Preach it, sister – part one

I’ve written two sermons in my life and preached one. The first – written, not delivered – was a full length, “give me something I can get my teeth into” challenge I begged of the SAP. The second was a 20 minutes to prepare, ten minutes to deliver number as part of a ‘Principles of Evangelism’ unit.the-sisterhood-book-hillsong-collected

The first I prayed, sweated and toiled over for weeks. It was pre-bible college enrolment and, in reaction to ‘needing more’ in my heart, was answering the relentless call to dive deeper into scripture. Maybe because I’m late to the GJ&HS game or maybe, in echoes of my Divinity o-level at 15 years old, it is proof of God’s word never retuning void. Instead it is returning me. Back to dig deeper, to write again, much as I did in the exam hall in 1987, about the meaning of Jesus’ ministry. I recall being sprawled across the day-bed, making notes on the Gospel verses the SAP had ‘set’ me, feeling like I had returned home.

The second sermon experience was far more stomach-churning. 20 minutes? Dear Lord. The SAP received a volley of vomiting emoji faces. “You can do that,” calmly texted back the bloke who’s been SAPing and preachin’  for 20-odd years. Such faith.

Much like my early blog posts, I know when God is on a roll because He simply helps me flow it out between head, heart and keyboard. It was a daring, daunting whisper: “You can do this.”

“Who me?”

“Yes. Don’t you feel it, love it, know it? Love Me?”

“Yes, but… You want me to do THIS?”

I’m no shrinking violet. I’m quite confident in my PR abilities to write a speech, jump up on a stage facing an audience of 1000s, and deliver a message. But a sermon? That matters. It’s personal. It’s more than unpacking scripture. More than God’s word. It’s my guide, my compass, my everything. It’s being willing to share my deepest heart connection to all and sundry. Does it read weird that thinking about delivering a sermon reminds me of the ‘butterflies in the stomach feeling’ of introducing ‘the one’ to your parents? Desperate that they love and think he’s awesome too?

Of course, unlike introducing ‘the one’ to your parents, God is unlikely to put His foot in it with an ill-timed joke and would always know the correct cutlery to use.

Yet, even so, this was a timed, tie-breaker, under pressure. Pick one of eight verses on offer, prepare a ten-minute sermon in 20 minutes… and GO!

Peskily, the verse the SAP had set me for my more leisured sermon preparation wasn’t on the list so I couldn’t even rely on that.

Yet there she appeared. One of my most treasured bible characters whom I look forward to meeting in heaven. The Samaritan woman at the well. I so identify with her is likely why I’m so fond of her. Who hasn’t made horrendous relationship choices in their life? Been let down by men who were supposed to offer security? Similarly, who hasn’t felt judged for those poor choices?

There were 30 of us in the classroom. Not everyone had to take the podium, there wasn’t sufficient time. “Who wants to go next?” asked the lecturer. I sat there, head down, heart in my mouth. “Put your hand up,” said God loudly.

I wasn’t immediately obedient. I’m more scared of God than the SAP, but I’ve got to admit the thought of telling the SAP I’d choked, next to God shoving at me, had my hand in the air.

“He won’t pick me,” I muttered back to God unfaithfully.

The lecturer picked me.

Taking a deep breath and praying hard I’d not stuff up, I stepped up to the lectern and began an exegesis of reality TV house renovations, broken-down fixer upperers, lonely people thirsting for affection, and the wonderful restoration offered by Jesus who doesn’t care where we’ve been, what we’ve done, and whatever awful wallpaper we’ve chosen to paper over the cracks.

I closed with the invitation to learn more: that perhaps you’ve been sold on the idea of the masterpiece, perfect show-home life and you’re just so tired and it’s not as fulfilling as you’d been led to believe and you are thirsting for more.

Or maybe if you already know Jesus, how are you responding to him? Do you still thirst for him? Are you letting Jesus refresh you? Or has your faith gone off the boil…and if so the call is to spend more time with him.

Or if you do know Jesus, do you still talk about him? The Samaritan woman blossoms once she understands Jesus’ affection for her and who he really is. Cast-out in the heat of the day, she is hopeless and defensive one minute, and then she returns to her village reborn, restored, vital, and unashamed. “You have to meet this guy!” she exclaims. The first evangelist to Samaria, sowing the early seeds that ripen and show harvest later in the book of Acts.

So there you have it. A fast sermon synopsis of what I delivered in that ten minutes.

I ended. Inhaled. And stepped off stage saying I’d never delivered a sermon before. To which the lecturer responded, “perhaps that ought to change. Especially if that’s what you do with just 20 mins preparation.”

Stunning.

There’s a line in Jane Austin’s Persuasion that sums it up: It was agitation, pain, pleasure, a something between delight and misery. Three hours afterwards I was still churning emotionally. Which is fairly unnerving for a chick who will do other sorts of public speaking without a eyelid bat. I glittered between, “woo, God is awesome and quite mad and He graced me with THIS sort of gift, what the, really?” and the flat-out, humbled, teary, breath-taking realisation that God is laying out a path that feels way too big and yet perfectly tailored and beautiful.

