Personally, Jesus is no crutch

I’m not a fan of crutches – mental, that is. I figure I’ve a fairly good brain, my resilience is solid, and I’ve a good dose of personal insight. Yet there appears to be this odd misconception that faith is a weakness. By being head-over-heels with the Jesus fella, I am somehow abdicating my thought processes and, eek, am displaying to all and sundry that I am weak and need this to prop me up. Unknown

I don’t need. I choose. Want. Desire. Embrace. I’ve a magnificent supernatural God that the Bible shows me was there through plagues, wars, famine, floods, times of plenty, times of trouble – and consistently comes up with solid answers and solutions. Chapter after chapter, verse after verse, God proves over and over that, yes, He’s way better at this universal existence thing than I am. Through time and place.

Jesus said he was the light and the way. The son of God who I’ve already figured out is better at guiding, planning and sorting out both the big picture and fine detail than I.  So no matter what I else I do to train my brain, read a new book each week, study online with Linda and use all this new knowledge to add value, improve myself, my career path and justify that pay rise…. it’s still but a drop in the ocean compared to what I’ve learnt about GJ& the HS and what they can do in my life when I let them in and trust.

I don’t have to have all the answers – and neither do my children or my husband. I don’t have to be right all the time – because I trust God is. Not because of spiritual insubstantial fairy floss, but because that rather massive book called the Bible proves His hand can guide me far more magnificently than myself alone. Naturally. Him being God and me being 40-something Phil. Who’s only been around gathering wisdom for 40-something years while He’s been doing it, for, well, always and forever.

In Australia, anxiety is on the rise – it’s the most common mental health condition. On average, 1 in 4 people – 1 in 3 women and 1 in 5 men – will experience anxiety. One in six young Australians (aged 16–24) had experienced and anxiety disorder in 2016Up to 40 per cent of the population will experience a panic attack at some time in their life.

Isn’t that frightening? I attended a seminar on the topic recently and found myself talking to many, many women who confirmed they had this constant voice in their head telling them all sorts of anxiety-inducing material. They weren’t good enough. They wouldn’t get the dinner finished in time. That someone accidentally ignored them on the street and it sent them into a paralysis of wondering had they somehow offended them? Perhaps they didn’t like them? And what about their body, isn’t it unfit, overweight, underweight, too fit, too tall, too small, too thin, too broad? What if they miss their work deadline?

I was aghast. Still am. God may have wired me to operate and process at speed, yet He also blessed me with a quiet mind. Minimal chatter. It was both blessing and pain to realise I was in a minority.

“Jesus loves me this I know, because he gave me Lexipro,” is a line you may have heard. Depression and anti-anxiety medication absolutely has its place. I figure we live in a post-Fall world, so to think our brain chemistry and wiring is going to be perfect misses the whole impact of that pesky snake and the apple.

I also know brave, persistent individuals who have re-wired their brains and neurons away from anxiety, fight and flight responses, and into a more calm, manageable place. They also use medication to support them on this journey. Yet with all the research on neuroplasticity, the comfort and hope offered – with strategies and work, bloody hard work – that they could re-wire their anxious neural pathways means they persevere. As one Christian friend commented after the seminar, “it was a great reminder as to how far I’ve come.”

Strategies not crutches. Intelligent thinking not abdication of intellect. The Bible reminds her (and me, and anyone else who cares to take a read) that God can take her anxieties and calm them. That when she relentlessly and persistently challenges those voices, lays her worries at the Cross, they quieten.

Love Me with all your heart, God tells us. Be anxious about nothing. Pray and petition Me because I love you desperately – so desperately I gave you My son so I could be even closer to you – and I want to bless you, help you, guide you. Let me.

Climb into my lap and just be. Let me dry your tears when you are anxious. Help you laugh. I’ll even tease you gently about your fears so you keep them in perspective. Carry you along if you need it. Kick you in the butt if you need that too. My love has no fear. No anxiety. And because I am God, you are made utterly, beautifully perfect in your weakness, your fears, your anxieties. Why? Because I am God. So you have no need to be.

Baby Nate, Christmas and THIS chair

11-month old Nate is son and grandson of local business owners I know, with whom I’ve worked for a couple of years.dsc_8529

Nate is battling a rare disease called Langerhans Cell Histiocytosis (LCH), which affects only 1 in 200,000 children. Nate has tumours in all his organs and bone marrow. In order to fight the disease that is in so many parts of his body, Nate is currently undergoing chemotherapy 4 times a day. He has already had 12 blood transfusions.

Baby Nate has been hospitalised for three months now and the Doctors have not given any end date to his hospitalisation. He is one of three children and for his parents Alan and Kristy, maintaining a mortgage, providing food, paying for general bills and maintaining ‘normal’ for the other children has been very hard.

So, yesterday, a group of local businesses got together to host a fundraiser. A fast week of planning had resulted in an event location being secured, significant prizes being donated, the fundraiser being promoted and a wonderful show of support. A local photographer donated his services to take Santa photos. We found a jolly man, a red suit…and we needed a chair.

