Over achievers don’t need Jesus. They’ve got DIY.

It’s easier to take Jesus to the starving in the slums than it is to the over-achiever.images-4

The handful of pastors I’ve polled on this agree. Yet while they all agreed ministering in less well to do suburbs is easier, it isn’t for the reasons one might assume.

Suburbs that suffer from generational unemployment, poor job opportunities, low education — low hope, you might say — are more honest, gritty and real about their issues. Which makes ministering easier because people living in that world can’t help but look at the issues, experience the pain, and, for the most part, let it all hang out:

“I need another drink because that no-hoper boyfriend of mine just smacked me around again and my dickhead boss cut my shifts.” There is no glitz and gloss. Life is harsh, cruel and there’s no shame in letting everyone know. Which makes opening up the Jesus conversation a little easier.

“Your mate Jesus wants to come in and take a look and help? He wants to show me I’ve got more worth than the next no-hoper boyfriend? I’d like to see him try. But, hell, Ok then, I’ll have a listen.”

It’s harder amongst the demographics where do it yourself (DIY) has displaced Jesus. Where resilience has shifted into papering over the cracks. There are still issues – domestic violence, gambling, drinking, financial insecurity, adultery, pornography addiction and over-stretching – but heaven forbid anyone talks about it. Stepford suffering. Pastors have a harder gig breaking through the facades.

Yet what if you’re not suffering, are meeting your mortgage payments with ease, can afford a nice holiday once or twice a year, you’ve got a good good group of friends you can call on in a moment for help, are building up your self-managed super fund and life is sweet?

You don’t perceive you have any lack. You’re confident, with a great job, with well-rounded kids attending a well-rounded school for which you pay well-rounded fees.  So what does Jesus offer you? Aside from eternal life…which you possibly think is a crock anyway.

The ‘surrender to Jesus’ message doesn’t gain traction here. Not only has DIY displaced Jesus,  DIY is done so well it’s easy to say, “Sorry, God and Jesus, you don’t fit in with our decor.” Hell is imaginary. God being in charge, with talk of hell at the end of your unbelieving life, is to be scoffed at.

I write from first-hand experience. To all intents and purposes my BC life was sweet. I wasn’t filling up any gaping psyche wounds with alcohol or trinkets. But I was always a ‘seeker’. I have always been drawn to the mysteries of life, not because I was filling a gap but because I wanted to understand more. This odd siren call in my heart that would have me look around at the world and know – quite fiercely – that it was all a facade. That there was much, much more hiding in the heights and depths.

So why do some seek out the mysteries while others sit firmly in reality? If God writes all our names on His palm, when He drops eternity in all our hearts, how come some of us recall the watermark echo and others don’t?

It can’t simply be upbringing – I have friends who grew up in God-loving homes who are atheists, and others, like myself, who have come to Christ despite the lack of presence of anything Godly or spiritual in childhood.

It isn’t always suffering – but I suspect that has a great deal to do with it. It was really only when my Mum passed away that I paid more attention to what God was trying to tell me. It’s like I say about the year Big T and I split up early in our relationship: sometimes you have to hurt a bit; and then go back and scrabble around in the mess, dust and coal to realise there’s a diamond right under your nose.

My largest frustration is how to describe exactly what has changed since G&J rocked in. Sure, I record what’s lost in translation between what I thought I knew and what actually is in these posts – but it’s a poor facsimile of what has occurred in my brain, heart, soul and cells.

Before he became a Christian, Sydney’s new Dean, Kanishka Raffel, recalls asking his friend, now Moore College lecturer, Andrew Shead, what the big deal was. What being a Christian actually meant. Shead replied, “It means I’ve lost control of my life to Christ.”

That’s it. My life is no longer my own. Which is desperately hard to explain to the ‘DIY, in control of my life’ demographic. Why on earth would I give away control of my life?

Simply, I had no choice. Approaching my second Easter on this Christian journey, I am reminded of how I kept expecting ‘it’ to wear off. That the joyful, fizzing feeling that invaded my soul would fade away. That my sensible, educated, degree-holding, rational brain would argue Jesus away.

Neither happened. Instead, Jesus delivered evidence to my head and miracles to my heart. God forged His relationship with me in such an intensely personal, bespoke way, I was a goner.

I mean, what are the odds? A straight-talking ex-journo with a dry sense of humour calls a church. She gets a straight-talking, smart-alec pastor (SAP) with a similar sense of humour on the other end. Who – when I made my first visit to church – turned out to be an excellent type of preacher that didn’t annoy or aggravate this communications professional with monotone delivery, verbal ticks, squeaky voice and boring content.

