabbing this God-given opportunity to again lead a church.

But the biggest and best highpoint? Knowing that even if I do write the SAP out these blogs, I have the blessing of a SAF in real life. Stepping out from behind the keyboard now: I am honoured, blessed and grateful to have you as my smart-alec friend. I love how we can joke around, have fun and then have deep conversations without it getting weird at all.

So blessings on your new Godventure, SAF. You ain’t heavy, you’re my brother. And that’s about the shiniest Christian language you are ever going to see me use.

It felt like Christmas time…. 2000 miles

Sydney to Perth is roughly 2000 miles. From one side of the country to the other. Which is how I feel about my spiritual travels over the past six months. I’m in the same country, but on the total flip side.

Which puts this coming Christmas into a whole new perspective. So far, I’ve had 42 Christmases upon this earth. Yet this will be the first where I get it. Yes, I’d been called to ‘get it’ before  – there was a reason why a practising agnostic would creep into midnight Christmas Eve services and be moved to weep, after all – but 2014? 2014, I suspect, will be very different.

It may have ‘felt’ like Christmas those 42 times before. But only to the extent that I recognised it as a a religious festival, happily accepted the public holiday, and, in a silent midnight eve moment, paid quiet attention to the pressing on my soul. That there was more to this day than turkey, brandy butter, wrapping paper and wine. Before pushing that attention into the ‘too hard’ basket and looking away. Telling myself that it was only the carols that called me…nothing more…

No-wonder that God tired of the subtleties. I wonder how many others He sees at Christmas services, all drawn towards the quiet joyfulness (even when they are unaware of what they are drawn to) and decides, “No more gentle prods. You, you, and you. This coming year, you’re all on the Wake-Up To Me Fast Track.”

Yet, we have free will. We can stick our fingers in our ears, ignore, look the other way. God meets us where we are at. Jesus extends a hand. It’s up to us whether we join the dance. But if you have that pressing on your soul? That you want to ignore because it’s too damn scary and who knows what could happen if you opened up that feeling and peeked inside? Or perhaps, like me, or my hubby Big T, you carry such a Christian hangover you could never imagine the ache in your head being less important than the ache in your heart?

May I just say, it’s a fairly awesome dance. Even when you have forgotten the steps or are worrying you are going to tread on someone’s toes. And, for those who know me well, they recognise it is ASTOUNDING that I am about to write an invitation such as this:

If, under the tinsel, the cheer, the busyness, your heart is whispering for more…. then I invite you.

If you are asking, “Is this really it?” as you fight the Christmas shoppers, as you wince at the credit card creaking… then I invite you.

If you feel like you are stumbling into this holiday period with a sense of having just made it by the skin of your teeth…. then I invite you.

Not to throw yourself in the doors of your nearest church (unless you wish to).

Not to join me at a variety of Christmas services (unless you wish to).

Not to do anything except pause. Take a breath. Listen to the quiet whisper in your heart. And then, just pray. Or meditate if it makes you feel less freaked-out about the whole thing.

It doesn’t have to be fancy. It doesn’t even have to be ‘right’. But just give it a go. There is a structure to ‘right’ prayer but I don’t think God and Jesus are going to get that bothered; if they’ve not heard from you in a while they’re going to be more excited about the fact you’re ‘phoning home’.

Keep it simple. Hi there. Thanks for everything. Show me.

And, if you really fancy changing up your 2015, you could pray for your own SAP.

Amen.