Oh, Lord, it’s hard to be humble. But joyful? Let’s give it a go.

Is it me, or does Mac Davis remind you a little bit of Bobby Ewing from Dallas (the original series)? Whilst not a music style I usually gravitate to, the opportunity to put this song title and Kenny Rogers in a blog post was just too good to resist. Kenny Rogers. My primary-age soundtrack. My folks knew how to rock it.

This post I really want to get away from sinning, again and again and focus on the fun stuff. The joy.

The SAP would have you know that his Christian fun includes gun totin’, 4WDing, game hunting and head-banging at the front of U2 concerts. But who’s going to believe that of a man of the cloth? I reckon he just says that to see if he can shock people. I’d lay money on him instead being a chai-sipping quiet soul who pops along to the Symphony Orchestra and discusses ways to help the Green Party. Whilst wearing sandals.

What I realised about my exposure growing up was that ‘religion’ was painted as serious stuff. Which then slips into people taking themselves too seriously. Instead, I’ve learnt that it’s perfectly fine to not take yourself seriously at all (which is a big tick in the plus column) but instead take Jesus and God seriously. Meaning it’s OK to tumble into the 8am Sunday service with your netball training gear on, cap shoved over electric-shock therapy hairstyle, with a takeout coffee cup clutched firmly in your hand. I recall the pastor’s wife smiling in delight: “I wish I’d had time to grab one of those,” she told me. See, not serious. Not expecting me to be anything other than me. What a joy!

Worldly joy is an odd thing. Sometimes we think it’s found in the bright shiny car. Or the right postcode.  Credit card debt in society is mounting as we look externally to fill ourselves up with clothes, shoes (well, actually, shoes are a religion for me) and all this consumable stuff. Yet true joy is tied to our internal landscape, not what we have. And joy is intrinsically tied to gratitude. You can choose to be thankful and joyful or you can choose to be ungrateful and unhappy. Christian joy appears to take it one step further.

I wonder, is that why Australia is slipping down the happiest nation list? Why depression and anxiety is on the rise? Have we forgotten to be joyful for, and humbled by, all that we have?

Grab the joy

Since deciding I’d get stuck into Jesus research, I have been struck at how much joy I am able to acknowledge in my life. Music sounds better (even Kenny Rogers) and there are fewer internal ripples.

The SAP posed a challenge during a sermon recently, based on Jesus’ activities in the New Testament. To ask, “what would Jesus do?” (WWJD) before we reacted. Patience, humility, joy in God — all such qualities spring to mind. So, quietly, each time a curve ball of life zinged past my head, I’d ask ‘WWJD?’. An interrupting child when all I want to do is read my book? Marriage irritations over the way the cutlery has been put in the drawer? A client who just didn’t ‘get’ what I was trying to achieve? Stuck in traffic? Well, actually, on the last one I did wonder WWJD and hoped ascension. A neat bit of levitation to make it to the meeting on time…

Religion over the years has painted God as an Ogre and Christians have a reputation as the fun police. A few words from the SAP here: “But it’s almost the total opposite. He’s made all this great stuff for us to enjoy. He just doesn’t want us getting to the stage where we love the gift – but ignore the giver, because by then, the gift has become our god – and the joy the gift was meant to bring gets washed away.”

Christianity reminds us to be humble and gracious – and to follow the lead of someone else. To ask WWJD and adjust our nature accordingly. Have fun. Step into the joy. Love and cherish all the gifts. But don’t forget who gave them.

Yet humility doesn’t mean doormat. No need to lose the chutzpah. Seize life by both shoulders and give it the biggest, lip-smaking MWAH! you can imagine.  Suck the marrow out of it.

On that, I’m taking a break from the blog whilst I do some marrow sucking of my own. Technology free. Yes, I’m heading to a convent for a week, with a vow of silence. All in the name of research, dear readers 🙂

Joy & blessings, back soon!

Sinning, again. And again. And again.

One of the biggest issues I had with Christianity was the whole ‘confess your sins, and all is forgiven’ angle. After all, if all sin is forgiven, why bother not sinning? Why make any effort to live a life that is kind or good?

