Is Don Burke like the church and domestic violence?

On Ch 9’s A Current Affair last night, Don Burke admitted he had made mistakes in his life, saying he cheated on his wife numerous times, but denied the latest allegations of sexual assault. During the interview he said he was sorry, he may have gone a bit far, but in his opinion it was a witch hunt and claimed the allegations surrounding Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein reinforced people’s victim mentality.

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Burke accepted fault for jokes he had made and said people were punishing him for making some mistakes. “[It’s] not entirely wrongly, but the sexual stuff is a way of twisting the knife,” he said.

I couldn’t help draw the comparison to the church and DV over the past few months.

When I shared about the accusatory feedback from many in the Australian church to Julia Baird’s initial report in July this year, there was a chilling lack of understanding from too many in ministry. I was asked by a minister not to share on social media any stories by others that did not reflect well on the church.

Last week, more stories emerged. Brave women who found their voice. And an avenue to be heard. There is one glaring difference. The article-sharing and surrounding noise has been far, far less then back in July. This time, there is no data to decry.  Instead there are the stories. Brutal stories of rape. Violence. Too many.  They say the church has known for decades that some clergy abuse their wives but has done very little to fix the ongoing problem.

Since Baird and Gleeson’s original story in July (my blog re: that topic here), four Australian churches have apologised to victims of domestic violence. Yesterday was the Australian Baptist Church, behind the General Anglican Synod of Australia, the Uniting Church Synod of Victoria and Tasmania, and the Sydney Anglican Synod.

But to stop at apology – as we see with Don Burke – is never sufficient. Investigations must take place. Resources (and they are beginning, such as Safer from Common Grace ) need to be rolled out to ensure that #churchtoo  – where women around the world have been sharing personal stories of harassment and abuse in Christian communities – stops in this generation.

But, like Don Burke last night, I’ve heard ministers this past week express concerns about the church being part of the witch hunt when the follow-up TV report and online articles regarding domestic violence in clergy marriages emerged. 

Which is tantamount to sweeping the stories of abuse under the rug and diminishing them. Please stop. We – as the church – don’t get to be the martyrs. Jesus already did that.

Do not redirect to another, noisier news agenda.  In the past week, I’ve heard the excuses: “But that was 27 years ago..” or “that was the Melbourne diocese, they’re a bit loose on stuff like that..” and it makes my blood boil. To reiterate:

  • the clergy wives interviewed in the past six months by the ABC say little has changed in the 27 years since the CASA reports were published
  • Some of the clergy wives interviewed were part of a Sydney Anglican diocese support group – so let’s not redirect and blame any ‘loose’ diocese/ denomination language here, please.

Leading theological collages are accused of teaching dangerous submission doctrine. Some women’s conferences are being pointed to as perpetuating this doctrine. This is the most confronting part of all for many: to be accused as a denomination, as a theological college to be contributing to #churchtoo by the systematic theology taught – yes, it can feel like a witch hunt, can’t it?

Tempting to bunker down, say nothing, because, after all, what happens if it’s investigated and the way that the doctrine has been taught is seen to feed in? I can imaging many lecturers and ministers thinking, “but it’s God’s word. We can’t say it’s wrong. It’s what the Bible says.”

Let’s separate God’s Word from humanity’s teaching of it. God’s Word is going to stand up to scrutiny by its very nature of being God’s Word. But we shouldn’t – as the Body of Christ – ever shy away from looking at how it is a body of broken humanity shaping and influencing how it is shared and unpacked. Shining the light on that is not an attack on God’s Word. It is liberating it. It’s being brave and humble and saying – until Jesus’ return – there’s always going to be serpents amongst the apple trees. We have to be wise as snakes and gentle as doves in our recognition of that.

In my last post on the topic, I called on the men of Christ who were blustering defensively about the data to man, I mean Jesus up. In this post, I’m going to ask all of us, men and women, to do so. Let me draw something subtle to your attention.

