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.

 

Onan did what?!

I first came across the name Onan not in my exploration of the Old Testament, but in my Dad’s exploration of the family tree. Great-grandfather Onan. GGF almost became the namesake of our first child before Big T and I did some research and realised our son would likely attract a merchant banker nickname if we did so.B0220000WH0000007580505051419WIIN00AFA,proud-to-merchant-banker.jpg

At the time, close to eleven years ago, why my GGF had an Old Testament inspired name didn’t even blip on my radar of interest. It simply sounded like a pretty cool name, until we turned to Genesis 38-9.

Recently I was chatting with my Dad, on our regular FaceTime connection between Australia and the U.K, about life, blogs, and faith walks. Recall, despite a C of E schooling, I didn’t grow up in a Christian household, although Dad will most times sign off our calls with, “God bless.” Regardless, his classic line pretty much sums it up: “You know me, Phil, I dislike anything organised, whether it’s automobile clubs or religion.”

During the call, he suddenly said, “Well, you do recall your great grandfather Onan was significant in growing one of the largest Baptist churches in the centre of England?”

Onan did what?! My jaw dropped. Big T howled with laughter. Dad looked a little baffled by the hilarity. “I’m sure I told you,” he added. Apparently there are two original foundation stones from the church preserved in a UK museum. Owned now by an American Baptist church (let’s pray not Westboro).

So GGF Onan was involved in one of the oldest Baptist Churches in the Black Country, known as Messiah or Cinder Bank Chapel. It is said that practically every Baptist chapel within a ten-mile radius, can trace its origins in some way back to it.

My Dad may have mentioned it, but I dare say at the time I didn’t resonate with preachers and church planters in my ancestory DNA.

I have to wonder what got lost in two generations?

When I asked the same, somewhat baffled yet humbled by God reaching through family generations to call me back, the SAP responded: “I wondered too, but then I just gave thanks that He had, along with, through you, your family.”

The reminder that God’s ways are not our ways, His timing not like ours. And yet – as two other UHT Christians exclaimed when I shared my gob-smackedness -the power of faithful prayer. “Your great-grandfather would have prayed over the generations to come in his family. He’d be whooping in heaven right now.”

I look forward to meeting GGF Onan in heaven. Thanking him for his faithful prayers. Asking him if he ever got teased at school for his name. But most to give praise that his seed (boom tish) – whether a ten mile radius from Cinder Bank Baptist chapel in the centre of England or through generational DNA to Sydney, Australia – spilt on fertile ground.

God’s blowtorches & blessings

It never ceases to amaze me that people manage to sell (and get sold on) the prosperity gospel. God may refer to pouring out His blessings, Jesus mentions how the Father clothes the birds and flowers, so how much more will He will do for us etc. but there’s nowhere in the Bible about life being easy, rolling around on piles of dollars, strewn on satin sheets, all because God desperately loves us so much He wants us to be uber-wealthy.

Prosperity gospel reminds me of law of attraction /universal manifestation teachings. Whereby the believer is told to use God/ the universe as a power to achieve whatever the believer wills. Thought creates. Think a million dollars strongly enough and it will appear in your life. 122408_Blowtorch_448x336

Whilst the truth of biblical Christianity is just the opposite: God uses me, the believer, not the other way round. Rather than the Holy Spirit (HS) being my magical manifestation magnet, instead the HS resides within to help me do God’s will. Because, heaven knows, I’d be up the proverbial creek without a paddle trying to carry out God’s will without it!

Yet the most hilarious bit about the prosperity gospel is, well…. does no-one read the fine print nowadays? I have many joyous phrases to describe my journey with GJ&HS, but “winning lotto” and “gee, isn’t it a smooth road without hiccups?” aren’t ones that spring to mind.

God has His crucibles. His ways of achieving the growth of those who love Him:

The crucible for silver and the furnace for gold, but the Lord tests the heart. – Proverbs 17:3

He will sit as a smelter and purifier of silver, and He will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, so that they may present to the Lord offerings in righteousness. – Malachi 3:3

The crucible metaphor being how heat purifies metal to its purest form, just as times of trial, tribulation and suffering refine our faith.

It sounds so lovely, doesn’t it, precious metals and crucibles? Conjures up images of tastefully-crafted jewellery at the end. But let’s not forget the sweaty, burning, eyes closed against the furnace heat part.

I refer to such times as God’s blowtorches. Personally, the last few months? They have not been the simmering sense of a frog warming up in a pot, but a blasting heat that requires an asbestos grip on Jesus’ divinity because…wow…so You think I need that much refining, Lord? Ouch.

After a series of intense weeks, the SAP picked a shift in my tone from: “Yes, just little bit of testing, but, oh, such joy to be embraced in the trials. I’m totally meditating on James 1 2-4, whilst colouring-in a mindfulness page I’ve designed based on the same Bible passage..” …to something darker. Think Steven Seagal meets Jason Statham.

