Sounds like God on the radio

Not only was the weekend Valentine’s Day, it was also world radio day on February 13th. I used to work in both BBC and ABC radio donkey’s years ago and, after producing a three-episode series on divorce over three generations, some lovely souls at Radio National gave me an award. So whilst I love to write, I’m fairly aural – probably why God shoves songs and lyrics at me in the early hours to get my attention. 12107060_537762879709626_4083684520642864060_n

Which He did fairly strongly in June last year regarding a job application, meaning today I write this as operations manager of the Australian arm of Far East Broadcasting Company, a global not-for-profit that uses radio and internet to broadcast the gospel into impossibly hard to reach places.

Not simply broadcasting tracts of scripture. Christ’s love may be captured in the Bible, but it was also seen through his acts, so FEBC’s radio programs cover education, social issues, literacy,  and health. Practical love and help broadcast in the listener’s own language, produced by volunteers who come from the communities they are broadcasting to. This is no ‘fly in, fly out’ mission. It is vine and trellis, tent-spreading mission with longevity, insight and understanding.

In Northern India, rife with sex trafficking, fathers hear FEBC’s radio programs and are educated to understand that their daughter being sold ‘to a better life away from poverty’ is actually a life of brothels and hopelessness. As a direct result of FEBC’s radio programs about legal rights and the importance of each individual, no matter their gender, there has been a drop in young girls trafficked and the number of female foetuses aborted.

As Ebola ravaged Sierra Leone, FEBC’s first response disaster radio programs offered practical health advice on dealing with the virus but also shared Christ’s hope. That there was love in amongst the horror. Last October, in response to Typhoon Koppu, the Philippines First Response Radio, in partnership with FEBC Philippines, used the suitcase radio station (pictured) in partnership with OCHA, The Office of Civil Defence (OCD) and other NGOs to get vital health and infrastructure messages broadcast.

You see, like God, radio gets in. On a loop. It may be the background noise to everyday life, but the message is there. From mobilising Russian Christians to adopt over 50,000 social orphans out of terrible situations in orphanages, to offering the means to educate new pastors via Bible Correspondence courses for effective church planting in Mongolia, I have been slack-jawed by the breadth, depth and width of the work that FEBC does. Which can all start from a tiny, A$30 wind-up or solar radio.

Could I EVER have imagined myself working there? Well, given the first Christian job I applied for knocked me back for having no faith and set me on a path to Christianity, I’ve learnt to be cautious with what God imagines! There’s a danger in praying ‘over to You.’

He has heard me mutter, “what were You thinking?” plenty of times in my short time at FEBC. I bring a default of commercial leadership to this Christian not-for-profit because, dear Lord, I’ve only being doing this G&J biz for not quite two years. The wiring is sometimes off. There can be a tension in that – there have been plenty of meetings when I’m on my knees ahead of time. Only recently I was battling with what I term ‘commercial rigour’ and the SAP gently suggested I used ‘good stewardship’. Ah, yes. Same intent, yet more positive and Christian.

The BC (before Christ) me wants to sprint at speed, get stuff done, and struggles with impatience. Re-wiring to ‘lead like Jesus’ does not happen overnight, no matter how much of the Holy Spirit God is gracious in bestowing.  “Because that would be too easy,” He whispers. Some tests are needed to prove mettle. Thank God for grace.

I’ve also learnt that working in a Christian mission is harder than secular. Harder to get stuff done. Not simply due to lack of funds or skills, as often can be cited in NFPs. It may read as ‘woo-woo’ but when you work in a mission that spreads God’s word across the globe, I’m certain the horned mother-trucker throws extra obstacles. I have learnt I cannot race and get stuff done at all unless I pray for God’s help, blessing, guidance and, yes, protection too, first.

It has proved both my biggest challenge and greatest blessing (discounting coming to G&J in my 40s!). If you want to know more about a cost-effective mission that you or your church could be involved in,  please take some time to learn about FEBC Australia’s work, especially if you didn’t know they turned 50 last year. This month’s story in Eternity is a great place to start. Download is below. Happy World Radio day!
http://issuu.com/biblesocietyau/docs/e66_p1_p20_final/4

 

 

Urgent, evangelise. With Salt (& Tequila).

“It’s liver cancer.”

“How long?”

“Six months without treatment. 18 months with.”

As she dashed tears from her eyes, I swept this valiant 42-year-old woman into a hug. “I’m so sorry,” I told her, adding some slightly bluer language under my breath for good measure.

Yet like a neon question mark flashing at the back of my brain, there was only this: ‘What does she believe? And how do I ask without sounding like an awful end of days prepper?’

