God uses broken vessels, not timelines and tickboxes

One of the most confusing things I have been asked regularly about these blogs on my 2.5 year faith walk is, “How do you get ‘it’? You have a knack for explaining Jesus, but  you haven’t been ‘doing’ it long enough so you really ought not ‘get’ it.”6847c54c87fc05c9ea4c8eff7e517529.jpg

In no particular order it has been suggested: perhaps someone else is actually writing these blog posts; that I ought not ‘get’ it because I’ve not undertaken theological study; or (my favourite) it would be wiser if someone with a theological degree to read through my posts before I publish them.

I have also received a humbling amount of compliments too; but still many with an air of bafflement. “This is great, I love how you explained it, but you’ve only been a Christian for how long..?”

The above have all contributed to me taking a break from my blogs for a while, coupled with shoves from the Holy Spirit to focus my attentions elsewhere.

Yet I miss it. Writers process on their pages. But I really had to wrestle with why I was writing and what – if anything – God was asking me to do with it.

This started as a place to record and unpack what GJ&HS were doing in my life. It evolved as my journalist head observed what I perceived as being lost in translation between the great news of the Jesus fella and the often stilted, sometimes stagnant, communication methods and stereotypes of church and religion.

After 2.5 years I now see more clearly how God works in phases with us. He has taken me from everything I need, then to everything I trust and now through to everything I want.

Need was obvious (after a cage fight or ten), trust took longer and want… well, want is what I liken to the sense of a growing HS magnet inside my chest that pulls and pulls me to more in relationship with GJ&HS.

There’s been a problem though. What the HS been whispering, what God has been suggesting has felt too big for little ol’ me. Coupled with a hangover of ‘you’re just too new a Christian to get this’ it left me somewhat frozen. A few weeks ago a pastor (not of the smart-alec variety) told me, “you wouldn’t understand theologically what I’m trying to do here.” Wow. That really hooked in.

I recall after my liptoning asking the SAP what all this focus on the timeline of my understanding of GJ&HS was about? As I pondered God pressing me to apply for a role within a Christian not-for-profit 18 months ago, even the SAP said, “well, they may not want you. They may be seeking a more mature Christian.”

What was this? Is one supposed to spend a certain amount of time on one’s knees in pews? Much like frequent fliers, was there a tier status I’d been unaware of?

I’m sorry if I now offend people who have letters after their name as long as the alphabet in regards to theological study, but here goes: the basic premise of Jesus really isn’t that complicated.

Yes, I applaud all those scholars who dig through greek, hebrews, and other ancient texts in order to better deliver understanding of scripture to our modern world – and maybe we’d not have had the Reformation if Luther had been unwilling to do the same. Yet at its heart, Christianity is fairly simple. After all, Jesus called uneducated, illiterate fishermen to be in on the ‘start-up’. So let’s not get over-excited about how complicated it is to grasp.

The key words in the paragraph above being ‘at its heart’. If you let GJ&HS move through your heart, your head may wrestle (as mine did) but I believe it prepares you for everything that follows after far better than if you try to move from ‘head-knowledge’ to ‘heart-understanding’.

My answer to my bewildered compliment-payers: “I have no idea how. It feels right. It flows out of me but (and here I have to say it’s all on the HS) I will always get a pressing to dig into the Bible about whatever I’m called to write about.”

Heart first, with head fact checking. Both need to be applied – even when the fact checking can be an uncomfortable truth to wrestle with! I remind everyone that – by training – I am a journalist. It is ingrained for me to attempt to make anything I write about as accessible as possible for the reader. Why would my writing about GJ&HS be any different?

He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. – 1 Timothy 3;6

Perhaps this is what people have been concerned about? Paul was saying that young converts should not be made pastors regardless of their zeal or spiritual gifts. That there is a depth of character that cannot be developed any other way than through time. It speaks to pride, and no matter what other secular positions of leadership and maturity a new Christian may have held, that experience is insufficient.

I’m going to go with a yes, maybe. But when you’ve got a 40+ convert with a breadth and depth of life experience that God is calling with a vengeance, perhaps encouragement rather than bafflement is a better way to grow new parts to the body of Christ. How many new Christians with fantastic skills and gifts are hesitating over what they can offer church, missions, and evangelising because they have been subtly told “they’re too new,” with the implication that ‘theologically you just won’t get it’?

A chapter later, Paul writes to Timothy: Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity. (1 Timothy 4;12)

The principle that Paul was explaining is that maturity is not always associated with years. Out of all the people Paul had trained, Timothy’s heart was the closest to that of the Apostle Paul (Philippians 2:20). Timothy was the one anointed by God to carry on the work of the church at Ephesus, and he had to fight any cultural barriers that would cause the older people not to respect his authority because of his young age.