As the churning feeling continued I asked the SAP if it ever subsides. “I’ll let you know if that feeling goes if it goes from me,” he replied. Ah. Let’s pray it never does. Green round the gills preaching keeps you on your toes. This… well, this is important.

I’m also aware of some in Christian circles who believe I lack the necessary ‘tackle’ to preach. Whilst I have a heart, soul, and head for Jesus something a little lower is missing.

Similar to my opinion on Greek qualifications, I don’t think Jesus is going to reject someone when they turn up in front of him saying, “Yes, I heard this great sermon delivered by a woman, how she spoke resonated and that’s when I really accepted you.”

I can’t imagine Jesus saying, “No, wrong. My grace does not extend to you because you got to know me through a preacher who had female genitalia. Off to hell with you.” It doesn’t fit with the full picture I have of God and Jesus from the Bible and the time Jesus spent teaching and encouraging women.

Nor am I exaggerating. A believer I know has been told quite seriously by a male pastor she ought to question her salvation because she came to know, understand and love Jesus through the peaching of Bobbie Houston. I mean, really? Where’s the grace in that conversation? I’ve also been told that my seeking to study preaching is a sign of my sinful, broken nature that I ought to repent over.

There’s more, naturally. I can’t unpack women, church, leadership and preaching in one blog. What I do hold close is this:

When we accept Jesus the Bible tells us we are all graced with different spiritual gifts. Since becoming a Christian I have crafted the most creative, the most attuned, and the most heart-felt pieces of writing since..well, since ten year’s old. I suddenly found myself able to write, speak and explain Jesus and the Bible in such a way that resonated strongly with others – and it not only took me by surprise, it took a lot of UHT Christians aback too. I know it isn’t all on me. My writing and communications skills all blossomed, just as the Samaritan woman at the well blossomed, since meeting the Jesus fella.

I’m just going to go and grab me a bunch of head-coverings…. and tell everyone I’m not preaching, but rather prophesying. Yes, I can see Jesus shaking his head at that too.

“Dad, we did call the cheeky, comms PR chick didn’t we?”

“Yes, son, Yes we did. It’s going to be an exhilarating earth-exit interview, don’t you think?”

And that, dear reader, is why I call Him Abba and why I always refer to it as the gurney of grace.

C’mon, is being saved from sin and getting glorious eternal life so bad?

A few short months after my Liptoning, a UHT Christian (someone who has been a Christian for a long, longer life than I) warned me that the honeymoon period would wear off.

If you’ve read my earlier blogs, you’ll know how taken aback I was by all the joy that kept bubbling up as I cautiously got to know God and Jesus. The feeling of anticipation I would awake with daily in my stomach. It was like a split personality disorder. My before Christ (BC) secular self would lie there wondering, “ooh, what’s planned today that I’m so excited about?” Then my AC side would go, “Yay, I get to spend more time getting to know G&J.” images At which point my BC split personality would roll her eyes at such happy clappiness and attempt to batten all this joyful oddness down. Which was like shoving Disney’s Genie back in the lamp. No way G&J were getting crammed back into a small lamp. Let your light shine and all that…

So I was surprised to be warned that this feeling of delight would fade. Was that the reason why I wasn’t meeting more Christians with the same joy bubbling over? Did it wear off? Would this astounding ‘zing’ feeling disappear overnight and leave me acting like Marvin from The Hitch Hikers Guide To The Galaxy?

Just lately I have been noticing a dourness on the edge of my faith. The technicolour was greying. Was this the macular degeneration of joy I’d been warned about? I tried to pinpoint why and realised I had spent an unusual amount of time with some seriously serious Christians. On missions. Saving souls. Which is indeed serious stuff. But each ‘Thank God’, each faithful gratitude expressed for a miracle, didn’t rumble with the joy. It rumbled with important seriousness. And so I, almost unconsciously, packed away my joy in order to be more grave and ‘Godly’.

I ended the honeymoon. Not God. He was still waiting for me to come back to the beach, drink Pina Coladas and walk in the rain. Return to the crazy teenage ‘somersaulting stomach’ love that marked the start of all this, no matter how embarrassing I found it at the time.  I missed it. Missed Him.

A few months back I read Francis Chan’s Crazy Love.  As Chan puts it: ‘The God of the universe — the Creator of nitrogen and pine needles, galaxies and e-minor — loves us with a radical, unconditional, self-sacrificing love. And what is our typical response? We go to church, sing songs, and try not to cuss.’

Chan writes the answer to religious complacency isn’t working harder at a list of do’s and don’ts — it’s falling in love with God. ‘Because when you’re wildly in love with someone, it changes everything.’

It’s true. I fell head over heels, I wanted to hang out with the object of my affection all the time. I was Madonna ‘True Blue’ giggly and ‘Crazy For You’ all at the same time. And while plenty of people talk about the honeymoon part of a marriage ending as you grow as a couple, I really don’t think God and Jesus want us to grow with them into joyless matrimony.

Look at what He did. Everlasting, eternal love. Radical, unconditional, self-sacrificing love.