In the past six months I’ve been told by a woman speaker my studying to preach is a sign of my sinful and broken nature and that I should not teach or have authority over men. Similarly, I’ve been told by a male pastor that he’d never have a woman up preaching because it would disempower and disenfranchise the men in the pews who don’t believe women ought to preach.

Imagine if I were a DV victim listening to that. Trying to find my voice in front of them to ask for help. Because, right there, coming from both genders, there is a subtle disempowerment and disenfranchisement of women.  Would  that make me feel sufficiently safe to reach out my hand and say, “my Christian husband beats and rapes me and has done for 20 years saying it’s ok by the Bible.” Or would I shrivel a little further inside because that same husband had told me so often how worthless I am, how pathetic, how I can’t even hold a decent conversation, so what worth do I have, what voice do I have?

Both a woman and a man, both in positions to help and support me, have just implied to me that my voice has no worth. Not because either honestly believe women, per-se, have less worth under God. He made us equal, after all. But because of what they have been taught.

Don’t they know how much brave it takes for me to even find my voice? Don’t they know how long the subtle eroding of my self-esteem has gone on? And out of their mouths – not even aware, not even thinking it can add harm – come words that erode my worth even further.

We can argue and get shrill about greek translations and “but that’s what the Bible says!’ but as Christ followers we have one great command. To love each other. To no longer speak in ways that offer subtle disempowerment and disenfranchisement. To be wise as snakes and a gentle as doves.

Let’s start today.

Best. Decision. Ever.

Surfacing

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.

If it were easy, we’d all be doing it..

I was in my early 40s, had zero Christian friends (but loads of atheist ones) and meeting Jesus was fairly inconvenient. Putting my skin in the game, publicly, was quite the demand.

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 WHY I’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!?!”

Gotta have faith-a-faith-a-faith

Three and a half years ago I was rejected for a job. And, boy, it stung. I was geared up to wow them with what I could do only to find out it was irrelevant compared to what I was not (a person of Christian faith). Anyone who isn’t across the hilarious Jesus journey that ensued, you’ll need to go back to the start to read about it here.

A character on this journey who’s received a lot of blog time is the smart-alec pastor (SAP) who picked up the church phone when I decided I’d get into some tyre-kicking, journalist Jesus research. An individual who’s had a lot, lot less attention is the person who decided against offering me the job. The Rejector.theterminator

The Rejector also deserves some blog time. Credit where credit is due. Why? Because he stuck to his faithful guns and wouldn’t concede ground on seeking a person who shared his beliefs to be his proxy in a public situation.

When he explained that at the time, I confess I mentally rolled my eyes and thought to myself: “oh, but I’m in PR, I can handle any message you need me to spin…” Something prevented me from sharing that obnoxious gem, and it was quickly replaced by something that pressed and intrigued: “He really needs me to believe this. And to reply that I can spin it, would – I sense – make a mockery of something he holds dear.”

I didn’t have a clue then of what a true, faith-based, faith-led life looks like. After the recent same-sex marriage campaigns, I’d argue very few Australians do. To many, it seems extreme and irrelevant to hold God’s word as truth, to confess Jesus as their Lord and Saviour, to be obedient to a single God who tells us He knows what’s best for us.  Instead we often prefer to follow our own personal gods of self, career, money-making, self-validation..to basically follow ME, my feelings and my desires. I’m the god of me. No-one else.

The funny thing is, if you spend any time having a read of the Bible, worshipping the god of ME isn’t a new phenomenon. It’s been happening since Genesis 3 when Adam and Eve chomped down on that apple after the serpent waved it at them. We’re wired to want the apple that is described in Genesis as from ‘the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.’

We desire to be the gods of our own good and evil. To know best. That was me back then in response to The Rejector. I knew best.

Now, after my journey with the Jesus-fella, I am far more humbly aware of just how dodgy a proposition that is.

