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.

Personally, Jesus is no crutch

I’m not a fan of crutches – mental, that is. I figure I’ve a fairly good brain, my resilience is solid, and I’ve a good dose of personal insight. Yet there appears to be this odd misconception that faith is a weakness. By being head-over-heels with the Jesus fella, I am somehow abdicating my thought processes and, eek, am displaying to all and sundry that I am weak and need this to prop me up. Unknown

I don’t need. I choose. Want. Desire. Embrace. I’ve a magnificent supernatural God that the Bible shows me was there through plagues, wars, famine, floods, times of plenty, times of trouble – and consistently comes up with solid answers and solutions. Chapter after chapter, verse after verse, God proves over and over that, yes, He’s way better at this universal existence thing than I am. Through time and place.

Jesus said he was the light and the way. The son of God who I’ve already figured out is better at guiding, planning and sorting out both the big picture and fine detail than I.  So no matter what I else I do to train my brain, read a new book each week, study online with Linda and use all this new knowledge to add value, improve myself, my career path and justify that pay rise…. it’s still but a drop in the ocean compared to what I’ve learnt about GJ& the HS and what they can do in my life when I let them in and trust.

I don’t have to have all the answers – and neither do my children or my husband. I don’t have to be right all the time – because I trust God is. Not because of spiritual insubstantial fairy floss, but because that rather massive book called the Bible proves His hand can guide me far more magnificently than myself alone. Naturally. Him being God and me being 40-something Phil. Who’s only been around gathering wisdom for 40-something years while He’s been doing it, for, well, always and forever.

In Australia, anxiety is on the rise – it’s the most common mental health condition. On average, 1 in 4 people – 1 in 3 women and 1 in 5 men – will experience anxiety. One in six young Australians (aged 16–24) had experienced and anxiety disorder in 2016Up to 40 per cent of the population will experience a panic attack at some time in their life.

Isn’t that frightening? I attended a seminar on the topic recently and found myself talking to many, many women who confirmed they had this constant voice in their head telling them all sorts of anxiety-inducing material. They weren’t good enough. They wouldn’t get the dinner finished in time. That someone accidentally ignored them on the street and it sent them into a paralysis of wondering had they somehow offended them? Perhaps they didn’t like them? And what about their body, isn’t it unfit, overweight, underweight, too fit, too tall, too small, too thin, too broad? What if they miss their work deadline?

I was aghast. Still am. God may have wired me to operate and process at speed, yet He also blessed me with a quiet mind. Minimal chatter. It was both blessing and pain to realise I was in a minority.

“Jesus loves me this I know, because he gave me Lexipro,” is a line you may have heard. Depression and anti-anxiety medication absolutely has its place. I figure we live in a post-Fall world, so to think our brain chemistry and wiring is going to be perfect misses the whole impact of that pesky snake and the apple.

I also know brave, persistent individuals who have re-wired their brains and neurons away from anxiety, fight and flight responses, and into a more calm, manageable place. They also use medication to support them on this journey. Yet with all the research on neuroplasticity, the comfort and hope offered – with strategies and work, bloody hard work – that they could re-wire their anxious neural pathways means they persevere. As one Christian friend commented after the seminar, “it was a great reminder as to how far I’ve come.”

Strategies not crutches. Intelligent thinking not abdication of intellect. The Bible reminds her (and me, and anyone else who cares to take a read) that God can take her anxieties and calm them. That when she relentlessly and persistently challenges those voices, lays her worries at the Cross, they quieten.

Love Me with all your heart, God tells us. Be anxious about nothing. Pray and petition Me because I love you desperately – so desperately I gave you My son so I could be even closer to you – and I want to bless you, help you, guide you. Let me.

Climb into my lap and just be. Let me dry your tears when you are anxious. Help you laugh. I’ll even tease you gently about your fears so you keep them in perspective. Carry you along if you need it. Kick you in the butt if you need that too. My love has no fear. No anxiety. And because I am God, you are made utterly, beautifully perfect in your weakness, your fears, your anxieties. Why? Because I am God. So you have no need to be.