The SAP suggested it was all part of God’s refining rather than one isolated lesson for me to grasp.  So refining is a lesson in itself. Yet it was fairly obvious I’d reached flash point when I began slanging back at God with blackmail threats:

“You know those awesome gifts of engagement, communication, and ‘sell ice to Eskimos’ You gifted me with, Lord? Well (through gritted teeth), you really don’t want me using them against You rather than for You. I reckon the atheists would love me on their team…and I’m feeling just pissed-off enough right now to do a really awesome job. Ease up on the damn blow torch!”

Thank heaven for answered prayer. I suspect God answered The SAP’s respectful one – “I’ll pray the blowtorch turns off,” he kindly offered me – over my full-frontal tactical assault.

And in His constant, loving, amazing, God-only way, the next day His gentle Yellow Post-It notes of care began to appear or, rather, I was able to see them more clearly. Perhaps the SAP added in something about scales from my eyes in his prayer too?

Like the meeting – after a time of attempting to introduce more prayer into a Christian workplace and feeling a resisting silence to change – when a team member, without prompting, suggested prayers directly afterwards.

Or – in the middle of my worst blowtorched stresses, as that voice in my head began to ask how seriously I had got this wrong, that God really was a spaghetti monster in the sky and wasn’t this just a freakin’ mess and why not go back to how it used to be, because surely it was easier then? – sitting with two Christian women who demonstrated total commitment in their faith, an unwavering certainty that prayers would be answered, that God’s hand was in everything. Intelligent, Godly women, one older, one younger, who through shared prayer reminded me that their faith in Jesus’ sacrifice came not through spaghetti monsters but seeing God work in their lives over and over.

They didn’t even know, those two women, as they sat across the table from me, how close my fingertips had come to breaking point hanging off my blowtorched cliff.  But listening to them talk, hearing the clarity of their certainty, was my chance to draw faith from their faith.

There’s a lesson for us all. You never know who is listening and watching, how God is using you in one moment, and the unexpected encouragement that moment can bring to someone else. Salt and light.

The same day, God drew me back to the longer passage in James 1:

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do.

I realised I had missed a major point on perseverance. There I had been, with ground teeth and bleeding fingernails, grittily persevering. “Just hang on,” I would grind out to myself. “You can do this.”

I had been focused on the wrong two verses: the ‘most famous’ first two, the ones held up as the lights to be guided by in testing times. “Just hang on, Phil, because, on the other side of this, you’ll be whole and complete. That’s the deal.”

Trouble is, the harder I hung on, the more effort I put into this back-breaking perseverance, the more sweat-drenched and slippy my grip became.

No-where in the passage does it say enduring in the sense of being ground down. No. James’ emotion is pure joy. As for the work of perseverance so I could be mature and complete? James doesn’t write that I’m the one having to do the work. The elegant solution, the best approach, the one that would take the pressure off my clamped jaw and anguished, exhausted brain? Verses 5 and 6 leapt out at me:

If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.

I didn’t need bleary perseverance and gritted teeth. I needed wisdom – God’s. And I needed to get my head back into His game so I could draw on His wisdom without doubts. Otherwise I was going to be swamped.

Finally, it filtered through. “I’m so sorry. I’ve been unstable, haven’t I? I don’t have the wisdom here. I need Yours. Please.” Even better, after all my slanging, all my challenging ungratefulness, I could hold onto His promise through Jesus: that He would give it to me generously, without finding fault.

The wisdom He whispered made me smile and hiccup, and get a little snot-monstery. “Count your blessings, dear heart. The way through the blowtorches are to count your blessings.”

I am recognising God’s methods with me: Pressure, pressure, blowtorch, refine, okay so now you’re hanging on by your fingertips, dear heart, so… pause. You’ve taken too much on yourself. Here’s a hint. Why not lean on Me? Ask Me? Let me encourage you? Ah, yes, there you go. See, look, you’re still here, now get your breath back, get the growth, rumble with the joy and get back out there and FLY.

So I am back to swigging grace like Guinness, chomping humble pills like Smarties and remembering the one with all the wisdom. Whilst holding onto the greatest lesson of all. Crucibles refine and the way through my blowtorches are to count my blessings, because blessings are our paths to pure joy:

  • Children who are heathy and nourished
  • A husband who never fails to make me laugh: from impersonating a Cath and Kim power walker to being a doofus over helping me stretch a hamsting when I’m taking life too seriously
  • A job that not only delivers regular income to our household, but challenges, stretches, satisfies and allows me to contribute to something bigger than myself
  • A business. With fun-loving clients who trust me and let me have fun too
  • A house. With a room for each child and more to spare
  • A roof that does not leak
  • Running water. Electricity. WiFi!
  • Indoor plumbing
  • Friends. Whose doorsteps I could turn up on at 3am knowing they would help
  • Faith. That God has my back. That Jesus has it covered
  • Access to healthcare
  • The ability to worship in public. Read the Bible in plain sight
  • A SAP
  • Shops without food shortages
  • Answered prayer
  • Blog posts that are read, shared and commented on across the globe
  • Being Loved. Crazy, radical, God-driven, let me lay down My son’s life because I want to be right next to you always, loved.