But what if The Rejector hadn’t had faithful guns? What if he’d let those concerns slide? Worried less about the veracity and importance of my faith, and instead focused on filling the short-term need of someone who’d just get the job done. There’s a line in the Bible’s book of Romans (Chapter 12, V2) which springs to mind, and I’m using a modern translation in order to think about it in light of a job interview:

“Don’t copy the behaviour and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.”

The Terminator didn’t copy the behaviour and customs of this world in his interview decision. He refused to weigh up my skills and expertise. In fact, he threw out all my skills and expertise against this one criteria: Did I believe in Jesus?

Nothing else mattered.

Now I (and many others, as we wrestle with SSM laws, freedom of religion laws, freedom of expression, and anti-discrimination) could have bleated about it being unfair (and, well, maybe I did for a day or 5 ;-)) but what I actually wanted to know, deep-down, was this:

Why was this Jesus fella so bloody important that he trumped my amazing skills and expertise? And why was he so important to the Rejector? Thank God I was sufficiently self-aware to recognise something more important than my own self-importance and be intrigued.

And thank God for the Rejector. If he’d copied the customs and behaviours of this world, I could well have found myself in a job with a bunch of people I misunderstood and with no clue, still, of the Jesus fella.

It also reminds me that institutions who use faith as a criteria for a job description have a real need and requirement to continue to do so.

Good game God. Good, faithful guns Rejector.

Word up: when God leaps from the page.

God has been asking me to do a few different, ‘leap across the abyss and trust Me’ action items of late. All in areas where I traditionally become scared, uncertain and, well, choke. Better the devil you know..ahem.

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I’m now sufficiently theologically aware to know that my ‘choking’ over the past four to six weeks is putting other gods (safety, security) over my true God. That by giving into the voices of fear and ‘what if?’ I’m letting the horned mother trucker mess with my head.

The Bible tells me that God has my back. That when He asks me to grow and do wild, crazy things that make ZERO sense (remember Abraham honouring God when, in a test of faith, God asked him to kill his son Isaac? ), He delivers. As we grow in Him, He blesses us. But, oh my gosh, it still doesn’t make doing it any easier!

I’m no Abraham. The trick is knowing and trusting God’s character. How do I do that? By spending some solid time in God’s word. It’s all there in black and white, proof statement after proof statement, from His covenant, loving promise to His people in the Old Testament all the way through to His sacrificing His only son in the New…all because He wants a close, personal relationship with us. If He is willing to go to such lengths to show me His love, why on earth would I fear? Verse after verse points to His having plans to grow and not harm me. Yet, still, I teeter…

Why? Honestly, I think it’s to do with the Bible. It’s so big. And dense. And written down. It can feel impersonal, this big book of God’s rescue mission for his people. It’s like I’m observing characters from 1000s of years ago and because it’s so long ago it’s easy to forget how they still all relate to me. I petulantly mutter, “It’s Ok for THEM. You spoke to them directly through prophets, no wonder they got it. And then there was Jesus. They got to see him. I’ve got words on a page and it feels so…not lonely, that’s not the right word. Just too far away from me here, struggling with this?”

Now, if it were me, less abundantly blessed as I am with the fruits of the HS (patience, kindness, self-control etc.) than God, I’d be calling Jesus over and getting terribly frustrated: “Why doesn’t she get it? How much more do I have to do?! Haven’t I told her, shown her?” Thankfully, God is better at patience and loving kindness than I.

The miracle is how personally he shows me His patience. How lovingly He shows He can leap off the pages of the Bible and move through my life, in this time, in this place. The Bible isn’t an old, static book. It is God-breathed. Living. Supernatural. Once you get your head around that and allow God to leap off the page, it becomes more than words.

So as I wrestled with fear, it began with a call to read Psalm 119, to reflect upon God’s word, ‘to open my eyes that I may see wonderful things’ in it. ‘Mediate on Me,’ God whispered. Over and over the Psalm reminded me to trust in His word, that God will always remember all He promises. Psalm 119 affirms God’s Word and reflects the very character of God Himself. Righteous, Trustworthiness, Truthful, Faithful, Unchangeable, Eternal, Light and Pure.