Through business circles, I had known her for years. Not closely, not until the start of 2015 when we ‘just clicked’ as members of the same networking group. We discovered a similar outlook on life. Offered complementary business services. Wicked senses of humour. Some shared emotional baggage that we unpacked over wine as only new friends on discovery can, laughing at each other with a gentleness that said, yes; I understand that screwed up bit of you too.

She was the coolest of cool friends, yet without ego or notion of how beautiful or cool she really was.

“I’m not telling many people about my diagnosis because I want my business to go on as normal,” she told me. “But I’ve seen what you post on Facebook and I see you have faith. I feel ok about it. I’ve enjoyed my life. There’s nothing else I really want to do. I’ve always tried to treat others how I would like to be treated myself. But I don’t believe anything comes next.”

Really God and Jesus? Really?

After six plus years of knowing her around the business traps, we properly connect in the year she is given a terminal cancer diagnosis; her without any belief or faith about what comes after death, and me a scant 18 months after becoming a Christian?

There are no Godincidences.

But, really? Pressure much?

For anyone who doesn’t understand why some Christians behave like shiny-suited TV evangelists, it’s because Jesus said some serious stuff in the Bible about what happens when we die.

“The only way to the Father is through me,” he told his disciples. “The promise of eternal life, the resurrection, the free gift of grace comes only if you are willing to lay down your life and follow me.” (I’m paraphrasing).

If not? Well, it’s not pretty. Too many Christians like to gloss over it, playing safe in the more new-agey pools of God being nothing but love.

Who can blame them? Hellfire Bible-thumping religion has done G&J a huge disservice. In reaction, the pendulum has swung the other way in today’s world of free choice, self-service and freedom.

Standing up and saying, “Well, actually, I do believe that God calls us to account when we die,” is not welcome. Too often the fire ‘n’ brimstone hangover of being called to account overshadows the good news of that Jesus fella.

The good news that through the grace of Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection, I can stand in front of God as a child in front of her loving Father, and receive forgiveness and an eternal gift of life.

But here’s the kicker: you’ve got to get to know and accept Jesus first.

As I sat in front of my friend, reeling from the news of her cancer diagnosis, listening to her dismiss her Roman Catholic schooling (heavy on the guilt and wrong doing) and what she’d heard from her brother-in-law pastor (I know, I know, the irony), the true punch in my solar plexus was this:

‘She can’t die without sorting out where she stands with God and Jesus. But, on the face of it, she’s lived a good life. She has an amazing moral code and value system. How do I explain that none of that matters? That compared to Jesus on the cross, because of our very distance from God, we are all broken and needing saving? No matter the amount of our virtue and strength of moral fibre.’

I cried a lot that night. And prayed. I visualised the Holy Spirit (HS) firing through that liver of hers so often it was more lighthouse than vital organ in my prayers. I had one of those slanging, bargaining type conversations with God: “Quick zap of the HS and all will be well. I’ve got my prayer warriors on it too. I know You can hear us. She knows we are all praying. C’mon, what better way to prove You exist than a miracle cure?”

I don’t believe slapping people round the head with G&J gets them closer to understanding. Yet the urgency was horrible. Even more as her treatment failed. It got to the point that if another well-meaning Christian had asked, “Has she said the Jesus prayer yet?” I may well have reached over and ripped out their throat in a very unchristian manner. When one of them asked, quite seriously, “Do you think you’ve done enough?” my tongue bled from my biting it. To ask me, tripping around in my flawed way, if I’d done enough, dismissed God’s sovereignty and my friend’s heart. Whilst it was ultimately down to God and her, not me, it still made me feel like hell. I couldn’t make her become a Christian.

So what could I do? I prayed (as did others) and kept on being the sort of Christian I am: irreverent, flawed, and prone to explaining G&J in my own quirky way. It is less theological college, checklist ‘shiny’ and more sweary, eye-rolling ‘I know, I can’t quite believe I’m a Christian either,” reality.

When Jesus told his early followers to be like salt – let their faith stand out, be a well-flavoured advertisement for Christianity – I’m sure he didn’t expect me to pair it with tequila slammers. By my being the least expected ‘type’ of Christian person (ie: not religious), I pray daily that Jesus can be seen in his true light. Which is all I wished for my friend.

So when she asked what I believed, I said God doesn’t promise me a pain-free this life, but he promises me an eternal next one. Told her, no, her cancer wasn’t punishment for wanting to die during her own brush with depression years before.

I said, simply, how we live in a broken world. That we are all more flawed than we  images-1.jpgcould ever believe, yet more loved by Jesus and God than we could ever dare imagine. And that heaven was way, way better. How I dearly wanted to see her when I got there, so could she please get with the resurrection program that Jesus offers. Plus, when my time is up here on earth, could she start lining up the margaritas for my arrival.