Just wow. So many blessings. So many joys. Plus, after the blowtorches? Growth. Always growth.

Newsflash: Self-confessed non-Christian disagrees with Christian view of Jesus

Taking a slightly different approach with oneweekinaugust.com today – with a warm welcome to my first guest writer, Lea Carswell.

Lea attended the Sydney Writer’s Festival the other month and specifically the session with social commentator Hugh Mackay. You may have seen the social media tweets when Mackay said: “Jesus never told anyone what to believe in. He only spoke about how to treat each other.”

I enjoyed her perspective, so I asked to publish what she wrote. It resonated because oneweekinaugust.com  was born from my coming to a (surprised and somewhat unwilling) faith in Jesus in my 40s – and my ongoing frustrations around how G,J &HS are lost in translation. These posts are my attempts to do what Lea encourages all Christians to get better at in her article: describing Jesus’ blueprint for Heaven and Earth. I hope you enjoy it, I did!

Newsflash: Self-confessed non-Christian disagrees with Christian view of Jesus

There was really no surprise, during his session at the Sydney Writer’s Festival, that social commentator Hugh Mackay made assertions contrary to what the Bible teaches and to what evangelical Christians believe.BPH_2016_Hugh_Mackay_2

More surprising were the aspects of his view of Christianity (described as ‘his struggle with religion’) that he got pretty right.

Promoting his new book, Beyond Belief, Mackay said he had tired of the labelling around religious or spiritual belief and has decided to move away from the isms and ologies.

“Now when someone says ‘I’m a this’ or ‘I’m a that’, I say, ‘I don’t care what you call yourself. How does it affect the kind of society you want to live in? What are you doing to make that vision of society a reality?’”

That seems a very good way of describing what Jesus did, which was to portray his blueprint for society and to live that out in His own life. (In churches, we refer to that blueprint as the Kingdom of God – a multi-layered term that doesn’t always make much sense to people hearing it for the first fifty or sixty times.)

Raised as a fervent Baptist Mackay described his first 20 years as a world of complete certainty, leading to arrogance and prejudice.

“We opposed Anglicans for goodness’ sake because they baptised babies with little dribbles of water, instead of only adults in full immersion,” he said.

This kind of experience, coupled with the public shame of institutions finally being brought to account for sinful and abusive policies and practise, is not uncommon for Australians who have chosen a life without religion.

Mackay walked away from church, convinced by his own ‘reason’ that it was all false (the crowd smirked knowingly at this point) and that tenets of Christianity were no more than myths.

According to Mackay, “Even so, I came to realise that the myths of all the religions are full of significance. I can not believe the truth of the story but I see that there is a truth in the story.”

Whether we agree with him or not, the session raised questions that we should answer for ourselves and our churches, for the Glory of God.

Does our ‘certainty’ lead to arrogance or a freedom from fear of things that deny Jesus?

If national statistics are of any help, and Mackay certainly believes them to be so, then there is a clear disconnect between what people want to believe, what they like to think others believe, where they want to educate their children and what they actually do with their time, money and loyalty.

What does that disconnect look like in our own area? Why not buy his book and have a read? Why not get better at describing Jesus’ blueprint for Heaven and Earth?

Hugh Mackay appeals for ‘loving-kindness’ as the paramount shared value in our society; our path and destination regardless of our own spiritual or religious conviction. Great perspective. Loving-kindness showed itself most clearly on the Cross and in Jesus’ resurrection. Just a myth? I’m certain that it’s not.

You can read more of Lea’s writing at https://smashedpottery.wordpress.com/

 

Hey, Christians. Let’s talk about doubts

Lately I’ve been wanting to dig into doubts a bit more. Not due to some strange call to self-flagellation, but because I wonder if the term is used so broadly amongst Christians we actually don’t stop to think about doubt in all its nuances.

As my ‘on a scale of one to ten, I’m going to heaven‘ post hopefully demonstrated, I have little problem with being saved. I know I can’t ever do enough or be enough, but that doesn’t matter because of the pure certainty that ripped through me when I grasped Jesus’ gift to me.

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Once I got passed the, ‘why in God’s name would you do something like that?’ confrontation of being utterly loved, the acceptance of grace was fairly easy. On my worst day I never doubt that, come my last day, Jesus will be there (probably shaking his head and smiling wryly with affection) pulling me in close.

I will likely be snot-monstering my awe, hiccuping, and – as the song goes – on my knees or (more honestly) dancing like a loon. I imagine it a little like the wildest reunion: “Oh my gosh I’m here and there’s Mum and Jo and Percy and, wow, look there’s Dorothy’s husband and, yes, he’s a handsome so-and-so in his resurrection body, just as she told me she imagined after his funeral.”

I have a dear girlfriend and when we catch up – not frequently enough – it typically involves big hugs, then pulling back to hold each other at arm’s length to check each other out, whilst jigging on the balls of our toes, then back in for more enormous hugs, all to a sound track of exclamations. “Darlz!” she half yells, half screams, “let’s grab a champagne.” I imagine my heavenly reunions in a similar fashion.