Problem is, that’s not what Jesus taught. Nowhere did he say, “You can murder, covet and steal, just come back to me each Sabbath (which is a day of rest, by the way, so please don’t murder, covet and steal that day, thanks) and ask for my forgiveness. Then you can start sinning all over again on Monday.”

That’s what has become twisted out of misunderstanding, poor communication and an unwillingness for people to let go of their belief systems about what they ‘think’ they know. It’s comforting to be able to slap at something you don’t truly understand – and worse, spend no time trying to. The danger is non-Christians (NCs) end up spouting ill-informed nonsense whilst feeling falsely superior to those ‘unthinking Christian masses’ in need of a bit of ‘crowd control’ (borrowing a few stereotypes here).

When I look at some of the bigotry NCs shovel (using the definition of bigot as someone who is utterly intolerant of any differing creed, belief, or opinion), I realise true Christians don’t need crowd control. They need a bloody medal. Turn the other cheek? Far out! The SAP amazes me with his generosity. I reckon I’d have punched a few people by now.

For the past five months I have had the privilege to sit with, question, observe and listen to an amazing cross-section of Christians on their journey. For them, this is a life choice not an event. You see, in The Bible, Christians are specifically commanded not to sin even though they have been saved by the death of Jesus and by his grace: Romans 6-v15: What then? Shall we sin, because we are not under the law, but under grace? God forbid.

Not to sin? Whoa. That’s clearly very different to “keep sinning, over and over, and I’ll keep forgiving you.”

This isn’t something true Christians put on each Sunday when seeking forgiveness. It’s a 24-hour, seven-day a week thing. Unknown-1

To live a life not sinning probably strikes you as nigh near impossible. It did to me. Which brings me round to Jesus again (he pops up a lot). My very basic grasp of it is:

If you accept the grace of Jesus, then not sinning gets easier and easier. Because by accepting that grace you become more Jesus-like. And by becoming more Jesus-like, you are then less likely to miss the mark.

Christians work at not sinning, not because they are ‘fearful of some unseen power’ (as suggested recently) but because of the sheer joy they receive. This has been the biggest stereotype-buster for me. The joy. I don’t think the term ‘happy clappy’ is actually an insult to a Christian. I think it means they’ve connected the dots:

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Apostle Paul, Romans 8:38-39)

You don’t need to be Christian to choose to live a good life. You can be kind to others. Do the best that you can. It’s valid, it’s worthy, and, absolutely, far, far better than choosing to lie, kill, maim and steal.

Yet living that life doesn’t make you a Christian. Just like meditating every day, eating vegetarian, and not harming life doesn’t make you a Buddhist.  I slowly started to realise what the interviewer meant in that job interview about Christianity when he said, “But it’s the structure.” It takes some focus on the teachings of Jesus, prayer, a decent dig into The Bible, and getting out our own way.

We can be spectacularly bad at getting out of our own way. Change is often scary. But, mostly, I think too many of us are scared of the possibility of great joy. Which is what Christianity offers. Yet we are so trained for disappointment in this world, we shove it away. So it fascinated me, this joy. Because what I was observing was that Christian joy, unlike worldly happiness, flourished, even when the circumstances around it pointed to the contrary.

Getting to Church. Would my head spin?

One gothic friend used to say he could never go to church because his head would spin as soon as he walked through the doors – a poor reference to The Exorcist. I wasn’t quite at that point when I decided to visit the SAP ‘in-situ’, so to speak, but it wasn’t easy. Sneaking into a Christmas Eve midnight service and not making eye-contact with anyone was quite different to me turning up on any old Sunday, in broad daylight, without a religious festival day as an excuse.

I confess I even did a drive-by of the church before sending the email saying I may attend a service. I was also slightly comforted by an article on their website that made gentle recommendations on how to welcome new visitors.

The designated Sunday dawned bright and sunny. Major domestic that morning over everything and nothing. The appropriateness of trackie-daks as a clothing choice. Sunday best? Did I need to dash out to DJs for a fascinator? On the drive over, the bickering continued. “I can’t believe we’re bloody fighting on the way to church,” I ranted. Not a great start.

We arrive. Paste on smiles. Hold hands. Walk towards the doors. I now understand this is jokingly referred to in the trade as ‘the carpark conversion’. If we slap on a game face, then we may just ‘look’ faithful enough. Which isn’t the point at all, but I hadn’t learnt that then.