Paul reminded Timothy not to let others despise his youth. We are all responsible, to a large degree, for other people’s opinions about us. I am reminded to be more obedient to God than to people’s opinions, even if on a heart/head level they are somehow bound up in a scriptural opinion that recent converts ought not grasp this GJ&HS business so easily and emphatically.

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. James 1:17

All good things come from God. And my somehow being able to grasp and explain GJ&HS in such a way that connects with people is a good thing, no? God doesn’t work on timelines and tick boxes. He has grabbed me, this broken vessel, and in His grace, has poured in some surprising gifts. A gift of writing. Of speaking. Of encouraging people to grow, because I’ve always felt strongly that if we are all not growing then we are dying.

Throw in the past 2.5 years of falling head-over-heels with GJ&HS and where does that lead me?

a) Setting up a religious cult

b) Going to bible college.

 

While the thought of a) gives me many blog post ideas, it truly looks like it’s b). Took me a while – I have spent weeks praying He closes doors, this is too big for me, this is overloading for me, all of which are loud echoes of take this cup away from me. Me.

Incorrect insecure pronoun. Who do I want? To Whom do I surrender? And while the dreams that God is pressing upon my heart feel way too big for me, they aren’t for Him. He uses broken vessels in the funniest of ways. I take heart knowing He will smile at my imagining my vessel as a broken bottle of gin turned into a lamp-stand.

Which also gives me my next blog post idea: the freaked out, I can’t quite believe I’m doing this sinner’s application to bible college.

Stay posted, I’m sure I’m going to have lots of new material…

The testimony blooper reel

I love the bloopers at the end of shows. I think it started as a child watching Smokey and the Bandit movies. I loved how I could move from pure fiction to authentic reality. There was also a massive lesson about failing fast and failing with fun. All these people getting it wrong, stuffing up lines, enjoying it, trying again and succeeding. d5e933bd4c28f20cd1ac927e8a14a7cf38935364324fa876f2d56730d5a0e7a6.jpg

Upon reflection, my getting up on stage to give my testimony almost two years ago was a fairly interesting exercise on the SAP’s part. He’d observed me pinging around like meerkat on speed as I wrestled and questioned with God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. And whilst he knew I was more than solid with what GJ&HS had delivered – I’d not have been lipton’d otherwise – he’d also had plenty of insight into my, um, somewhat colourful communication methods.

I wonder if pastors ever have a moment when they wish for the same nine-second delay button that allows live broadcasters to dump any content that’s off-piste before it goes out to air?

After all, live testimony is a fairly public litmus test of a pastor’s efforts in the soul-saving funnel. Yes, yes, I know, God is sovereign, it’s not really the pastor’s fault if someone doesn’t get it 100%….but, still, you’ve surely got to feel a bit of the pressure.

Something has prompted the newbie to come to (or call) the church, they’ve asked lots of questions, likely attended the gospel 101, Christianity Explored course, totally gotten with the program that Jesus’ grace is an underserved gift and are ready to publicly give testimony. But imagine if something has been lost in translation, and, up on stage, there’s some major faux-pas.

Like the live testimony where the person expressed hope they had done enough.

Whoops. I imagine it caused the pastor a mental forehead-slap, a quick grab of the microphone and a, “Ahem, right, well, actually, before you continue let me quickly open up to Ephesians 2:9.”

Testimony is a funny thing. There are the big, headliner, “Jesus turned my life around saved me from drugs/drink/prostitution” testimonies. Or the no less headlining, but somehow less attention-getting, “I grew up in a Christian home, with happy parents, their solid marriage and embrace Jesus as my saviour because I have seen so much joy in him throughout my life why on earth would I put anything else above him?”

Why don’t churches do more ‘where are they now?’ testimonies and report on some follow up stories? I think many congregants would be greatly encouraged by how and where the newbies are growing in their faith. It would also spread some colour and awareness of how gloriously different everyone’s faith walk can be. Hints and tips could be shared. Honest bloopers too.

Imagine sharing all those lessons about failing fast and failing with fun. Grabbing grace. All these people getting it wrong, stuffing up lines, enjoying it, and trying again through faith. Real life, real church.

Bleepin’ awesome.

 

Like a prayer. Jesus as sex therapist.

Sex is – when done well, with a caring, respectful partner – awesome. Releases endorphins. An orgasm is (in my humble opinion as I can’t speak for a man’s orgasm, not being a bloke) a total mind, body, emotional reset.

Also, a couple’s orgasm is far more satisfying than a DIY solo orgasm. There’s just something about the whole skin-on-skin, intimacy, ‘hey, we’ve both just blown the tops of our skulls off (ahem) together.’ When you’re intimate and comfortable with your partner, you laugh, roll around on the sheets – or across the kitchen counter, whatever takes your fancy – and put some effort into ensuring sex is bloody great fun.