Sadly, the doctors were wrong. My friend died just four months after her diagnosis. We didn’t do any shiny ‘I give my life to Jesus’ prayers. But in those four months she humbled me by reading all my blogs and asking questions. She came along to church – which was a touch and go first visit  – but she came back to sing carols with a passion and hold my hand as she did so. She even whispered that I ought not be frustrated by her experience back at church, “because you made sure you explained it afterwards. I get it.” I don’t think she understood just how much she taught me about God and Jesus as I tried to show them to her. Is still teaching me.

In the final week of her life, as she drifted in and out of consciousness I asked how she and God were doing. “He’s really helping me,” she whispered. I went back most days to sit next to the bed and, when the opportunities arose, read her Psalms and gospel verses. “Beautiful,” she whispered over Psalm 121, my voice breaking at verse 8.

Being a Christian is tough. Being a Christian in the hospital room of someone who is dying, surrounded by her friends and family, who may or may not share your faith, is tougher. They needed their own time with her; who was I – more of an outsider with what may have appeared to be a lesser friendship/business connection – to keep turning up at her bedside?

Back to salt: how could I not? On the first night she was admitted, she had whispered to me: “I don’t want to die.” So even if she – and her other friends and family – did not share my faith and hope in Jesus, perhaps they could find some solace in mine. Sometimes it felt like I was sharing him across eggshells. Like sending John 14:27 to her husband – who at the time may have felt least able to let his heart be untroubled – and carefully adding: “Sometimes it’s like tasting nails…but sometimes there is comfort.”

The last afternoon, her barely conscious, a shadow of the woman admitted eight days before, I said one final prayer to this lover of all things bright and beautiful. “You know, I think Jesus is standing right in front of you now, holding out the most amazing technicolour coat. All you have to do is reach forward, take it, and let him wrap you in it.” Her hand under mine gave the faintest of flexes. She died early the next morning. New Year’s Day.

But the tribe of shiny Christians asking about her ‘doing’ the Jesus prayer scared me. I spent the hours after her death proclaiming God’s sovereignty on one hand, and then whispering how I’d love to know He’d got her on the other. “Just a sign,” I implored. “Just so I know. Please.”

What happened next is how I describe God’s personal love for us all. He didn’t have to offer me comfort. He is sovereign and my exhibiting control freakery over the outcome of His conversations with my dying friend totally disses His sovereign bit. Who am I to be asking, “how did You and she go?”

Yet that day, on the drive south of Sydney to grieve on a less-populated beach with waves and my surfboard, every car I passed seemed to have either a fish sticker on the back or a crucifix swinging from its rear-view mirror. I coughed and hiccupped and saline snot-monstered my hope: “Is that the sign? Or am I imagining things? I’m so sorry God. You know how I need it up emblazoned on a billboard so I don’t miss it.”

At the last minute, I changed my mind over the beach I was going to. As I pulled into the car park, the beachside meeting room boasted this red sign:

Beachposter

Praise God for His graciousness. I imagined Him asking, “Now, dear heart, is that literally a big enough sign for you?” I sighed, cried some more, smiled and recalled, Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. – Hebrews 11:1

I have faith He has her. Which means, along with no more pain, sorrow or hurt, I have confidence she’s going to have a margarita waiting in heaven with my name on it.

Not because of anything I’ve done, not because of works, not because I deserve a lemon, salty, triple-sec, tequila cocktail for facilitating an introduction between God and my friend. But because of His love and Jesus’ grace I get to see her again.

Amen.

I Like My Pastors The Way I Like My Steak

I don’t envy pastors the pedestals some people expect them to perch aloft. I prefer my pastors the way I like my steak: raw, a bit bloody, and a little battered by the tenderising mallet of life. Rare. Not tough. And certainly not over done.imgres.jpg

A perfect pastor atop a pedestal is too unapproachable. I figure the more a pastor has engaged with the broken world we live in, the more likely he is to grasp the broken weirdness his congregations will throw at him. A pastor needs to be rusted and real, not shiny and show pony. Church is us and us, not us and them.

I’ve sat with three pastors this past two weeks, all of whom shared a similar look: exhausted. One of them kept saying the right stuff but it didn’t match the sorrow in his eyes. The other two I know well enough to call on any bullshit so simply said they looked rung out, what could be done to help, and had they booked a holiday?

We are a church. A body of Christ. Christ did not tell his leaders to feed the hearts and minds of his flock and let their bleating drain them dry.

We are a church. Which means my hands, your hands, my heart, your hearts, my brain, your brains, my ears, your ears, my eyes, your eyes need to look, listen, feel, and be other focused to help the whole body.

Other focused isn’t simply the people I sit with in the pews, or the people I hope to share Jesus with outside the church: other focused includes the ministry team. The bloke or blokette on stage. How are they doing? 