So, of course, straight after reading that I was positively overflowing with trust and bravery, right? Well. Sort of. But something small shifted, like the HS within me had risen in response to, well, Himself.

Quietly, inside, it became less words on a page and more living and fluid. Which may be totally woo-woo to a fair few people, maybe even some UHT Christians, but it suddenly began to make more sense. The God in that book was at the exact same time the same God in me (the HS) and the same God all around me, right here, right now as I walk and pass through time and place. Which of course I knew – I hope I’ve blogged sufficiently to show I have no problem with Him being all around – but the sense of His word rising up to envelop us because it is a real thing you can hold in the hands of your heart suddenly made perfect yet inexplicable sense at a cellular level.

Look at how John begins his Gospel: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He’s about to write an account with the end in view: all John witnessed, the glory, the light, the words out of Jesus’ mouth, the miracles, dying, rising are summed up in one excellent line that is designed to land between the eyes.

The first and final, Alpha and Omega is the Word, which is also God, which is also with Him. You can’t separate the Word from God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit, John tells me. Don’t make the mistake of separating the Word (God) from the Word (on the page in The Bible). It can’t be done.

When people say dive into The Bible, as you would a pool, I think we ought to take it quite literally.  Not simply a deep dive regarding ‘head study, what does this greek mean?’ but knowing it is real and living, soaking in it to our core. A spa retreat for the Holy Spirit within.

Yet I think too often, that’s the mistake we make. I know I did. Likely because it takes a small brain explosion to stop looking at the Bible as ‘words that tell me about God and Jesus’ and recognising instead it is them. Was them. Will be them. All at once. There’s a reason why missions records stories of 100s of people in remote villages all becoming Christians, yet having never been introduced to Jesus by anyone like the SAP. They’ve simply been able to get their hands (or ears) on a Bible translation. And, as THE word, God leaps out and into their hearts. No special sermons, no fancy preaching, not even a fancy ground coffee. ‘Just’ a Bible.

Word.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other related posts pertaining to DFV on this site:

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

 

Preach it, sister – part one

I’ve written two sermons in my life and preached one. The first – written, not delivered – was a full length, “give me something I can get my teeth into” challenge I begged of the SAP. The second was a 20 minutes to prepare, ten minutes to deliver number as part of a ‘Principles of Evangelism’ unit.the-sisterhood-book-hillsong-collected

The first I prayed, sweated and toiled over for weeks. It was pre-bible college enrolment and, in reaction to ‘needing more’ in my heart, was answering the relentless call to dive deeper into scripture. Maybe because I’m late to the GJ&HS game or maybe, in echoes of my Divinity o-level at 15 years old, it is proof of God’s word never retuning void. Instead it is returning me. Back to dig deeper, to write again, much as I did in the exam hall in 1987, about the meaning of Jesus’ ministry. I recall being sprawled across the day-bed, making notes on the Gospel verses the SAP had ‘set’ me, feeling like I had returned home.

The second sermon experience was far more stomach-churning. 20 minutes? Dear Lord. The SAP received a volley of vomiting emoji faces. “You can do that,” calmly texted back the bloke who’s been SAPing and preachin’  for 20-odd years. Such faith.

Much like my early blog posts, I know when God is on a roll because He simply helps me flow it out between head, heart and keyboard. It was a daring, daunting whisper: “You can do this.”

“Who me?”

“Yes. Don’t you feel it, love it, know it? Love Me?”

“Yes, but… You want me to do THIS?”

I’m no shrinking violet. I’m quite confident in my PR abilities to write a speech, jump up on a stage facing an audience of 1000s, and deliver a message. But a sermon? That matters. It’s personal. It’s more than unpacking scripture. More than God’s word. It’s my guide, my compass, my everything. It’s being willing to share my deepest heart connection to all and sundry. Does it read weird that thinking about delivering a sermon reminds me of the ‘butterflies in the stomach feeling’ of introducing ‘the one’ to your parents? Desperate that they love and think he’s awesome too?