(BTW, I’m really praying the SAP won’t be in heaven until after God calls me home. That’s because I have a codicil in my will about dog collars and robes being worn by the pastor I’d like to officiate my funeral. I’m only sad I won’t be there to see it.)

So what are doubts, then? If I’m assured of being saved by the Jesus fella, then what are the wobbly periods about? I know mine to be different to Big T’s. Blame it on his Roman Catholic hangover as – unlike me – his doubts often take form as ‘the works burger’. What if I’m not ‘good’ enough? If my works aren’t super-sized sufficiently to get me in?

Some days I do a Thomas. My journalist brain kicks in and – despite all the investigation I undertook – I have this strange shimmer of, I can’t quite put my finger on it, but if I could actually put my finger into those nail prints… Yet it is just that, a shimmer. As I can’t discount what has happened – for real – since getting to grips with the J-man.

When my doubts are in the here and now, they are mostly around not ‘feeling‘ God and Jesus as intensely as I’m used to. It’s never about my end of days.

Some days in the now you just need solid. When my daughter has a rough day in the schoolyard and I remind her to pray for strength and help – as well as doing the actual work of engaging with others around her – and she rolls her eyes and says, “But, Mum, Jesus isn’t there to play handball with me when I’m lonely!”

There are days when I want Jesus to turn up next to me and play handball. I want to grab his hand and feel the physical. Not to check for nail holes (well, maybe I’d take a peek) but because I am human. Sight, smell, touch and warmth; oh my gosh, they mean something on our dark, down, doubting days, don’t they?

His bread and water might fill us up. But so too do our friends when they nod in the right place and lean over and hug us. Make us laugh. The real and solid. From a full human contact hug to the lightest rub of an understanding hand across your back. Every now and again my doubts seek the equivalent from GJ & the HS to squash the air out of them.

“Can’t You sneak Jesus down on a sort of day release from heaven, God?” I whisper. “For a hug?”

Some readers may respond that time in the Bible ought to be enough. Praying and talking it through with Christian brothers and sisters. But sometimes it’s a massive, tight, ‘channelling a boa constrictor’ hug that’s required. Jesus seeping through my skin, across my nerve endings, into my marrow and I want it – need it – to be just as real as Big T wrapping his arms about me.

I may just start a trend at my next bible study, or set up a ‘free hug’ sign at the doorway to church next Sunday.

So what are your doubts? Are they of the works burger variety? Do you do a Thomas, like me? Maybe your doubts are around creation, cosmology, miracles, suffering, evil, even God’s patience. Doubts, I think, take form in the stuff that gets in the way between myself and Jesus. The distance I allow in. It’s never God or Jesus that move, after all. But dismissing it as a catch-all collective of ‘doubt’ is an easy excuse. Hence my wanting to dig deeper into what doubts really are.

Will you join me on this excavation? I’d really appreciate your willingness to share your doubts in the comments below. At the very least it may spark some new blog posts and great conversation. At the very best it may shine a light on doubts and extinguish them in the viewing.

Blessings.

P.S: Atheist doubters are welcome to add their comments. Please be respectful and kind. Any, ‘you crutch-needing, weak minded weirdoes who believe in the spaghetti monster’ comments will be deleted. That isn’t contributing to a conversation. It’s simply trying to yell loudly. Same applies to any blustering Christians who see doubt as a weakness of faith, being possessed by the horned mother-trucker and turn up with the written equivalent of bible-thumping and exorcism.

Play nicely.

 

Dear friend, I understand you don’t believe..but

This is an open letter to all my gorgeous, loyal, non-believing in God, Jesus or the Holy Spirit friends. There’s a few really important things we ought to clear up. Good-Friend-and-Best-friend-quotes

1) Please don’t freak-out when I say the name Jesus.

It’s OK, it really is. I’m not about to grab holy water and douse you in it. But being friends with a Christian and expecting not to hear the word Jesus pass my lips is like being friends with a passionate West Bromwich Albion supporter and being surprised when they bring up the Baggies.

I get it, I do, because not so long ago I sat on the other side with you watching Christians myself for signs of rabid evangelising and judgement. Back then, when I sat with a Christian who bought up the J-man, I’d get itchy. “Oh man, they’re going to ask me to church.”

2) I may ask you to church, I may not.

Depends. I’m not in the business of shoving Jesus down people’s throats. If you fancy a good singsong at Christmas, then, yes, I’ll extend the invite.

If you’re struggling, and I see you going through some hard times, and it seems to be a suffering you’re facing over and over with little respite, then, yes, I’m probably going to ask you along. Not because I want to shove Jesus at you. But because I love you and don’t like to see you hurting. Jesus and his church have helped me through some seriously challenging times: a friend’s death, marriage needing a defibrillator, job uncertainties, and children’s health issues, to name a few.

Maybe I’ve watched you try other avenues to alleviate the suffering and you’ve told me it’s not working. So, having been there myself – looking for pain relief in a myriad of places without success – I can put my hand on my heart and tell you this helped me. So that’s why I’d ask you – in case you find some relief in coming along too.