I mean, let’s be honest, on the scale of probabilities the odds were higher of me getting someone, ahem, less likely to engage and entertain. I’d experienced plenty of snoozy sermons at school.

Of course it wasn’t odds. It was God. His tailor-made, bespoke, personal call for engagement. He knows me so well. That he would give his son at Easter so I may be in a closer relationship with Him is amazing enough. But to think He would take the time, care and attention to understand my impatient, judgemental heart.

To know, that first day back at church, the likelihood of my rolling my eyes at a poorly-executed sermon was high. That I was looking for excuses not to be engaged. That when I first called the church, I would have run rough-shod over some more polite, diplomatic pastor whilst making awful judgements about boring Anglican Revs who were out of touch with the real world.

And all because He wanted me back. That’s personal. And it doesn’t wear off.

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.

Prayer. It’s allowed. Aloud.

Prayer was always something I was happy doing on my own. My isolated quiet time with G&J. Or the ‘led’ prayer in church, where I’d listen in, add my own prayers into any allocated ‘fill in the blanks yourself’ pauses, and add my “Amen” along with the congregation. images-2.jpg

Then, just over a year ago, I joined an existing growth group in the church. A mix of different-aged Christians, most of whom I’d term UHT (at this Christian thing a long, longer life than I) who meet weekly to do a more intensive unpacking of the Bible. If I wanted to grow my relationship with G&J, this was a natural progression.

I had sat myself next to an older women in church one Sunday, who’d helped hugely in my getting to grips with the histrocity of Jesus (being a history teacher herself), when the pastor on stage mentioned extra bible study. I whispered I thought I may need some of that, but with other commitments only one evening worked, and TA DA, she said: “That’s when my group meets, would you like to come along?”

Perhaps I was naive. Maybe G&J were ROTFL in heaven, hooting. God knows me well enough to know that my first step in learning is literal (read, research) then experiential (ponder, write about it, apply it, then return to ponder and write as I grow). God TOTALLY knew my literal understanding of a Bible Study group was just that. And that I also  assumed that ‘growth group’ was some sexy, marketing-derived name to make it sound more appealing out in the congregation target market than bible study.

Of course, growth group is a perfect descriptor. Yes, I unpacked more about God’s word as I attended each week. But you do more than study the bible in a growth group. You connect. You share. You pray. Out loud.

Out loud. In front of people. They are all fantastically lovely people but let me write it again: out loud. In a sort of free form manner based on notes you have taken as people share prayer points. My inner introvert was sweating.

Now, my UHT Christian readers may wonder what the big deal is. But when you are a newbie, the out loud thing is fairly confronting. In a small group, I was uncomfortably aware that it was really noticeable if I didn’t join in. Then my brain starting ticking with daft questions: what if two of you start up at the same time? Is there some prayer etiquette when that happens, do you give way to the left or something? Plus if we miss prayer points off the list, does the last person do some massive wrap-up just to make sure everyone is covered?

I love praying, I do. It’s an intimate opportunity to open up your heart, hopes, worries, sorrows. What I had to learn was the power of group prayer. That as Matthew 18:20 tells me, where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them and there is something beautiful in that, no matter how it tested my introverted heart.

So I grew. Rather than letting my naturally introverted, ‘don’t let anything come out my mouth before it’s fully formed in my brain,’ inclination takeover, I had to lean in. It gave me more insights into how the holy spirit whispers into my heart. It doesn’t matter that it is stumbling and ineloquent (a challenge for this writer who likes to craft and polish). I simply have to breath out, listen and hear the words that I’m gifted with.

As Jesus reminded me the other day: “I never said to make the light. Just to be the light.”

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.

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.

The dangers of bringing a plus one to church

Christmas, as many ministry teams tell their congregations, is the time to invite non-church goers along to church. I’d done just that. As I sat next to my guest, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit excited. It had been a lovely welcome, everyone had been friendly and gracious. The kids’ minister had us in laughter, the prayers were lovely and inclusive and the music was vibrant and upbeat. My guest smiled over at me. “Nice that it has a relaxed vibe,” she commented.images.jpg

And then the sermon started. Halfway through she glanced at me and whispered, “What’s this all about? I don’t get why this God of yours is all about punishment and judgement.”

I’d been feeling pretty bummed out about what I was hearing too. Not because it was a ‘bad’ sermon. But for the average person who may have wandered back to church after a long time away? I understand why she asked what she did.