Of course, unlike introducing ‘the one’ to your parents, God is unlikely to put His foot in it with an ill-timed joke and would always know the correct cutlery to use.

Yet, even so, this was a timed, tie-breaker, under pressure. Pick one of eight verses on offer, prepare a ten-minute sermon in 20 minutes… and GO!

Peskily, the verse the SAP had set me for my more leisured sermon preparation wasn’t on the list so I couldn’t even rely on that.

Yet there she appeared. One of my most treasured bible characters whom I look forward to meeting in heaven. The Samaritan woman at the well. I so identify with her is likely why I’m so fond of her. Who hasn’t made horrendous relationship choices in their life? Been let down by men who were supposed to offer security? Similarly, who hasn’t felt judged for those poor choices?

There were 30 of us in the classroom. Not everyone had to take the podium, there wasn’t sufficient time. “Who wants to go next?” asked the lecturer. I sat there, head down, heart in my mouth. “Put your hand up,” said God loudly.

I wasn’t immediately obedient. I’m more scared of God than the SAP, but I’ve got to admit the thought of telling the SAP I’d choked, next to God shoving at me, had my hand in the air.

“He won’t pick me,” I muttered back to God unfaithfully.

The lecturer picked me.

Taking a deep breath and praying hard I’d not stuff up, I stepped up to the lectern and began an exegesis of reality TV house renovations, broken-down fixer upperers, lonely people thirsting for affection, and the wonderful restoration offered by Jesus who doesn’t care where we’ve been, what we’ve done, and whatever awful wallpaper we’ve chosen to paper over the cracks.

I closed with the invitation to learn more: that perhaps you’ve been sold on the idea of the masterpiece, perfect show-home life and you’re just so tired and it’s not as fulfilling as you’d been led to believe and you are thirsting for more.

Or maybe if you already know Jesus, how are you responding to him? Do you still thirst for him? Are you letting Jesus refresh you? Or has your faith gone off the boil…and if so the call is to spend more time with him.

Or if you do know Jesus, do you still talk about him? The Samaritan woman blossoms once she understands Jesus’ affection for her and who he really is. Cast-out in the heat of the day, she is hopeless and defensive one minute, and then she returns to her village reborn, restored, vital, and unashamed. “You have to meet this guy!” she exclaims. The first evangelist to Samaria, sowing the early seeds that ripen and show harvest later in the book of Acts.

So there you have it. A fast sermon synopsis of what I delivered in that ten minutes.

I ended. Inhaled. And stepped off stage saying I’d never delivered a sermon before. To which the lecturer responded, “perhaps that ought to change. Especially if that’s what you do with just 20 mins preparation.”

Stunning.

There’s a line in Jane Austin’s Persuasion that sums it up: It was agitation, pain, pleasure, a something between delight and misery. Three hours afterwards I was still churning emotionally. Which is fairly unnerving for a chick who will do other sorts of public speaking without a eyelid bat. I glittered between, “woo, God is awesome and quite mad and He graced me with THIS sort of gift, what the, really?” and the flat-out, humbled, teary, breath-taking realisation that God is laying out a path that feels way too big and yet perfectly tailored and beautiful.

As the churning feeling continued I asked the SAP if it ever subsides. “I’ll let you know if that feeling goes if it goes from me,” he replied. Ah. Let’s pray it never does. Green round the gills preaching keeps you on your toes. This… well, this is important.

I’m also aware of some in Christian circles who believe I lack the necessary ‘tackle’ to preach. Whilst I have a heart, soul, and head for Jesus something a little lower is missing.

Similar to my opinion on Greek qualifications, I don’t think Jesus is going to reject someone when they turn up in front of him saying, “Yes, I heard this great sermon delivered by a woman, how she spoke resonated and that’s when I really accepted you.”