3) I’m going to pray for you. Deal.

You were an awesome friend before I became a Christian and you’re an awesome friend now. So you are going to get added to my prayer list, because that’s what Christians do. Even if you don’t believe in G, J& HS, when you are going through tough times (and when you’re not) I’m going to pray they care, support and help. So don’t look like a rabbit in headlights when I say the P word. Try a little faith in my faith.

4) Expect me to knock back invites that are on a Sunday morning.

I need to go to church. My soul needs to. It fulfils me. It’s like going to see the best lover you can imagine and learning more about what makes them tick. With that level of attraction – a somersaulting butterflies in the stomach happiness – it’s definitely an every week thing. I grow stronger in my faith and I learn more about myself in church each Sunday. So please don’t roll your eyes when I decline the invites or think I’m in some happy-clappy cult. I don’t love you any less. But doing church each week makes me a kinder, more patient, more other-focused soul. Which (I hope) delivers benefits to our friendship.

5) Please don’t treat me differently.

I’ve changed but I’m still me. You’re likely going to swear in front of me – that’s fine. I’m not going to freak. I am likely to be just as sweary with the F-bomb but not so much with the G&J. I still drink. I’m not going to judge you. That’s precisely what a Christian ought not do. If you’ve been hanging around with judgey Christians, please let me know. I’ll try my best to show you how flawed Christians really are. It won’t take much, as you already know I’ve got plenty of flaws and I really like to let them all hang out!

6) Your support is appreciated.

When you ask me what I did at the weekend and I tell you I went to church, can we try and avoid the awkward silence? Tell you what, why not ask me how it was – just as I’d ask you how the picnic/footie/breakfast in the city/cycle in the park was for you on Sunday morning. It doesn’t mean I’ll unleash a floodgate of sermonising and bible passages at you. It means you are a caring friend who is willing to take an interest in what I’m up to, and for that I am grateful.

7) I understand it may feel weird.

After all, I was an anti-Christian, anti-religion soul just two short years ago. You might feel I’ve headed down a path you will never understand. But we celebrated our differences before I met the Jesus fella, so let’s keep celebrating and respecting those differences. I don’t need you to believe in God and Jesus to justify my faith, just as you don’t need me to not believe to justify your not believing in them. Of course, if you do need me to not believe to justify your non-belief, that’s a whole different conversation.

8) This isn’t wearing off.

Believe me, I waited for it to wear off, I did! Yet here I am, two years later, still writing a blog about the journey, and helping run a Christian not-for-profit that has an amazing impact on lives around the world. It doesn’t wear off. Instead it just gets better. I never imagined the joyful, head-over-heels feeling that emerged in my soul would last – or could even improve. But it does.

Although, at the risk of sounding like a shiny-suited evangelist, I’ve got to ask. Doesn’t what happened to me ever make you wonder?

Oops, I left Jesus in the freezer section

At a speaking engagement recently, regarding the blessing of a Christian leadership development course I am undertaking (thanks to a generous CMA scholarship), I was asked three questions, “Why did you apply? Would you encourage someone to do the same course? And why?”

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Buy this poster (yes, really) from this website

I answered: “I undertook the course because, as a newish Christian, I don’t know what I don’t know. I have experience leading from a secular perspective, but that’s not the point. And absolutely, apply – because if you’re not growing, then you’re dying.”

I didn’t intend to be prophetic in the final part of my answer, but it appears God was listening. Imagine that.

I like the word ‘newbie’. I often refer to my Christian training wheels. Yet after some recent challenges, God has been fairly explicit that it’s time to stop making excuses. “How can you grow if you use training wheels as an excuse?” He asked pointedly. “What did you say the other week? If you’re not growing, you are…what?”

So, as is God’s fairly hilarious way with me, off He led. It started with the sprinting Psalm reality TV week. After I’d remembered to grasp onto Jesus’ hand and stop swallowing seawater he thrust a fairly wonderful sermon regarding the Woman at the Well (John 4 1-42).

Now, this is going to read fairly strangely, given I blog about Jesus, gave testimony about how he had turned my life upside down and around in my mid-40s, even changing jobs to honour how he makes me feel, but it was in the middle of this sermon that God yelled “Jesus Heals” at me and suddenly a new lightbulb went on.

I’ve been trying to take short cuts. Even though the Bible tells me the only way to God is through Jesus, lately I’ve been sloping around the side of him.

I pray to God, I thank Him for what He did for me in His son’s name. But I haven’t spent enough time with Jesus. I’ve been taking tricky shortcuts. Flicking the SAP questions rather than sitting prayerfully and reading through the Bible. That’s the trickiest, sneakiest bit I think. Outsourcing your growth to a smart-alec pastor is still growth, isn’t it God? Ah, no. It’s sort of cheating. 

Which is what God fairly threw at me on Sunday night. All the while, I’ve been neglecting the central character.