In corporate world, there’s a saying: as the leadership team goes, so too the rest of the organisation. Apply this in a church and it would follow that if you’ve got a pastor in burn out, the church could lose energy too. But, unlike many corporate organisations, we are encouraged as churches to be the body of Christ. To hurt when one hurts. To laugh when one laughs. So we have an opportunity to give energy back when it is needed. That is a gift, a privilege and a chance to grow. In corporate world, trying to serve that way normally means a demotion 😉

However, may I also gently remind all pastors and pastorettes – you have to let us help you. Let us encourage you. Being eminently un-help-able because you think you are supposed to be strong for your congregation and running the show – maybe because a bunch of parishioners have you either on a ridiculously high pedestal of expectations or, worse, are after you with pitchforks – serves no-one.

As for any readers who attend church regularly, I don’t know about you but while I’m thankful ultimately to G&J, it has been the ministry teams in my life who have allowed God to deliver the goods.

Here’s a (now not so) private example: just over a year ago, my marriage hit a serious obstacle. I didn’t know if I was up or down, left or right, all I knew was, regardless of whether my marriage stayed whole or fell apart, I’d found a new strength in G&J that would see me through.

Yet I was still a snot-monstered mess, papering over the heartbreak with my usual acerbic wit. My rock of God was probably more of a pebble for me at that stage, so it really could have gone either way. It could have been easier for me to allow pride and fear win, let the anger hiding the hurt take centre stage, shove all the blame in one direction, fall off the pebble, and slam the door on my marriage. 

So in response to a caustic SMS on a miserable, rainy day, the SAP carved out time between a Christmas end-of-year staff gathering,  planning for Christmas services, and goodness knows how many other meetings, to meet me face-to-face. He then went on to contact a counsellor he knew and, thanks to the strength of their relationship, the counsellor agreed to see Big T and I immediately and intensively – although he’d already shut up shop for Christmas. The counsellor admitted to me later that he would not have done it had it not been the SAP asking.

Throughout the next couple of weeks, Big T and I received the SAP’s texts of support, guidance and suggested bible passages to read. What I didn’t know at the time was the SAP was also in the midst of finalising his new church role for the following year, having to help prepare a house for sale, move house, enrol in a new course of study, continue pastoring in his current role, finish Christmas sermons, still be a SAP to all the other flock in the church, deal with a horrible health scare in his immediate family, be a Dad, be a husband and, somewhere in all that, keep God top and centre and not go slightly insane.

Today, praise God, the pebble I stood on a year ago is a rock, my marriage is the healthiest it’s ever been, and Big T is growing his own pebble of faith into a larger rock too. The SAP doesn’t get all the credit – God, others in our church, and my husband and I also played roles – but it would be prideful, unkind and selfish of me not to acknowledge the effort and energy the SAP puts into his job.

As do all the pastors I’ve met. They may not have the smart-alec stripes that have worked so well for Big T and I, but they have hearts, souls and a passion to do God’s work. So help them out. Be kind. Acknowledge how much they do that you simply do not see because of the nature of their respectful, confidential work: funerals, death bed visits, taking calls from those who stand in front of a bottle after a year dry and need someone to hold them accountable; the wife whose husband has beaten her again and she needs help getting to the shelter; the family whose four-year old has a cancer diagnosis; even, dear Lord save us, having to attend parish council meetings.

Preparing a sermon each week is the tip of a large, often ungrateful iceberg. So be kind. Hug your pastor this week. Say thank you. Ask how you can help. If you’re holding a pitchfork, put it down. It’s Christmas.

Jesus forgives once every 25 years?

Over 20 years ago I walked into an anonymous-looking building in Sydney. A few people jostled outside with placards. I held tight to the hand of the girlfriend I had come with and kept my head turned away from the right to life slogans. images-1

The receptionist took names quietly, handed over sheets of instructions as to what to expect next. It was silent as a tomb, the air fecund with unspoken pathways. As I sat with the consequence of unprotected sex with a married man, it struck me that no one had offered anything other than this option.

In this clinic, patients were beckoned forward discreetly. By avoiding names, by depersonalising, we could ignore what would happen beyond those frosted doors. We could all pretend that life was fine, that life would go on.

Except it wouldn’t. One life would not go on, and the lives of those entwined would never forget. No matter how much future destructive behaviour blocked out the pain, no matter how much alcohol was consumed, how many daring raids on the married man’s marital bed took place while his wife was away, all in the vain hope that seductiveness, power, danger and sexual prowess would transplant vows and gold rings. Seeking reasons: if he left her, it would somehow be ‘better’. The scraping across a womb, across a soul, would be validated.

As the nurse beckoned, I looked at my friend. I hadn’t the wisdom, age or words. So I stood up, gave her a hug, took a deep breath – and let her step forward, alone, into cold sterility.