Spray on Jesus. Don’t sweat, he won’t let you down.

The irony is not lost that this journalist turned PR chick who has rolled her eyes plenty over shiny-suited TV evangelists is currently undertaking a bible college subject on evangelism. I always used to say BC that G&J needed a PR team. Then they shove me onto the training program. Serves me right.

I feel I have arrived at a personal sweet spot: develop a PR campaign for all of G&J’s ideal customers, figure out the tactics to engage them, and then pray it goes viral.

A few pastors may clutch their breasts at this. Before I started the course, one admonished me: “Don’t go in there and refer to evangelism in marketing terms!” No smart-alec stripes on that pastor.

The SAP, however, retains his. When I admitted I’d lasted until 0930 on day 2 before the F-bomb slipped past my lips, he replied, “That’s better than I anticipated.” The HS wasn’t sufficiently awake at 0930 to press the bleep button. Sorry cohort.

For the first couple of days we’ve been looking at cultural texts, biblical narratives on those texts, and the opportunity to look at them through the G&J lens. So, for example, what movies, books, adverts etc. can we spot that allow us to insert a biblical perspective?

I’m enough of a cynic – and way too long a journalist, PR person and newspaper headline writer – to know I can massage a message out of anything. Play me this Lynx ‘Soulmates‘ advert and I’ll package up some ‘spray on Jesus, don’t get left on your own, find your true soulmate’ evangelism before you can say chlorofluorocarbons.

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After all, Lynx won’t save you and give you an eternal loving relationship, but Jesus will. See in the video advert how the guy unceasingly tried to get the girl across age after historical age? That’s exactly the lengths God goes to for us!

These aren’t bad evangelistic ‘hooks’. Any pastor who has hunted for an exegesis application (fancy words for ‘how to apply this bit of scripture to modern life’) to portray a sermon’s Big Idea will understand the importance of scene setting so the audience understands context.  My problem is, I like to be wooed. Some of it seems to be a bit, well, obvious. It makes me squirm.

The non Christians (NCs) I hang out with would roll their eyes if I tried this approach. It absolutely has it place (winsomely, not smacking people around the back of the head as clunkily as my puns) in that the message of Jesus is simple. But there’s no need to introduce Jesus to intelligent people as if they’re simpletons.

This has caused me to put my own evangelisation under the microscope. The SAP didn’t need a ‘hook’ to introduce Jesus given I was the one calling the church. Looking back, I may as well have said, “book me an altar call* now, buddy,” but the SAP insists: “I didn’t think I had a chance getting you over the line – but I looked at the evidence and figured God knew what He was up to.”

That’s the gold, isn’t it? God places eternity on all our hearts. He really does all the work. Which takes the pressure off us poor broken vessels whom He calls according to His purpose to help out.

So – please Lord – lead me not into the temptation to use groan-worthy puns and crowbars to connect the dots to the Jesus fella. After all, You know I could spin a message out of, well, almost anything.

Feel like your life’s a car wreck? Lucky you’re with Jesus. You think your premium’s high? Look what God paid. (AAMI stands for Angels Are Major Influencers).

Worried you’re not good enough? Jesus isn’t John West, he won’t throw you back once you’re in his net. Or maybe that’s more a Rexona angle. Don’t sweat,  Jesus won’t let you down.

You see, Lord? I could go on all day. Please help me stop.

That winsome evangelist Sam Chan does it far better than I over on Espresso Theology, if you fancy checking out some examples. He is not led into journalistic, shallow, PR-tempted puns as I am. 

By the way, winsome is my new favourite adjective. My research shows it is used a great deal in regards to evangelism. The previous time I came across it was in a Jane Austen novel, which now makes me think I ought to be evangelising in sprigged muslin dresses and bonnets.

*altar call – church terminology for asking someone to step up to the plate and get to know the Jesus fella.

Baby Nate, Christmas and THIS chair

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

 

Oh come all ye faithful…beer drinkers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what’s the difference?

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

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

What do we do with personality?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s all God To Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s play to strengths

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

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

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

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

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

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