I left Jesus behind. Kind of like the time I left my newborn in the supermarket freezer section on our way home from the hospital. I didn’t mean to. It’s not like I didn’t love him insanely. I just forgot to pay attention to this precious gift and the next thing you know, I’m at the checkout muttering, “Ice cream, lanolin cream…I’m sure there’s something else I need…”

“You need Jesus,” God told me. “Now turnaround, go back and fetch him, spend more time with him and stop trying to take short cuts.”

Even funnier, the VERY NEXT DAY after this lightbulb blasted into my brain, the SAP took off on some remote mission. Out of range. Hmm. What a Godincidence.

No short-cuts. No outsourcing growth. God is hilariously, weirdly, oddly cool in how He times and presents such lessons. Think you can avoid hanging out with Jesus by distracting yourself by chasing down random theological answers? No. Stop the distracting, bright shiny object syndrome and get on with the work itself. And I’ll help by putting a ‘Stop, Turn Back’ across one of the short-cuts.

Which brings me back to growing. Sitting with Jesus during whatever what pains me and remembering he understands suffering intimately. Getting stuck into prayer yesterday and asking G, J & HS what true growth is. And the three of them, doubtless ROFL in a kind, supportive, ‘oh, she’s finally getting on with the program’ sort of way, sent me the Bible’s book of James. Which is a fairly robust epistle when you realise God is giving you some stick about growth. Forgetting Jesus, Phil? Well, try reading a letter written by his half-brother. You know, just to ram the point home.

Growth is all about persevering. No short cuts. James is like a guidebook for Christian growth. Like faith and action: dear heart, if you believe in what Jesus did, and have faith in that, then your deeds and action last week ought to have been prayer and serious bible time, not sprinting around like a scared meercat on speed. 

I take some solace in my sprinting last week being part motivated to keep a poisonous tongue quiet (James 3). But the growth comes from realising that it was very ‘BC’ behaviour on my part – prayers for wisdom would have been more fruitful.  Yet we all stumble in many ways. Which led me back to Jesus and his grace.

I like James’ epistle. It’s blunt and to the point beautiful. With the reminder that I will never face any circumstance that God will not use for my good and His glory. Even if it’s when I leave Jesus in the freezer section.

Selling, losing and finding Jesus

Recently I attended my first Christian conference. It was in a work capacity, as ‘exhibitor’ mission spot. There was my first error. Trying to put God into my ‘working life’ box.

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Interesting signage on building in Tasmania. Thanks to sparklingadventures.com

From media conferences, to trade shows that span 42,000 square metres, 500 exhibitors and 50,000 attendees, I was riding high on event management muscle memory. Comparatively, this was a weekend of 1500 attendees with eight other mission exhibitors in attendance. How hard could it be? There was my second error. Pride.

It ought not have been hard at all. Yet I forgot God doesn’t fit in any box. Plus as soon as you get complacent, the Horned Mother Trucker (HMT) likes to come out and have some tempting fun.

My mistake was treating it commercially. Whilst I have a ‘sell ice to eskimos’ capacity, there was something I shuddered over in regards to selling Jesus.

You see, it wasn’t any old corporate, secular conference. It was Christian. With great preachers speaking to youth from all over Australia, who would take the opportunity to either reaffirm their faith in G&J or embrace them for the first time. The weekend was set to be a powerful display of light overcoming darkness. Of course the HMT was going to object.

But I was in work mode. Too busy getting stuff done. So that sneaky HMT tried the back door. Whilst I was focused on work, he pressed buttons to do with my pre-Christian, personal walk. And, boy, didn’t he do it well.

As I’ve blogged before, I spent a great deal of time in the new-age, motivational space. The thought-creation, positive thinking, rune-reading, angel-card dealing, crystal-gazing, alien-channelling, reiki-healing, sage-burning space.

I failed dismally at new-age. I could never thought-create perfectly enough and got sick of all the self it encouraged me to aspire to. Oh, the courses I attended. You can go broke fixing yourself. Then I added some eastern philosophies on non-attachment. Big mistake. We are joyful, relational beings and trying so hard not to feel left me depressed and sick.

The joy of G&J is how they accepted me, exhausted by all by new-age and yogic wanderings, and replaced it with a lighter yoke. It doesn’t mean I don’t have a new-age hangover though. Which is what the HMT so cleverly exploited.

Today, put me in a stadium with anyone on stage and I will deconstruct the timing, the tone of voice, the music and language used. If the speaker says x, if the band plays y, then z will happen. I will doubt, question and push-back against anything and anyone trying to manipulate my limbic brain.

The first morning of the conference I awoke with two lines of a song on repeat in my head: Calvary covers it all. My sin and shame, don’t count anymore. “What are You sending me that for?” I wondered. “I know that about you and Jesus already!”

God was throwing me something to hold onto. He knew what was coming up.

That night, in a packed venue of 1500 people, 100+ youth re-affirmed or made their choice for G&J, just as I had done 18 months before during my own personal response to His call.

Yet rather than joy, it shoved me straight back to memories of new-age/motivation/ change your thoughts, change your life stadium messaging. Recall, I’ve not done ‘big stage’ church before. To date my G&J experiences have been small to medium venues and personal. Intensely personal.