Today, in my journey with God and Jesus, I wonder could I have offered her something different? Yet if you don’t grow up in a faith-based household, the choice to keep an unplanned pregnancy rarely crops up. If you’re a female of a certain age, in a certain demographic, with a career path ahead of you, then the outcome of unprotected sex is most often a clinic appointment. I’m not saying it is the only choice, but it is certainly the choice our society pushes as ‘easiest’.

No judgement. I am from that demographic. There but for the grace of latex, pill, IUD and low count swimmers. Before any right to lifers start sending me hate mail, I’d like to explain now how my perspective has changed. Yet God and Jesus had nothing to do with it.

I am married with school-age children. I have grown two babies within me, spending the first 12 weeks of pregnancy silently hoping that fertilised eggs would bed successfully into my womb. Throwing up all day and every day from week three to week 33, seeing heartbeats on an ultrasound and feeling the first fluttering of butterfly wings from the inside. Tracing the outline of my son’s foot shoved out against the drum-tightness of my stomach, and experiencing the brutiful awfulness of long labours. I loved the simplicity of life when, floating on an oxytocin hormone haze, all I needed think about was the next breastfeed, the next nap and cuddling bone-less, milk-drunk newborn babies.

After all of that, a long time before I ever got to know G&J, I made the emotional connection that life began way sooner than all the clinical language of unplanned pregnancies tried to have me think in my teens.

If, thanks to the vagaries of a peri-menopausal cycle and Big T’s sperm of steel I found myself pregnant today, I would be horrified. Yet, even before I started slanging at G&J with a “what on earth are You thinking?” style-prayer, my own emotional connection with two babies born wouldn’t allow me to do much else than welcome a third.

But I write this in a secure relationship, economically-comfortable, with all my education qualifications achieved and framed. Take me back to 16 years old and my then 21-year old boyfriend – whom I saw as troubled and Heathcliff-esque, whilst my parents saw only police record and danger – and I know I would have been marched to the clinic. No dialogue entered into. Which now makes me ponder. Why do I ‘know’ that? Because of the media message we hear continually: that an unexpected pregnancy is ‘the end’. My chances of further study would have been ‘ruined’. Which is nonsense. An unexpected pregnancy is scary, frightening, overwhelming and confronting. But it does not mean ruin or the end. Yet the extreme language used explains why abortion is so often viewed as the ‘only’ solution.

Every situation is different. I have stories from faithful Christians who were told their unborn baby would die in the womb, whose Doctor said an abortion would be ‘kinder’, yet continued with the pregnancy. They wrapped their daughter – born without heartbeat or breath at 30 weeks – in a handmade quilt, gave her a funeral with dignity, and now hold onto their memories.

Today they talk about their daughter with others and visit her gravestone. She had the briefest of lives but they were able to love her, hold her and talk to her. Her mother says they would never have been able to talk about her if they had taken the doctor’s advice. Yet in the early days of diagnosis, it was tempting. Worse, the thought of uttering the word ‘abortion’ to her pastor filled her with dread.

Which makes me weep. At a time when the need for spiritual, pastoral care was at its highest, she felt shame for even considering the notion and unable to share the burden with someone of her faith. But isn’t that the point? We need to be able to hold up our darkest choices to God and Jesus – and their proxies – and ask for help and forgiveness. Not judgement and condemnation.

Yes, there are pastors, churches and organisations who can help. The problem is, their availability is forgotten in the use of extreme language: Unplanned pregnancy? Your life is over! Plus certain church messaging about abortion – such as the upcoming Roman Catholic Jubilee Year – drowns Jesus and compassion in religiosity.

For the coming Roman Catholic Jubilee year, starting in December, Pope Francis is ‘making it easier for doctors and women to seek forgiveness for abortion’. A jubilee year is one of the Catholic Church’s most important events and normally takes place every 25 years. But why is it just a jubilee year that makes it easier to seek forgiveness? Why not every second of every day of every year?

Imagine Jesus up on the cross, dying for us and saying:

“Yes, I’m covering for you all. I’m dying so you can have a relationship with God. It is finish-

“…No, actually. Hold off on that spear in my side for a moment…

“It’s sort of finished. For you people over there. But not for you women who had an abortion. No. The good news isn’t for you. Yes, the decision may press on your heart and weigh you down that you can barely breathe, but you missed the forgiveness train and it won’t be coming to the station again for 25 years.”

Every situation is different. In regards to abortion, Roman Catholicism teaches differently to the church I am part of. Yet Jesus does not differ.

Remember the woman caught in adultery in John 8?

“Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.

At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. 10 Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

11 “No one, sir,” she said.

“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

Based on this passage, it is perverse that the Roman Catholic religion ends up throwing the first stone at women, and doctors, who have procured or carried out abortion.