I can’t imagine Jesus saying, “No, wrong. My grace does not extend to you because you got to know me through a preacher who had female genitalia. Off to hell with you.” It doesn’t fit with the full picture I have of God and Jesus from the Bible and the time Jesus spent teaching and encouraging women.

Nor am I exaggerating. A believer I know has been told quite seriously by a male pastor she ought to question her salvation because she came to know, understand and love Jesus through the peaching of Bobbie Houston. I mean, really? Where’s the grace in that conversation? I’ve also been told that my seeking to study preaching is a sign of my sinful, broken nature that I ought to repent over.

There’s more, naturally. I can’t unpack women, church, leadership and preaching in one blog. What I do hold close is this:

When we accept Jesus the Bible tells us we are all graced with different spiritual gifts. Since becoming a Christian I have crafted the most creative, the most attuned, and the most heart-felt pieces of writing since..well, since ten year’s old. I suddenly found myself able to write, speak and explain Jesus and the Bible in such a way that resonated strongly with others – and it not only took me by surprise, it took a lot of UHT Christians aback too. I know it isn’t all on me. My writing and communications skills all blossomed, just as the Samaritan woman at the well blossomed, since meeting the Jesus fella.

I’m just going to go and grab me a bunch of head-coverings…. and tell everyone I’m not preaching, but rather prophesying. Yes, I can see Jesus shaking his head at that too.

“Dad, we did call the cheeky, comms PR chick didn’t we?”

“Yes, son, Yes we did. It’s going to be an exhilarating earth-exit interview, don’t you think?”

And that, dear reader, is why I call Him Abba and why I always refer to it as the gurney of grace.

What’s different about Matt?

In the early hours of this morning, a wonderful young man got to go hang out with Jesus and have God wipe away any tears. The resurrection body I believe he now walks in will be healed. He will no longer need the cane/walker/wheelchair/reclined bed that became his progressive modes of transport as the brain tumours that robbed him of his faculties grew. He will be able to see clearly again. Walk straight and tall. I have no doubt he will be dancing with joy in front of the Lord Jesus. IMG_6383

Matt battled brain cancer for over a decade. The man who first bounded up to me close to three years ago, after I shared in church how I’d recently become a Christian and been Lipton’d in a river, was exuberant and without filters – something I adored because I love a lot of joy, a lot of laughter and a lot of cheekiness.

I did not know him before – before the myriad of brain operations and medications that not only removed tumours and surrounding brain tissues but, along with those, the neural pathways that wire our social inhibitions.

Yet the Matt I knew was likely different to the Matt his parents, siblings, wife and children knew. That takes some getting used to, don’t you think? Watching your loved one’s character shift and change as an insidious sickness slips through their brain.

Best of all, Matt was head over heels with the Jesus fella. Which made watching him face the end of his life – as the Doctors told him there was no further operation, no further drug that would stop these damned tumours doing their worst – truly amazing.

“I’m Ok,” he’d tell us all. “I’m going to heaven to meet Jesus. I just want you all to make sure my wife and two boys are well cared for, and for my boys to get to know and love the Lord Jesus like I do.”

There was something different about Matt. It may have been the removal of those neurons that wire us to worry about what people may think or feel – but I believe it was his whole-hearted embracing of his identity in Jesus.

I recall taking him out to lunch, and those impatient synapses couldn’t order food quick enough, have a glass of coke placed in front of him fast enough. I felt oddly protective – don’t you dare judge this man by how impatient he appears – but, more, it was a gift to sit with someone who damn well knew that time was short, and he no longer wanted to play along with the illusion. I loved the crisp, clean intensity he brought to it.