So in the horned mother trucker surfed on a doubting vitriol of lava. “Is this real? Or just mood music, good lighting and a clever call to action that’s messing with their limbics? Maybe it isn’t God and Jesus at all,” the HMT whispered.

HMT is always going to get us through pride. My prideful weak spot is my communications skills and PR abilities. “You can deconstruct what you’re hearing,” the HMT continued. “Go on. I’m sure you can pick this apart as an engagement exercise. Spot the smoke and mirrors that are being employed to encourage people to think and feel a certain way.”

At a time when I ought to have been sharing in the joy of all these people getting to know G&J – after all, haven’t I experienced the truth and beauty of that new relationship? – I was irrationally pissed.

I have listened to plenty of sermons in the past without wanting to analyse and deconstruct them for hidden manipulation and agendas. Yet put me in far larger venue with screens, music and lighting and there I was, ready to bundle G, J and scripture in with my new-age hangover and scorn the experience.

The Smart-Alec Pastor (SAP) was also in attendance. In my blackness I suggested he could get a gig as a studio audience warm-up pastor channelling Anthony Robbins. I’m amazed he didn’t pin me down, start some sort of exorcism prayer and submerge me in holy water there and then.

I went to bed that night still black. And G&J awoke me again with the same lyrics. Calvary covers it all. My sin and shame, don’t count anymore.

I wish I could write that the lightbulb went on immediately. But the black lifted to grey as I reached out and G&J filtered back through my morning prayer. “I’m being gnarly and ungracious and I don’t know why,” I told them. “I don’t understand why You are pushing that lyric at me. So I’ll do my best to sit with this and pay attention. I’d appreciate Your help.”

It is no God-incidence that I sat in two sessions that day where the first preacher reminded me how songs and lyrics deliver us a two-way vertical moment with God. Calvary covers it all. My sin and shame, don’t count anymore.

My shame at being seduced into thinking new-age was a way to God. Faced now with what I know to be true in His gift to me in His son, it is a poor and awful comparison.

Then the second preacher cut though the stage show, musicians and videos to talk about the small church at Colossae that grew with faith and purpose without the need for fancy stagecraft and mod cons.

And my grey heart cleared.

I sat in awe-full tears through the rest of his sermon.

G&J don’t need mood lighting. They simply need our ears to listen and our hearts to open. For me to stay faithful. Even when – especially when – the HMT is pushing my buttons.

No dry spells or struggles? Don’t believe you.

Anyone look around their church and think they’re the only one doing it tough in their faith walk? Watched a charismatic preacher ‘in the groove’ and haven’t left inspired but flat because, dear God, it feels like tumbleweed in my soul at the moment?images-3.jpg

The hymns start and everyone around is doing the clap, the sway, the hands in the air downloading the holy spirit like it’s on super-speed broadband and me….me? Well, God, my faith has got so much lactic acid pressing down right now I can barely lift a finger to turn a bible page.

The SAP calls it time in the desert. A testing drought. When you’re going through a dry spell, turning up to church is more than necessary, it’s essential. Trouble is, unless you are really clear about the space you are in, it can be more isolating than uplifting. It’s like a depressive being told to cheer up and get over it.

I’m naturally a fairly optimistic person. I have been hugely blessed with a fast faith metabolism. I sort of dive in, try some freestyle, get bored with the synchronised stuff, throw myself at a few big waves, and then attempt to float in the shallows with God at the end of it all. Recently, a new Christian friend prayed for me quite beautifully, during which she thanked God for my amazing faith. Was she nuts? My faith isn’t amazing. It’s quirky, a little off-kilter, and beset and bedevilled just like anyone else’s.

Take the other day. I was done. Slanging at God that I was ready to get my Sundays back. I was muttering around the house like I was pursuing my own, personal Spanish Inquisition.

At such times, his ‘n’ her prayer is a massive blessing. Big T and I are new to praying together as a couple. We stall like learners at the lights most often, with good intentions sliding away in the busyness of life. Yet when we are praying together, life reflects a better order. Putting God and time for prayer first delivers a better order? Well, duh.

So with me slanging and stumbling around the desert, barely able to vocalise to my husband my own arid confusion, it was a great blessing to have Big T pray for us as a family and for me as his wife.  I couldn’t gather the mental wherewithal to even stutter the Lord’s Prayer. So Big T especially prayed to God for me to receive clarity. As he closed, I added a feeble ‘Amen’ and fell asleep. Bah humbug.

Once again, God has to be glorified and thanked because, let’s be frank, if someone treated me the way I’d ranted at God last week? I’d likely have punched them. Or, at the very least, turned my back, deleted them from my phone, and dismissed them as a whiny so and so who was being incredibly ungrateful.

Yet He doesn’t. Nor does Jesus. Nor the Holy Spirit that resides within and prods me with prevenient grace whenever I spit the dummy.

The following day, God delivered me a series of beautiful, bespoke gifts. The totally humbling part was I hadn’t even said, “I’m sorry.”