I can clearly see Jesus offering a woman who has had an abortion acceptance, love, forgiveness and hope as soon as she seeks it. Not once every 25 years.

If you are facing an unplanned pregnancy and wish to talk to someone about your choices with compassion and without judgement, contact http://www.diamondpregnancy.com/ or call them on (02) 8003 4990.

Hide & Seek with God

Forgive me Father, for it has been 37 days since my last blog post… I went from livin’ on a prayer and swinging between trapezes to….the vortex. You might know the vortex. A rabbit hole of commuting, packing lunchboxes, getting blood tests, feeding anti-virals to snot-monster, hacking up a lung, kids. A little matter of organising a fundraiser for close to 300 folks, smiling at clients whist chomping on deadlines as if they were smarties (or Valium, or something slightly speedier), taking on a new work gig whilst keeping all my others, and fighting off the Dark Lord.

I feel God slipping through my fingers like water. Which deep in my heart I know to be impossible, but when the 18-hour work days mount up, when the to-do list of simply getting the days done and delivered is banal and repetitive, it’s too easy to be sucked down into the vortex of life, rather than up into the life of the vortex. images

I also know now that my relationship with God and Jesus is strengthened when I write. Sometimes it feels like I pick over my faith bleached-bones like a vulture, others it’s more Satin bower bird, where I pounce triumphantly on a glimpse of azure. Lately it’s been tumbleweed blowing through the nest.

As I’ve written before, the trick to writer’s block is to write. So these words are dragging out across the keyboard like an vagrant being told to move along. There is no azure. Just tumbleweed tiredness. Not even slanging, vodka-cruiser style prayer.

“I want You back,” I whisper.

“I never left,” He answers.

“Then how come I feel like I miss You?” I implore.

“Because you’re looking too hard, Phil.”

Ah. And there it is. The brilliant blue amongst the tumbleweed. That has been worth the deletions and frustrations in getting a measly 390 words onto a blog post. At an average 2.3 words per minute.

God is in my seasons. I am learning, unlike my fast-paced entrance into His world, that our relationship does not always rely on the original, singular hard focus I once required to change course and establish traction.

Sometimes it’s soft focus. Returning back to being in a world of doing. And sometimes the only way you can simply let it be is by blurring out the hard edges. That’s where He waits.

No victims or survivors here, move along

How does one follow a couple of blogs on family violence (FV) and safe ministry?

Carefully. Nothing-to-see-here-630x286

Before I return to blog posts poking fun at myself on this Christian journey, I wanted to share a couple of lessons that have popped up for me in the responses to both.

I am not a victim. Please let’s stop using that term.

Yes, I may have been harmed or injured as a result of family violence. But I am not a person who has come to feel helpless and passive in the face of misfortune or ill-treatment. Whilst I was physically sick after publishing that post, it wasn’t from any feeling of helplessness. Instead it was because I dreaded someone looking at me differently in the present day. Treating me differently. Like a victim. To be named a victim is to somehow remain stuck in the language of fear.

Nor am I a survivor.

Gloria Gaynor has a lot to answer for. Surviving something feels so limiting. Slightly static. I don’t continue to live or exist in spite of FV. In fact, I rarely think about it. Why survive when you can bust through and grow?

Show compassion, sorrow or anger on my behalf, but, dear God, don’t pity me.

The parents who split messily, the mother who attempted suicide, the step-father who used his fists, all those experiences made me the woman I am. Whom I love. A resilient, strong, sassy, kind, fun, loyal warrior. Sarcastic, dry-humoured, yet compassionate and empathetic. (The latter two are less my default feelings. Thankfully Jesus reminds me to access them more each day). So please don’t pity people for the very experiences that forged them. If they value what they see in the mirror, your pity only devalues the experiences that gave them worth.

Love, forgiveness – ‘turning the other cheek’ – can achieve miracles.

Rosie Batty responded to a hateful, vile act with love. As a result she placed FV far higher on our nation’s agenda and was instrumental in the instigation of a Royal Commission into family violence. It’s early days, and I look forward to seeing how our leaders and our society as a whole tackles it.

There’s more to do, to pray for.

Yes, call for increases to budgets for family violence support services. Safe havens are necessary. But rather than parking the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff as abusees tumble over, let’s start fixing the underlying issue: why men (and some women) perpetrate family violence. What messages are being sent in our culture that perpetrate it? That cause confusion? Such as:

  • We tell our boys it’s never okay to hit a girl. How often do we teach our girls that it’s never ok to hit a boy?
  • Advertising that portrays women as passive objects that any amount of muck can be done to.
  • Porn. Rape porn.
  • Laws that leave Fathers battling for fair access visits to their children, with little recourse. Yes, there are times when that limited access is necessary. But (and I write from personal experience) there are also times when good men, great Dads, are punished by their ex-wives for the relationship breakdown; via making access visits incredibly difficult to secure.