Yes, I’m still a Christian. I’m not subbing for Harlequin/ Mills and Boon romance writing/light erotica. Because guess what, Christians have sex. And hopefully lots of it. Within their covenant of marriage. 12342347_10153357289097689_5032277087355300038_n

Bolting on our newish arrival at Christianity to a ten year marriage – and 20 year relationship – has taken some effort for Big T and I. What God desires for us both within our marriage is fairly different to what we had arrived at under our own steam. Thankfully, God has no desire for me to batten down my own desires, wear chastity belts, ankle-skimming skirts and keep my head bowed modestly.

Yes He loves me, this I know, because He gave me the Song of Solomon sealed section of the Bible as the place to go.

Shall I tell you the secret to a cracker of a Christian sex life? 

Prayer (and stop your jokes about Madonna songs).

I’m 100% serious. His ‘n’ Her Prayer. When I shared this little gem with the SAP he spluttered somewhat. “Phil, in all my years of pastoring, I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone tell me they use prayer as foreplay.”

But think about it. What’s the biggest frustration women have with their men? Here’s a typical sample:

  • “I don’t know what he’s thinking.”
  • “We don’t talk enough.”
  • “He doesn’t understand me.”
  • “I tell him what I want, but I think it goes in one ear and out the other.”

In defence of all the husbands, women too often say one thing and mean something else. Which is a minefield for a man who simply says what he means. But this communication breakdown has an awful impact on a healthy sex life, purely because women’s desires are linked with their brain whilst men’s are linked a lot lower.

Big T could have had the most hideous day on earth, come in the house, trip over a pile of laundry and smell burnt dinner, but if I sashayed out the bedroom in my dodgiest ugg boots and tattiest dressing gown, crooked my finger and said something about no clothes underneath, he’d be, well, up for it.

But us women? Wired differently. Foreplay starts the moment we open our eyes in the morning. It’s all in how our brains and minds are engaged. In the scenario above, unfair as it reads, if I come home after a terrible day to a great dinner, laundry packed away, with Big T freshly-shaved and smelling yummy? His odds of come hither, finger-crooking success are greatly increased. Terribly unfair. Blame that serpent. Prior to that I bet Adam and Eve were at it like…well…

So this is where His ‘n’ Her prayer is fabulous because it connects you. Each night I am able to have an intimate, articulate peak inside my husband’s mind. When we pray together, as Big T is being open with God, he is being open with me. I know what he is thinking. The reverse is true.

Regardless of good day, bad day, folded laundry or burnt dinner, it all gets poured out and handed over to God. The clear, undistracted mind I need to really focus on my husband and my sexual response? Delivered. As we pray together with God, we open up more intimacy with each other. The fact that we’ve not had a chance to communicate between home, activities, dinner, kids’ bedtime, homework, late-work, who took the bins out – becomes less of a thing. Prayer as the deliverer of intimacy. Foreplay.

Plus (and I hope I’m not too off piste here), I really get off on the idea as sex as worship. If God designed man and women to be together, and He sees a Christian couple growing closer towards each other and Him as part of their married, healthy sex life, I’d say He’d be jolly pleased.

By the way, this doesn’t occur every time Big T and I pray together. But His ‘n’ Her prayer does appear to increase the likelihood of it happening.

So if you ever ask what I did last night and I tell you I spent an enjoyable time in prayer and worship with my husband? I’ll be telling the truth.

Note: Someone told me today there are historical peaks in babies being born nine months after revivals. So I think I’m onto something…

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.

 

Oops, I left Jesus in the freezer section

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

FreezerJesus_preview
Buy this poster (yes, really) from this website

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

 

On a scale of 1-10, will you get to heaven?

I was asked this question. From the stage, during a conference. Where one is no, and ten is absolutely. I answered, from my table, without even thinking, “Hell, yes. I’m a ten. Abso-freakin’-lutely.”

Well, let’s just say some crickets chirped.

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Dudley Moore and Bo Derek in ’10’. Image courtesy of grouchoreviews.com

There were some hefty UHT* Christians in the room too.

The question was posed of all of us, with the scenario explained that – when first discussed in a different location – there were people – also Christians – answering four, seven, six etc.

Now, I’m kind of a Christian newbie and I don’t want to be wagging my finger at all the UHTers, but why weren’t there more loud affirmatives of “TEN!” echoing around the room?

Before I became a Christian, there was a standing joke amongst our good friends that I was deserving of a Sainthood and would absolutely get to heaven by virtue of the craziness I put up with being married to Big T. But of course that’s nonsense.

I’m going to heaven because I’m head-over-heels with the Jesus fella and know and trust he’s done all that needs to be done. Grace. Saved. Eternal Life.

Jesus is my assurance because, God knows, I’d be deep in the negative numbers otherwise.

He delivers me the perfect ten. No doubt.