Whilst I knew it was a bit of Old Testament scene-setting in order to relate the gift of Jesus at Christmas time, there’s enough of my ‘before Christ’ (BC) PR persona left to recognise a message totally missing its mark. God & Jesus lost in translation.

You see, the sermon didn’t close the loop. It set the scene, but didn’t make enough of the climax. Jesus, grace and joy deserve an ending of fireworks. Not a damp squib that leaves the listener with echoes of brimstone.

When will pastors understand that the church has done such a disservice to G&J over the years – has lost them so often in translation – that a newcomer is going to hear the ‘negative’ stereotypes one thousand times louder than anything else? You say ‘sin’ and ‘punishment’ and ‘obedience’ three times in a sermon, then please make sure you are saying ‘love’, ‘Jesus’, ‘free gift, not works’ and ‘grace’ at least ten times each to balance it out.

It’s basic message adoption principles: our brains are wired to hear the negatives, so offset each one with at least three positives. Please. Just in case there’s a brand new visitor cautiously finding his or her way back to church that day.

Please don’t pre-suppose knowledge. You may have 99% ‘old faithful’ in the pews, but that 1% newcomer who really needs to get the message – they may not be ready to unpack it. Forget the cliff-hanger sermon series for the next week – because they may not come back. I understand the power of a sermon series, I do. But build it well. Let each week stand alone. Remind, wrap up, and make sure you’re covering off on the grace, goodness and joy each time. Just in case.

I tried to do a fast crisis PR repair job for G&J in the car park before my friend climbed into her car and drove away. But how do you explain it’s a misconception when a 20-minute sermon ‘sort-of’ reinforced the misconception?

I can send her this link, and this one, and this one, all of which I hope explain the real, close, loving relationship God seeks with us, from my own personal experience.

I can try to explain that when the word obedience is used in a sermon, it isn’t because we have a growling, arrogant, up-Himself, punishing God who demands our grovelling to feed His gargantuan thundering ego saying, “I MADE THE WORLD, SO OBEY ME, PRAISE ME, AND GROVEL BEFORE ME, MINION, OR ELSE!”

I can explain when God talks about obedience, it is from the context of His not being human, but of Him being God. He is so much larger, wiser, holier, cleverer and smarter than I. Because He’s God and I’m me.

So being obedient to his precepts means I submit to Him being just that: larger, wiser, smarter, cleverer, more lovely and amazing. By submitting (being obedient) I relax in the total and utter security that He has my back. That He gets the agenda far better than I do. That He loves me with a breadth and depth I cannot imagine, and He only wants what is best for me. So given He has my back, I can relax and trust Him implicitly. Why would I resist (be disobedient) when the other option is me trying to go it alone and quite often making a mess of it?

Of course it means I have to humble myself. Take a hard look inward. It requires growth.

So where does this leave me sharing what I’ve learnt about G&J? I often only get one shot talking about this ‘Jesus loves you’ business with someone. Whilst it’s always God’s will not mine, I really do want to facilitate the best introduction possible.

It takes guts for me to spill my heart to a non-believer. I risk ridicule. I have horrible images of being seen as some shiny-suited, dodgy TV evangelist. I have to be ready to take tough questions on the chin. Yet that’s OK because G&J have my back and for every snigger, for every person who may scoff at my faith, there may be another who unexpectedly finds peace and hope and love.

Pastors, please be aware, for every guest one of your church members brings through the door, they’ve most likely spent weeks before praying, laying the groundwork, having coffee, gently unpacking their guest’s misconceptions of religion and trying carefully to get Jesus front and centre. Anyone who’s doing evangelism well isn’t spraying and praying out a scatter-gun of church invitations. It’s a hand-reared, personal pitch.

So if you’re standing on stage preaching and people in your congregation have invited new guests along? No pressure, but please don’t stuff it up.

Now, all my readers who are pastors may leap to their own defence by citing the great sermon postscript: “But we always say, at the end of each sermon: if you’re new here today, have any questions about what was in the sermon, or want to talk to someone about Jesus and his great gift, come and see me or xyz on the ministry team.”

I’m sorry, it’s a terrible engagement technique so please don’t think it covers you for any sermon misunderstandings by any new listeners.

There’s absolutely no way I’d have wandered up to a stranger my first day in church, especially if my head was overflowing with their sermon’s berating notions of sin and punishment, and asked to discuss it further. Like my guest at Christmas, I’d have been sprinting to the car park as fast as my legs could carry me.