This isn’t going away.

Ending family violence requires massive societal change; results need to be measured across generations. I’m impressed by the many clergy who have been vocal in calling for change and appear willing to shine the light in the dark corners. I’m also hopeful because of another massive societal shift that spread across the world incredibly quickly, back in the first century, and continues to support the weak and stand up for the oppressed today.

Seriously? We’re asking how a church can model love, trust and respect?

Thank-you. For the heartfelt support that poured through social media and across email in response to the blog about my experience of family abuse as a child. I heard from old school friends who were horrified they did not know. Teachers who wanted to know what signs they had missed. Other victimssurvivors, valiant warriors.  And Christians, so many, who urged me to keep going. To push strongly the importance of safe ministry, domestic violence and educating the clergy.images-1

I don’t know. I hit publish then crept away and vomited. I wasn’t strong. I’m wobbling along on Christian training-wheels here, let alone some domestic abuse specialist with insight into ministry.

The irony, only 48 hours ago, after battling with a sermon on using our spiritual gifts, I typed one of my usual, polite, requests for Christian guidance to the smart-alec pastor: ‘I honestly just bash my head on the keyboard and say to GJ&HS, much as I did at 3am that Easter Monday, “WHAT? What on earth did you chase me down for?’

I then (foolishly) added: ‘Will ask God to let me know clearly. And maybe to use some really distinct voice/accent.’

Well, less than 24 hours later, I heard lots of voices. Strongly. From all of you. How can I ignore voices such as these?

I’ve been involved in a fairly intense debate with a bunch of Sydney Anglican ministers (all men) on this very topic for the last few weeks. I’ve seen some commentary over the last few days acknowledging the issue and saying they need to do something about this, and that a woman should never stay in this kind of situation. They are a very influential voice in the life of this city and getting them on board is a worthwhile exercise, even though I’m sure there’s many who’ll choke on their coffee right now while reading your blog.”

From others, who acknowledged it was their pastor and their faith that got them out their situation, and gave them the strength to rebuild.

And others who had lost faith in the world and were desperately seek a rebuilding: “Phil, go tell those ministers this… God is love, forgiveness and peace. A true man loves his wife, children and life through and with God. Any man that abuses or violates another human being is lost from God and needs help. Women and mums stay hoping it will change or waiting for the best moment to get out. When we do get out, with our children with us, it takes a lot to rebuild faith and trust in humanity. Fixing this starts with listening, acknowledging and working with everyone…. We all suffer from the destruction of it and it needs to stop. As men leading churches… teach men what it takes to lead a family through leadership, personal responsibility, love, forgiveness and peace. Teach the women how to value themselves as the goddesses and glory that they are. We need honour back in common conversation, behaviour and action. Teach honour and model honour, love and respect in the churches and community at large and then we have a great place to start.”

Finally, sadly and scarily:

“I used to work for a church based counselling service and I ran groups for male perpetrators of domestic violence, kids who witnessed DV and I had behind the scenes involvement with groups for women who had experienced DV. Many counsellors can tell you stories their clients have shared with them of the subtle and overt pressure to endure whatever crap they were experiencing for the glory of Jesus. I’ve had clients who have made themselves very very sexually available to their husbands despite their own wishes because it was their ‘Christian duty’. Most counsellors who deal with Christians can name you men in leadership who are engaging in some form of abusive behaviour but the system is so supportive of them no one will speak up.”

I love my church. Its community has offered me renewal in times of trial. But the overall system of the ‘Bride of Christ’? I dare say it’s as packed full of politics as parliament. The response over the years to dealing with abuse has not been the bastion of truth, justice and mercy one would hope. So the light needs to shine. Light disinfects.

As a new Christian, I don’t want to have to defend my faith. I want to smile and uphold it for the source of joy it is. To say, “How awesome is it that faith and church helped a woman leave an abusive marriage?” rather than be caught in a war of doctrine around ‘submission’ ‘headship’ etc. I don’t want to watch a wave of stories come out about Christian leaders engaged in abusive behaviour that has been been covered up.

Clean out the dark corners. Be less parliament (pharasees anybody?) and more Jesus.

As the comments came in, I kept going back to one in particular: We need honour back in common conversation, behaviour and action. It was a familiar echo of something I had read before, I just couldn’t put my finger on it.

Ah, yes, that big book called The Bible.

  • Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things. (Philippians 4:8)
  • Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. (1 Peter 2:12)
  • They could find no corruption in him, because he was trustworthy and neither corrupt nor negligent. (Daniel 6:4)
  • In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven (Matthew 5:16).

Can someone in church hierarchy please stop for a moment and think: “Hang on, people are asking us to teach honour, and model honour, love and respect in our churches? Shouldn’t we be horrified that so many people believe that’s not actually the case?”