The Bolly-swigging PR stereotype I borrow when I can’t remember names.

In the doors. Name badges. Phew. I am spectacularly crap at remembering names so typically retreat to the PR stereotype and call everyone ‘lovey’, ‘gorgeous’ or ‘darling’ in order to hide it. But this wasn’t a room of media hacks, I wasn’t swanning around with a Bolly in my hand, and peppering strangers with endearments would have probably made me look like the wacky OTT evangelist. I have never been happier to see Avery labels and a Sharpie.

I liken our welcome that day to Goldilocks and baby bear’s porridge. Not too cold, not too hot, just right. Everyone was, well, normal. I remember feeling a little awkward when asked had we come from a different church, but no-one raised their eyebrows when we said we didn’t have one. Most importantly, no-one pressured us to come to this church when they discovered we were ‘church-less’. One member of the team did rush over with enthusiasm and I recall bracing myself, only to discover her passion was sharing where to find the barista coffee served after the service. Considering I believe instant coffee is the work of the devil, I appreciated the advice.

Growing up in England, my church exposure was all sandstone edifices and glorious stained-glass cathedrals. Hallowed halls. Pomp and circumstance organ music. Despite my lack of structured Christianity to date, I do love a good, rousing hymn. Dear Lord & Father of Mankind is a particular favourite. Attending my Mum’s weekly W.I. meetings as a kid where they belted out ‘Jerusalem‘ each week probably also played a part.

So the drums, guitars and electric piano didn’t quite fit my experience, but I figured if the church could modernise then so could I. The hymns may not have been the ones from my childhood but the essence was the same. Joy. Grace. Thankfulness.

The sermon that day focused on prayer and how, in times of persecution, prayer increased. I could identify – I’d had a bit of an ‘in case of emergency break glass’ relationship with God until then! The tone was intelligent, in-touch, blending teaching with humour and plenty of relevance to the real world. Without a dog collar or black dress in sight.

There was also a reminder that prayer ought to play a part of regular spiritual practise. As I have weeks when I’m one and zen with my yoga and meditation, and others when I’m hopeless, I understood the sentiment. Plus, as I’ve found over the past months, finding time to have a quick natter with God is often far easier than getting quiet time with my yoga mat.

Post-service coffee and chats were similarly unthreatening. Genuinely friendly people who wished us welcome and wanted to know a little about why we were there. My stereotypes were proving more and more insubstantial. Where was the prideful self-righteousness? I sadly realised that, for those traits, I needed only to take a hard, honest look in the mirror.

After the service, during the afternoon and well into the evening I experienced a sense of what I can only describe as quiet contentment. A peaceful sense of space that reminded me of yoga and meditation, yet with a far deeper sense of….what was it?

And then it struck me. Connection. A spiritual affinity that not even my beloved yoga delivered. Now I had to figure out if it was illusory, or something I could work with.

Having a try does not get you a conversion

lineout_window
The Game Played In Heaven. At the Notre-Dame-du-Rugby in France, one stained glass window has the figure of the Virgin Mary with a small boy in her arms and a rugby ball is in his hands. At their feet, players are jumping in a line-out.

Unlike the game played in heaven, giving church a try does not a convert make. After all, I’d ‘popped along’ to a few church services in my time and, whilst I especially adore the energy of the midnight Christmas service, it hadn’t moved me enough to do much else.

But, remember my failed job interview? I do recall spouting the line: “Well, I don’t believe I need to be at church each Sunday to have faith.” To which, one of the panel replied: “Yes, but it’s about the structure.”

So, in the spirit of open-hearted research, I decided I’d get myself along to a Sunday service. I’m at pains to point out that the smart-alec pastor (SAP) at no point hustled me along to his church. Which (as a business owner) now makes me wonder about the key performance indicators (KPIs) for successful pastors.

I must ask him if they work on a percentage rate. Trys: 60. Conversions: 6. Dip below ten percent and you’re under a performance review?

So, anyway, there was no car salesman approach. But that religious hangover of mine made me a tad wary. I recall writing that IF I ever came along, to please not put me near any scary Christians. I also recall deleting that line, then re-writing it, then deleting it, then re-writing it…..before pressing send.