The Prodigal Hangover

One of my most favourite lines in the Bible is Luke 15:20: ‘But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.’ images

Jesus’ Parable of The Prodigal Son is designed to illustrate the generosity of God towards us. Most theological explanations focus on the forgiveness God offers to those who truly repent. Yet what resonates with me most in the parable is how the son ‘was still a long way off’ and yet the father does not hesitate to run (run! so unseemly in those days) and sweep him up.

All before the son utters a word of apology over how foolishly, awfully, terribly he has behaved towards his father.

There is the brilliance of grace. Yet I’ve often wondered what happened the next day, after the party with the fatted calf and barrels of wine.

Given in the parable that the father Jesus refers to is God, I’d say He was still in a fine mood at the post-party breakfast table. His joyous delight would be on display. All back-slapping ‘my son is home’ bonhomie. No tit-for-tat point scoring going on. Simple unadorned joy. The father doesn’t care what the son had been up to in the years that passed. He wants to get on with their relationship afresh.

Son number one is probably still pissed off. Grumbling into his bacon and eggs about his wastrel younger brother. “So typical of him,” he fumes. “I stay at home, hold the fort, comfort dad when he left without a backward glance. I saw what he got up to and with whom (he needs to be more careful with his Facebook security settings). I can’t believe dad just let him waltz back in here. I didn’t get that sort of party when I turned 21 – and he gets it all laid on just because he bothered to come home!”

But son number two is the one that interests me the most in that family. Prodigal. How did he wake up the next day? With a hangover, I’m fairly certain. In the parable he is everyman – or woman – who has received God’s grace and forgiveness, no questions asked. It’s a brand new day. I dare say he awoke feeling thankful. Relieved. Perhaps overwhelmed by the depth of unconditional love displayed by his father the day before:

“I can’t believe how he just ran up and hugged me. He pulled me close and cried. Me too. Then he threw a party. Unbelievable. After all I’d said and done, he just let it go. I thought he might turn me away – and I could understand it if he had. I begged for a job to try and pay off the debt, but he didn’t want to hear a word of it. He said to me: “What’s done is done. I love you. I’m so glad you’re home.””

the-best-moments-from-the-hangover-movies-1070292-TwoByOneA week later would Prodigal have felt the same? Perhaps some doubts and worries have crept in: “It’s been a week. We’re getting on so well. But what about next time? I’m such a mess. It’s taking all my strength to not go into town and get a couple of hours with a hooker. Or burn some cash through the pokies. I’m jonesing to snort a line. Or download some hardcore porn. Big bro is just waiting for me to f*&k it up, I know it.”

You don’t need to have experienced Prodigal’s loose-living to recognise what he battled with. Shame. Of stuffing it up again. Not living up to the gift of grace. Falling off the wagon. Fearful of not being enough.

Yet it’s not about works. We don’t have to do enough to earn God’s love and grace. But I wonder, just quietly, how many – like Prodigal – doubt we can be enough.

That’s because we measure in human terms. Our very means of self-judgement is flawed by it having come from flawed humanity. We know shame because we have been taught it as an emotional response to something. Most likely by another flawed human being, who cannot – by the very nature of being human – love unconditionally and forgive like God can.

I hope in the weeks and months that followed, Prodigal realised he could never be enough. Never. For every hooker he lusted after, God wouldn’t have been surprised by him lusting after 100 more. For every time he put $50 through the pokies, God could easily expect $5000. For every line of coke on the mirror, God was poised to observe him chop another 50.

Not because God is there, cheering us on and urging us to sin more. No. If sin is our distance from God, there’s no-way He wants us to move further away. Yet God knows how flawed we are. We gloss over our faults, whilst He sees them all in the harsh brightness of a hungover morning… and still loves us. The worst we expect from ourselves can never compare to the worst God knows we are capable of.

The SAP kindly shared a new theological term with me in regards to this: prevenient grace. The more we surrender, acknowledge all our faults and step out in our willingness to grow in relationship with God, prevenient grace makes our struggles easier. Prevenient grace means that while Prodigal would have lusted, gambled and snorted at an Olympic-level standard, he is prevented from doing his worst. Blessed with prevenient grace (sort of like divine willpower, a handbrake on the worst of his excesses), the struggles and shame fall away. He may have aimed for Olympic-level debauchery, may even have craved to lose himself in its numbing haze, but by prevenient grace he can’t even stumble to the starting blocks.

Following his return, each time Prodigal hit overwhelm and sobbed out his shame, I hope he realised God was nodding in agreement. “You don’t know the half of it, Prodigal. But you know what, I love you anyway. On a scale that your human heart can barely imagine. But keep drawing closer. My grace will hold you. You’ve a new race to run.”