There was something different about Matt. Every nurse, doctor, patient – anyone  he’d have encountered – would have experienced it. The pure peace with which he talked about the end of his life. It wasn’t the scoffing, bluster of,  ‘oh, when it’s your time, it’s your time’ that dismisses the pain. Nor was it full of fear.  It was peaceful. Beautiful. Matt walked into the very promise that Jesus offers all who believe in him: you will have eternal life. I will draw you in, hold you close, overcome all death and suffering. For my yoke is light.

“I wonder what it will be like?” he asked me one day over coffee. I’d taken him out after church – he’d been too tired to attend – and shared we’d sung I Can Only Imagine – a hymn that asks precisely that question: when we meet Jesus what will it be like? Will we fall to our knees and pray? Will we dance? Sing Hallelujah? Will we be able to speak at all?

“I love that hymn!’ he exclaimed, starting to hum the tune. It will be my enduring memory, sitting in a crowded cafe over Sunday lunch, the pair of us belting out the hymn at the top of our voices in a crazy cappuccino chorus. The look on the face of the bloke at the next table? Priceless.

“I don’t know what death will be like,” he said. “Maybe I’ll just go ZAP, fall asleep, switch off? Like a computer?” I remember replying totally inappropriately, knowing his lack of filters would welcome mine: “Well, can you not do it here with me, in this coffee shop? Or if you do…can we maybe pray for some warning? So I can at least try to get you up and out, at least off the premises? Less paperwork for these poor cafe owners…”

He grinned mightily at me before suggesting another hymn to sing.

There was something different about Matt. He remained other-focused. “Are you still studying at bible college?” he would demand of me. “How are the kids? What’s Big T up to?” It doesn’t automatically assume that all Christians are other-focused (Dear God,  I know I forget so often!) but it’s testament to how much Matt sought to walk like Jesus that even in the midst of the most sorrowful time of illness (for goodness sake, you’re DYING, Matt, who gives a flying fig about my bible study?!?) he wanted to know.

Sidenote: Truthfully, if I was studying knitting, or the migratory habits of the lesser spotted dung beetle, I think Matt would have been less concerned. He was always all about Jesus. Bible college beats dung beetles, after all.

But my best memory of Matt? Just a few weeks ago. Delivered to church in his reclining bed on wheels, he was there to worship, listen to God’s Word, be around his family in Christ. I looked over and saw my smart, thinking, questioning 12 year-old son, who has had plenty of “WHAT THE?” moments over our family going to church.

He was standing next to Matt, holding his hand, poised on that edge of awkwardness where only young adolescents can wobble. I wandered slowly over. I didn’t wish to intrude, but dealing with incurable sickness is hard for all of us, and I wanted to help my son navigate the waters should he need. Matt was holding onto his hand and I could sense Seb’s social uncertainty: ‘Do I just take my hand away? How long ought I stand here for?’

Seb wasn’t aware that Matt likely didn’t even register he was still holding onto his hand. He just didn’t know what to do. He looked up at me with a faint question in his eyes, and I whispered, “You can take your hand away if you want to.”

Seb tugged his hand away and on the return journey back to his side, squeezed Matt on the shoulder. “I’ll see you soon,” he said. “See you soon too, buddy,” Matt replied. It emerged that Seb had turned up at Matt’s side, unprompted, asking how he was. And I cry as I type this because I know – I know – how rare that other-focus can be in one so young. Heck, even in one so old (like me!) But it was a beautiful, poignant moment that encapsulated how church works. How Jesus works. When one hurts, you all hurt. When we hurt, Jesus hurts. Matt delivered my son a wonderful opportunity to lean into the unknown with love.

Last night Seb and I spoke about God, suffering, pain, hope, the promises of Jesus and Matt. This evening, hearing the news of Matt’s passing, he cried. Yet, at 12, he can see there was something different about Matt when it came to pain and death, and the eternal comfort and hope he had in Jesus.

And for that I will always be grateful.

Rest In Peace, Matty. You sowed so many seeds when you were here. Good, faithful and cheeky servant, I look forward to seeing you again. Enjoy singing your hymns and getting your groove on in heaven.

Amen.