I would have done – eventually. Yet He still sweetly answered Big T’s prayers for clarity on my behalf and reminded me – again – just how patient He is, how much love He is willing to pour out, how much He glories in me – all of us – being back in the fold. There was I behaving like a tough, gnarly bit of mutton and He’s ensuring I remember the lamb.

I can’t ever get over those times when I’m sooo frustrated and stomping off ready to be all secular and independent…. and God slings an arm around me and says, “Hang on, look what I’ve got here for you.”

So I walked up the main street of a busy Sydney suburb in grateful tears getting odd looks. Thank you, God. I’m so sorry I was slanging and petulantly stomping yesterday saying I couldn’t be bothered to pray or read the bible. I’ll return to trusting whatever You are up to and slug down the grace like an irishman on Guinness… Just wow.

The SAP, of course, in his supportive pastoral way had a good laugh at my antics. “Did that whole, ‘I freaked out a day too early’ thing, didn’t you?” he chortled. Smart alec.

Yet something even funnier and humbling happened, that shows how ridiculously we can behave in our relationship with God. As soon as the SAP suggested I’d freaked out a day too early, my immediate response was this:

Blame God. He wired me for a million miles an hour. What does He expect? Oops. Sorry God, I will try harder to slow my processing speed at such future junctures.

Which then left me giggling at my imagination of Jesus shaking his head at me saying, “No, Phil, no, no. You don’t get to tell God to keep up.”

Yet the beautiful thing is, God gets me. He knows I know, deep down, that I can never keep up. And that my mostly optimistic, cheeky, quirky and somewhat off-kilter faith is my way of trying to keep Him entertained. Most days I begin with praying, “So, God, what can I do today to make you smile?”

Sometimes it is slapstick. Other times I may even take a step closer to emulating a Jesus moment.

Either way, at speed or faltering, forward is forward. Whether it is through a lush field strewn with wildflowers or across dry desert, God tells me He’s there, He’s got me, and to just keep aiming forward.

Holy fixer-uperer

Sometimes I take a skim back through the first bogs I wrote about this journey to God through his son Jesus. It is a reminder of not how far I have come, but of how far they have brought me. Radical renovation. The fixer-uperer. I suspect God and Jesus look at all of us and spot potential.

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By Matthew Christopher, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

I came to a heart understanding of G&J long before my head caught up. It is my heart that keeps me in step, or reminds me when I’m out of sync. Whenever my God signal goes on the fritz it’s usually because I’ve been over-thinking.

Which makes it kind of hilarious that have I wound up in one of the most brain-dominant, intellectual denominations. I’ve written enough publicly now to receive some intellectual critiques. Suggestions how I could have better presented doctrine. While I graciously take it aboard, and enjoy the perspectives, I’m happy to say I don’t write in order to defend my head understanding of God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

I write to celebrate them. The way they touch my heart and make me cry over the gifts they send me, even when I’ve been spending too much time in my head.

2016 started up with a bang for our household. Challenges and sadness. Lies and egos. Death and more death. A time when the heart stutters and my head sought to butt its way through the obstacles, because if I plough through fast enough that hurt may just be outrun.

I have learnt a few lessons in the past 18 months or so. Rather than ploughing through, I now plough down with a Psalm or two. As I dragged myself out of my head and back into my heart a week ago, spitting plum stones and tears at a scripture passage, all I could say was, “I really need some encouragement right now.”

I know, this is hardly the ACTS approach to prayer (Adoration, Confession, give Thanks,  Supplication). But ACTS is head structure and I needed to take heart. Given my dialogues with G&J are typically like an ongoing conversation, it may feel to them that I have a ACTSTCASASTACTSAAASTT morse code kind of prayer stuttering and beeping away…or even SACT when I’m slanging…

The amazing thing about staying in my heart with God and Jesus is how quickly they respond. It’s almost like when I withdraw into my head they shake their own – not in a negative way, but in a ‘Really? Are you going to try that again? Ok, dear heart, we’ll be here when you’re ready’ and they wait kindly and patiently for me to sort it out.

Within ten minutes of my prayer, I took a call in my office sharing encouragement over some changes taking place on quite a broad level at the Christian charity I am involved with; the next day there was an engagement spike in a campaign we had been testing; and then small yellow post it notes of God’s love started appearing all around, day in, day out. Even just hours ago, battling with an emotional dragon, there popped a perfect article into my inbox. Today? Of all days? Really?

I can’t dismiss them as coincidence because they are too specific, too personal and too bespoke tailored to what my heart seeks when they happen. The lesson – as always – is staying out of my head and simply having faith in what I know in my heart.

God and Jesus don’t want our heads. They want all of us. But especially our hearts. Spitting plum stones and slanging Psalms. Shaking metaphorical fists and then being moved to weep because the amount of love they pour out is simply too overwhelming to pack into this broken human vessel.

Their radical renovation skills work best when I stop rationalising in my head and start allowing in my heart. When I throw everything wide and offer them holy squatters rights. Allow the HS building squad to move in and do the fixer-uppering.