And there it is. I think the joy gets lost because too often Christians get caught up in the self-sacrificial nature of what God did for us in Jesus. I mean, that’s a serious gift, right? So, mistakenly, we confuse sacrifice that is the willing, loving, giving of our hearts to God with the sacrifice that is serious, enduring loss. But Jesus died so we may have life. It’s not loss, it’s gain.

It’s a gift to be taken seriously, yes, but no need to be all serious about it. I don’t think God measures the level of our love for Him by how seriously we behave in regards to what He gifted us. Whenever a Christian nods seriously and says, “You know, Jesus died for you,” I think the response ought to be a grinning “I know! How amazing and astounding is that? AND he resurrected. Fantastic!” Stop getting stuck and serious around the death bit, and focus on the three days after.

God’s crazy love can make us all amazing and astounding too, remember, because He gifted a bit of Him into us when He did it. You simply have to accept the amount of love poured out on you, the gift of heaven promised you, and, oh my God, please enjoy it. Smile with it, shine with it, dance in the rain with it and drink Pina Coladas.

It’s a great thing, falling in love every day.

Footnote: a big thank you to Tim MacBride over at Coffee With The King who has just started a great series about Luke 7 34-50 on precisely this. There are no Godincidences that his blog appeared in my feed just as I was pondering faith, joy and honeymoons.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear SAP,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, Lord, it’s hard to be humble. But joyful? Let’s give it a go.

Is it me, or does Mac Davis remind you a little bit of Bobby Ewing from Dallas (the original series)? Whilst not a music style I usually gravitate to, the opportunity to put this song title and Kenny Rogers in a blog post was just too good to resist. Kenny Rogers. My primary-age soundtrack. My folks knew how to rock it.

This post I really want to get away from sinning, again and again and focus on the fun stuff. The joy.

The SAP would have you know that his Christian fun includes gun totin’, 4WDing, game hunting and head-banging at the front of U2 concerts. But who’s going to believe that of a man of the cloth? I reckon he just says that to see if he can shock people. I’d lay money on him instead being a chai-sipping quiet soul who pops along to the Symphony Orchestra and discusses ways to help the Green Party. Whilst wearing sandals.

What I realised about my exposure growing up was that ‘religion’ was painted as serious stuff. Which then slips into people taking themselves too seriously. Instead, I’ve learnt that it’s perfectly fine to not take yourself seriously at all (which is a big tick in the plus column) but instead take Jesus and God seriously. Meaning it’s OK to tumble into the 8am Sunday service with your netball training gear on, cap shoved over electric-shock therapy hairstyle, with a takeout coffee cup clutched firmly in your hand. I recall the pastor’s wife smiling in delight: “I wish I’d had time to grab one of those,” she told me. See, not serious. Not expecting me to be anything other than me. What a joy!

Worldly joy is an odd thing. Sometimes we think it’s found in the bright shiny car. Or the right postcode.  Credit card debt in society is mounting as we look externally to fill ourselves up with clothes, shoes (well, actually, shoes are a religion for me) and all this consumable stuff. Yet true joy is tied to our internal landscape, not what we have. And joy is intrinsically tied to gratitude. You can choose to be thankful and joyful or you can choose to be ungrateful and unhappy. Christian joy appears to take it one step further.

I wonder, is that why Australia is slipping down the happiest nation list? Why depression and anxiety is on the rise? Have we forgotten to be joyful for, and humbled by, all that we have?

Grab the joy

Since deciding I’d get stuck into Jesus research, I have been struck at how much joy I am able to acknowledge in my life. Music sounds better (even Kenny Rogers) and there are fewer internal ripples.

The SAP posed a challenge during a sermon recently, based on Jesus’ activities in the New Testament. To ask, “what would Jesus do?” (WWJD) before we reacted. Patience, humility, joy in God — all such qualities spring to mind. So, quietly, each time a curve ball of life zinged past my head, I’d ask ‘WWJD?’. An interrupting child when all I want to do is read my book? Marriage irritations over the way the cutlery has been put in the drawer? A client who just didn’t ‘get’ what I was trying to achieve? Stuck in traffic? Well, actually, on the last one I did wonder WWJD and hoped ascension. A neat bit of levitation to make it to the meeting on time…

Religion over the years has painted God as an Ogre and Christians have a reputation as the fun police. A few words from the SAP here: “But it’s almost the total opposite. He’s made all this great stuff for us to enjoy. He just doesn’t want us getting to the stage where we love the gift – but ignore the giver, because by then, the gift has become our god – and the joy the gift was meant to bring gets washed away.”

Christianity reminds us to be humble and gracious – and to follow the lead of someone else. To ask WWJD and adjust our nature accordingly. Have fun. Step into the joy. Love and cherish all the gifts. But don’t forget who gave them.

Yet humility doesn’t mean doormat. No need to lose the chutzpah. Seize life by both shoulders and give it the biggest, lip-smaking MWAH! you can imagine.  Suck the marrow out of it.

On that, I’m taking a break from the blog whilst I do some marrow sucking of my own. Technology free. Yes, I’m heading to a convent for a week, with a vow of silence. All in the name of research, dear readers 🙂

Joy & blessings, back soon!