The same day, the conference also asked about revitalising brand Christian. For me, brand Christian is a little too synonymous with institutional church and it hasn’t fared well of late. Less than 8% of Australians attend church regularly, even though more identify as Christian. With those sort of response rates, I’d say brand Christian has had a bit of a battering.

But brand Jesus? Well, you’ve got to be brave to promote brand Jesus. But what a brand. He’s Coke (Live Life), Nike (Just Do It),  Apple (Think Different) L’Oreal (You’re Worth It) and De Beers (A diamond is forever) rolled into one eternal package. With his sort of unique selling point, Jesus ought to fly off the shelves.

Yet when some of his top customer service representatives,  marketing team and sales guns are all in a room and they take a moment to wonder at their score rather than yelling a heartfelt, “TEN!” to this blog’s headline?

Then I’m a little worried about brand Jesus.

How can others trust in his message, if his ‘brand managers’ aren’t trusting it fully themselves? If assurance of Jesus’ grace isn’t a ten in every single Christian heart, then the message gets diluted. And misses it mark.

God didn’t just want to save us through Jesus. He wanted us to know it. Every single day. To taste it, sing it, embrace it, be joyful about it and share it. He left His Spirit with us so we can yell ‘Ten!’ over and over.

We have assurance. And certainty. Don’t take my word for it. Take His.

..and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. – 1 John 2:2.

The Perfect Ten.

 

 

Glossary of Terms

*  UHT – treading this Christian path a long, longer life than I.

Selling, losing and finding Jesus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And my grey heart cleared.

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

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

This third Easter is a charm

Many of my childhood Easter memories revolve around chocolate eggs and holidaying with my surrogate family in a lovely english coastal town called Beer. A single-parent, my Mum arranged for us to get away in the school holidays with neighbours. It worked out well for all: as the eldest I was able to keep an eye on their younger offspring and my Mum got some much needed adult time.

It was an annual tradition. Waking up early on Easter morning to discover chocolate eggs at the end of the bed. My neighbour’s youngest son devouring a Yorkie Trucker’s Egg before 8am. Me tracing my fingers over the correctly-spelt Philippa on the hand-made Thornton’s egg.

I don’t recall us attending church on Easter day. Then as I grew up and away from C of E schooling into agnostic new-ageism, Easter simply signified an handy long weekend. I’d roll my eyes at Big T wanting to only eat fish on Good Friday, but for me it simply was about the chance to drink wine with friends, maybe get away camping, and chocolate.

Nowadays I’d categorise my most recent Easters as akin to ‘Grumpy’ ‘Weepy’ and ‘Smiley’

Grumpy Easter

This was the ‘wake me up at 3am with song lyrics and shove bibles at me’ Easter. I was not impressed. I couldn’t take a step on the beach without a sailboat thrusting Christian logos at me. What? Are you talking to me? For goodness sake, leave me alone.

Weepy Easter

A year down the track and I’d done plenty of cage-fights with God by the time my second Easter rolled around. It was a pensive, reflective time. I’d moth-dived towards the light, spent some time in the gospels and had got stuck in the Groundhog Day nature of how humanity had crucified an undeserving man. Reflecting back, the enormity of the suffering outweighed my joy in the resurrection.

I spent Weepy Easter uncertain that I could do it again the following year because, not only was I in sorrow due to the enormity of what Jesus sacrificed, I was weighed down by how little humanity has learnt since. I found myself wishing that something would change. That, somehow, there would be a different ending. That we’d learn.

grass_egg_smiley_smile_humor_macro_54212_300x300.jpgSmiley Easter

I write this at the start of my third, Smiley Easter. And I cannot wait. Whether it’s because I prayed earlier this week for God to show me how to embrace the Holy Spirit within, or because – miracle of miracles – Big T and I have almost managed a week of daily ‘his n her’ prayer, but I am behaving in a decidedly unAnglican manner.

The poor check-out chick who wished me a dour happy easter at the shopping centre earlier is now probably shaking her head over the nutbag happy-clappy Christian who jumped behind the counter, washed her feet and tried to anoint her head with oil. Luckily the SAP was willing to take the call when I asked for bail to be posted…

But you know what? Deal with it.  As Brussels shudders in shock, we need something more substantial to put our hope in than ourselves. Our selves are the problem. And anyone who honestly thinks we’re doing OK as a DIY society is delusional.

Easter is a chance to reflect on what we could all learn from Jesus, his crucifixion and resurrection: This is my commandment: Love each other in the same way I have loved you. There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:12).

Easter reminds us that Jesus offered the selfless laying down of his life for our eternal gift. Compare that to the selfish blowing up of life we saw in Brussels two days ago. If you haven’t yet thought about what Jesus offers in comparison to such worldly horror, there’s no better time than Easter to do it.