Now I’d done it. Deep-down I did want to go. Underneath all my pre-conceptions I experienced a real pull. But, oh, the nerves. What if I took the Lord’s name in vain (which I’m afraid I do regularly) and offended someone? Stood (or sat) at the wrong time; forgot to follow the script? All this based on memories of a very confusing Catholic Holy Communion I attended for my niece years before. I felt I’d entered the religious equivalent of a Les Mills Body Attack class where I was hopelessly inadequate at keeping up with all the moves. I had mistakenly worn leather pants for that occasion too. Each time I moved, I squeaked.

Note to self: find appropriate outfit before Sunday.

N.B.: Read more about the Notre-Dame-Du-Rugby. I’m not kidding!

Seeking a cure for my religious hangover – Lesson One

Being told by a ‘psychic’ smart alec pastor (SAP) that he knew how this would end, firmly shoved a Christian stereotype of mine right back where the sun doesn’t shine. Over-confident, much?

So much for gently, gently, softly, softly. Yet it was just what I needed to hear, given my history of ‘insipid Christianity’. I suspect many of us have been treated to this ‘watered-down’ approach that treds carefully for fear of offending people. I was delighted to encounter someone who grabbed his Christianity by the throat and, instead of ramming it down mine, held it up and fearlessly examined it with me.

I’m writing some different posts on what I’ve learnt during the past months seeking a cure for my religious hangover, a big one being:

Stop confusing church and religion with God and Jesus.

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Martin Shaw (left) who, as Doyle from The Professionals, occupied my thoughts during chapel service at school.

Church for me, from school, was a staid, serious affair where we knelt on hard kneeling mats, bowed our heads and were told sternly to ‘keep quiet’. The vicar/pastor/father/priest was as far removed from me as I could ever imagine. What would he know of my teenage dreams? Ahem, in fact, I would have been mortified if he did know about them. Whilst he was quoting Psalms I was imagining myself with Martin Shaw in a souped-up Ford Capri. But I digress…

And religious people? I was either worried about offending them with my hard-living, foul-mouthed ways, or expecting to be judged. Like the fire & brimstone, “Oh, so you had sex before marriage, shame on you, harlot temptress” stuff. Or the more pious exhale from those who live a ‘Victorious Christian Life!’ (VCL, yes, exclaim!) who are so darned good I would never have a conversation with them for fear of saying something desperately uncharitable.

How could little ol’ me ever aspire to Christianity if that was the benchmark?

What I had to learn was that truly Christian people are just like little ol’ me, trying to be charitable, humble and caring, with zero desire to thump and wave Bibles at you. All they want to do is love us. Because that is what Jesus taught. Love. No matter what. No matter what car you drive, whether you are rich, poor, prostitute or podiatrist, truly Christian people want to offer kindness and compassion. Yes, they also want you to get to know Jesus – He’s another uber-blog post – but before you get freaked out about the J-man, just hold onto this spark: it all boils down to unconditional love.

Yet some religious people who call themselves Christians, don’t act especially Christian. A painful, personal example. When I was young, my Mum attempted to take her life. I remember so called Christian friends and a Catholic Priest muttering about sin. There’s a major chunk of my religious hangover, right there. The SAP responded:

“Sometimes people end up in dark places emotionally.  Sometimes depression can be so overwhelming that one attempts suicide.  The Catholic church teaches that this is a sin that is unforgivable.  The Bible doesn’t – Jesus doesn’t.  Sure it’s unwise – but God knows our pain and understands it.  Churches aren’t finishing schools for the nearly perfect – they are hospitals for the broken.  The ‘religious’ friends who castigated and judged your family have probably never understood Jesus – otherwise they would have responded with love, grace, compassion and a meal or four brought ‘round to help your family in one of its darkest weeks.  I’m sorry people who call themselves Christians don’t behave like it very often.”

In those few lines, with grace and compassion, a pastor I had yet to meet in person managed to sweep away a blot that ‘church’ and ‘religion’ had left on my soul. It moved me that he would apologise for the behaviour of certain Christians around such a significant moment in my life. It hadn’t been him, after all, standing there when I was six.