Dear Lord, not another Stephen Fry post

tumblr_inline_n3hkivssgi1qgp297Stephen Fry’s recent challenge to God at the pearly gates sent him trending all over social media. As a new Christian and a writer/journalist, the responses and posts had me acting like an alerting meercat on speed.

I was enthralled by the arguments bellowed to and fro between atheists and Christians. Some, I happily pondered. Others? Well, some of the UHT Christians (those who have been at this a long, longer life than I) and atheists need to take a Xanax. No wonder people look at Christians strangely when what I read had echoes of two toddlers in a sandpit arguing over whose toy truck is better.

I have joked since the start of my Christian journey that I’ve always believed God and Jesus needed a better PR agent, but that I never expected they’d hunt me down and challenge me to take the job. Seriously, there’s some personal branding work required.

No, I’m not going to start the ‘to and fro’ arguments back and forth here. There have been enough. Yet as a journalist I am going to call UHT Christians on one argument that some latched their teeth into and really niggled me. Namely, Fry can’t challenge God on bone cancer in children because, as Fry is an atheist, he doesn’t believe in God. Simplified, some in the Christian community are saying he can’t have it both ways. Yet they are missing a significant point.

Fry answered the question posed by Gay Byrne: “Suppose it’s all true, and you walk up to the pearly gates, and are confronted by God,” Bryne asked on his show The Meaning of Life. “What will Stephen Fry say to him, her, or it?” There’s little point having a Christian argument that Fry, as an atheist, can’t have an issue with God because he doesn’t believe God exists. Byrne posed a hypothetical. Fry answered. The biggest error was Byrne failed the golden rule of interviewing: never ask a question you don’t know the answer to.

Look at the footage (please google, I’m so saturated I can’t even link it). Byrne is horrified. As an interviewer he handles it terribly. Fry was able to hit the ball out the park. I suspect the show’s producers were expecting Fry to brush off the question – “I’m an aethist, so that question is redundant” – or perhaps secretly hoping he’d say something witty such as: “Oops, looks like I made a mistake. You do exist,” leaving them with the opportunity to pepper social media with headline soundbites such as, “Atheist Fry Admits He Made A Mistake Over God.”

An interviewer worth his salt would have challenged Fry and introduced the topic of sin. Whether Fry believes in God, the Fall, and the saving grace of Jesus’ death and resurrection or not, that was the precise moment to bring it up. The door opened for Byrne to step through with the Christian viewpoint: that pesky apple and the serpent. God’s intent was not bone cancer in children, but health, joy, ease and grace. Which is why He bothered coming to earth as man in the New Testament.

Imagine where the interview could have gone if Byrne had grabbed the opportunity to talk to Fry about Jesus’ resurrection, forgiveness, grace and saving souls one at a time. With a mind like Fry’s, that would have been an interview to behold.

I am also offended that Fry is accused of being disrespectful. ‘Don’t talk to God like that’, some of the posts bluster. Yet, atheist, new or UHT Christian, why wouldn’t you ask some seriously pointed questions of God? Isn’t that the point of faith, that you can rail at Him (as I’ve alluded to before in vodka-cruiser style slanging Psalms), and draw closer to Him in an incredibly personal relationship? This is a God ‘who sings over us’, who’s like the Father with the Prodigal Son, who rejoices in heaven when just one of his lost sheep come back to Him. A God who loves that much isn’t going to be offended when you ask him a few curly, even disrespectful questions. Parents of teenagers have insight into that!

Give me an opportunity to sit next to God and Jesus on a long-haul flight, and I’d be asking some serious questions too. Whilst I happily glorify Him for love, care and the pretty astounding personal stuff delivered into my life in the past year, it doesn’t mean I’d sit there in dumbstruck awe eating my economy peanuts (I know God and Jesus would fly coach, the New Testament writings about hanging out with the poor and the oppressed pretty much applies to economy and the leg room on a long-haul flight). There are certain things I’d love ‘from the horse’s mouth’ clarity on.

I would have preferred Byrne to elevate the conversation. Whilst I have spent some of the past week overwhelmed by the posts and counter posts that Fry’s comments sparked (I’m a glutton for research), there’s one thing I totally agree on: Apologising on BBC Radio 4’s the Today show for any offence he might have caused Fry said: “I’m most pleased that it’s got people talking. I’d never wish to offend anybody who is individually devout or pious and goes about their religious ways, and indeed many Christians have been in touch with me and said that they’re very grateful that things have been talked about.”

Hear Hear. Perhaps Stephen Fry would care to join me on my next long-haul flight? We can share peanuts.

All the responses to Fry’s interview had me alerting like a meercat on speed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear SAP,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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