God’s blowtorches & blessings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hey, Christians. Let’s talk about doubts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blessings.

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

Play nicely.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3) I’m going to pray for you. Deal.

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

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

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

5) Please don’t treat me differently.

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

6) Your support is appreciated.

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

7) I understand it may feel weird.

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

8) This isn’t wearing off.

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

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

Motherhood doesn’t have a manual

Today my mum, Veronica, would have celebrated her 70th birthday. A long-term disabling illness, followed by cancer, took her in her 66th year. On the eve of Mother’s Day, she deserves some attention.

If you’ve spent anytime in these blogs, you’ll know she lived with emotional pain. How she dealt with it wasn’t wise – but who amongst us are? What I have written about my childhood has generated comments of compassion – plus sorrow that I had not been mothered and tended to as society expects.

Yet you tend from what you know. Your nurture of others stems from what you are taught.

My mum was not taught how to parent under stress, during a marriage breakdown, in the early 1970s in the UK when getting divorced was not the ‘done’ thing. Her own Mum – a fairly controlling woman I’m told by all accounts, who liked things just so, to the point of serving the same meals on the same day each week – died before Veronica’s 30th birthday. Her mother-in-law died even earlier. So when it came to navigating a marriage breakdown, she had no maternal help to seek.

I am certain she adored me. She was ridiculously proud of me. But – with too few figures around to offer counsel – as a single mum she gave her daughter the roles of confidant, care-giver, sounding board and, yes, in times of stress, emotional baggage attendant.

Yet, in the overall timeline of her life and mine, the low points still don’t outweigh how much she loved. So, as a communicator who tells every pastor off when they fail to offset any negative in a sermon with three positives, it is time for me to take my own advice. Please meet my Mum as she ought to be remembered:

Driving along in a sky-blue Volkswagen Beetle, picking me up from school and pretending the car was a bird that we ‘flew’ along english hedge-rowed lanes.

Walking on a snow-covered road, collecting money for charity, glamorous in high heeled red wellington (gum) boots and a fur coat that she told me was ‘Sasquatch’. I only just discovered, by googling it to write this blog, that she was having me on. Good one, Mum.

Taking a hump-back bridge at speed in the same Volkswagen Beetle, on another English country lane, getting wheels off the tarmac like we were Herbie racing at Monte Carlo. Myself and my cousins giggling like loons in the backseat as we bounced and hit our heads on the car roof.

During the 1980s AIDS campaigns, calmly helping me water-fill condoms, tie them up, stick on eyes, and perch them around the house. She also got in on the practice game with carrots and bananas. For awareness. Thankfully I didn’t whip out some stick-on eyes when I first rolled one on a penis…

Happily having tribes of my friends to camp on our lounge-room floor. She loved guessing who had slept over based on the lines of squashed and battered school shoes in the front hall.

Working two jobs in the 80s – when UK interest rates jumped from eight to 13% in six month – to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table.

Sitting with me, 16, in a small english pub drinking blackberry wine. Giggling together as we wove our way unsteadily back up the hill to the place where we were staying. “I don’t think that was alcohol-free, ” she whispered. Maybe not legal. But the closeness, the peek into adulthood, the memory? Perfect.

Waking me up with a jolt the morning my A-level (HSC) exam results were due by vacuuming out her stress at some unearthly hour. When I called her with the results later she managed an english understated, “jolly good, Philly” – but the hug on the driveway as she raced home during her lunch-hour spoke volumes. Even though, all the way through, as other Mothers stressed and fretted, she simply said, “Oh, so what. You can always sit the exams again next year if you need.”

Pretending to be an uber-qualified geologist who worked on the north sea oil rigs. Just so I had a feisty, sea-battling, helicopter-flying, tertiary-qualified female role model to whom I could aspire.

Turning up at airports, alone, in her wheelchair, ready for long-haul flights to Sydney. Doing the same at Circular Quay one day. I had left her sight-seeing and was returning to fetch her after helping my cousin unpack her new flat. But no, that wouldn’t do. Too much fuss: “Oh, don’t worry about me, Philly. I’ll get the ferry over to where you are and you can pick me up the other end.”

She disembarked full of tales of the adventures of being winched – winched! – in her wheelchair up the side of the ferry because navigating the gangplank proved a bit tricky.

When I asked about the quality of the lift, she flicked her hand airily and said, “Oh, Philly, it was two planks of wood, these lovely ferry men lifted me onto it in my wheelchair, then they tied ropes at each end and pulled me up. I just had to make sure the brakes were on!”

Tracing her finger on her young grand-children’s palms, singing “round and round the garden” as they wriggled and giggled at her. Driving them along in her electric scooter. Letting them drive the electric scooter. Unsupervised.

Dancing with my husband to a Beatnicks Beatles cover band one night at a Mudgee winery. Her in her wheelchair, Big T tipping her up and back on two-wheels and spinning her about. “Oh, Tones!” she would admonish,  holding onto the sides for dear life, whilst loving every minute.

Packing up her flat in the UK after she died. “Did you ever get the Baby Alive doll?” Big T called from the other room. “What? ” I questioned. He appeared in the doorway, his hands full of my childhood letters to Santa, ‘What I did in the holidays’ kindy essays and school art Mother’s Day Cards.

So, you see? Not a bad mother. Simply a mother. Human. Tending to her life and mine with the love she had and the tools she understood. Patient and loving one day, impatient and upset another. Just like me. And you.

Happy Mothers’ Day for this weekend. Please hug your Mum if you can reach her. Send up a prayer in her absence if you can’t. Also, if you ever take a ride on a Sydney ferry, please think of Veronica, being winched up the side, sitting in her wheelchair tied to two planks of wood. She’d get a kick out of that.

 

 

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.

Dear Lord, I regret…nothing?

The interesting thing about coming to G&J in my 40s is the somewhat colourful history I shoved in front of the high-pressure gurney of grace. imgres-1.jpg

As I commented to the SAP, at least I am under no illusions as to what my son and daughter could get up to. His reply: “Well, perhaps. But if they grow up in a church’s youth ministry with great leaders around them, they might walk a different path.”

It was interesting observing my initial (prideful?) internal response. It was along the lines of: But all that messy and colourful history created someone I’m actually quite fond of. Taught me a lot about life, human relations and gave me the excellent fine motor skills to create a roll your own…umm..swiss cake. Cough…

I don’t intend to glamourise here. Certain sections of my teens and early 20s, but for the grace of God and my character wiring to be (relatively) responsible and in charge, could have caused me to a) screw up my exams b) get kicked out of school or c) be splattered across the road from choosing to ride pillion behind less than responsible fast motorcycle riders.

Was I hurting others? Not by chosen malice, but by sheer age and selfishness. Did I hurt myself? Yes (emotionally) and No, not much, (physically). Did I hurt God? Absolutely.

To hold him as Abba, as a Daddy who paces the floors when his daughter is out until all hours, who would seek to drag disrespectful young men away by the scruff of their neck..then yes, I hurt Him terribly. Each time I dragged on the battered motorcycle jacket to drink Red Stripe with Rastafarians, or used His gifts of caustic dry wit and irreverent humour to test out my attractiveness to the opposite gender, walking a dangerous, sexualised line between flirtation and verbal insult… then yes.

I would have seared Him. My name that He had written on His palm would have itched and burnt. Yet I didn’t comprehend why. It wasn’t because of thundering anger, fire and brimstone, ‘Thou Shalt NOT go out wearing THAT, Young Lady!’ retribution. But because of love.  “She knows not what she does, Dad,” is a line I imagine Jesus whispering regularly on my behalf.

So do I regret? Today I do make an excellent swiss roulade sponge, so perhaps not all. But do I repent? Yes. I reflect back with contrition. God whispered more for for me in my heart, singing a watermark onto my soul. So I regret every day I didn’t return home. Just like Prodigal, I am overjoyed that, despite my flaws – in fact, because of them – He continues to open His arms wide and welcome me in.

 

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.”