If you’ve been into a shopping centre lately for Santa photos, you’ll know a desk chair on castors or bistro club chair just doesn’t cut it. We needed something a little more substantial. Oddly enough, just four days out from Christmas, most of the Santa chairs were in use.

I know churches have an array of fancy looking wooden chairs. Surely I could track one down that would suit? Most of the churches I know have switched to a more comfortable seating-style for worship, but maybe there was something gathering dust in an storeroom? After a few calls, one church offered a lovely wooden Bishop’s chair.

Now, I’ve only met one Bishop and he didn’t strike me as the type of chap who worried overmuch upon the sort of chair he perched his bottom. So, by extension, given this was a cause to help a little child, I didn’t worry over much about any ‘religious’ connotations (or blasphemy) attached to plonking a fat, red-velvet-clad bottom onto a Bishop’s chair either.

Until I shared this photo (below) expressing my thanks to the church that had given the chair, saying we had raised nearly $8000 in two-hours for Baby Nate and his family, and how popular the Santa photos had been as part of the fundraising.

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“Please, please do not say where you got the chair if anyone asks,” was the fast reply.

Huh? You see, for me, a church isn’t a chair. Yes, this chair may indeed be a symbol of the bishop’s teaching authority but it’s a symbol. Cathedra is the Latin word for a chair with armrests, and it appears in early Christian literature in the phrase “cathedrae apostolorum”, indicating authority derived directly from the apostles.

Remember when Jesus rebuked the disciples for turning away children? If he was sitting on some fancy big chair at the time, he’d have let them clamber all over it. If the prostitute wanted to drape herself across the same chair while she washed his feet with perfume, Jesus would have shifted over to make room. So let’s not freak out about protecting the symbolism of a beautifully-carved chair if  – in a community example of loving their neighbour – a sexy santa and bloke holding a beer have given their time and money to have their photo taken to perch atop it.

The image above is a great metaphor for the church and modern society right now. This community rallied together to help a suffering family. It was a little bit beery, yes we played into the stereotype of blonde Mrs Santa, but the underlying reason – the motivation upon which we all perched – was that a bloke who walked the earth two-thousand years ago taught something counter-cultural. To pray for enemies, to turn the other cheek, to love your neighbour as yourself. 

The church may feel hidden underneath modern day secularism. It may feel the pressure of offering something different. But this sort of image gives me great hope. Because – whether you love Jesus or dismiss him – it is  from his teachings 2000 years ago that creates our heart-pull to help others.

Jesus started the love thy neighbour movement. The chair upon which these people sit is a larger rock. It may get hidden, it may be worrying to see it draped in red velvet, exposed flesh and holding a beer, but delight in the fact that it is there. Amongst it.

I didn’t tell people where the chair had come from, exactly. But I did share it had come from a church. And, without fail, everyone I told had the same type of reply:

“That’s brilliant! A church let us use this sort of special chair for this?! Wow. That’s really cool they’d let us do that.”

You see, out there in ‘secular’ world, too many people still think churches are stuffy, pompous places containing fun police. Caught up in symbolism and right use of furniture. Hushed reverence. They’d never imagine a church would give a Bishop’s chair for such a use.

And yet a church did. The wobbly, freaking-out moment seeing the photo had nothing to do with how the chair had been used and everything to do with what other Christians may think about how it was used.

Let’s not turn it into that. Let’s not be a community that judges how the hands and feet of Christ offer help and puts Jesus’ teachings into a well-carved, ornate structure that is removed from the real world. Instead let’s just keep pointing back to Him.

If you read this and feel moved to donate funds to baby Nate and his family, you can do so at: https://www.gofundme.com/saving-baby-nate. If you’re the praying type, please throw words heavenward for this family.

Amen.

 

Prayer. It’s allowed. Aloud.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Urgent, evangelise. With Salt (& Tequila).

“It’s liver cancer.”

“How long?”

“Six months without treatment. 18 months with.”

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

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

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

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

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

Really God and Jesus? Really?

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

There are no Godincidences.

But, really? Pressure much?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Climbing into the lap of God

It was my son who taught me about prayer.  Almost 11, all angles and crane-like in his growth, he is still a hugger. In an echo of the time when he used to clamber onto my lap as a toddler, his hugs consist of a karate-inspired body pin and, after an appropriate amount of wrestling and removing elbows from soft body tissue, we settle into a curl of limbs and he will tell me about his day. He is a rambler and, like most boys, he fidgets to an internal beat I cannot hear. His eyes dart, his limbs twitch and his fingers tap or stroke against my own.imgres

But he is there. In my arms, turning up with the news of his day. I don’t especially care that he rambles, or fidgets, or his tales become long-winded and weave off point. I get to wrap my arms around this boy and just be. Count the freckles on his face, stare into deep blue eyes, scrub my fingers over his mop of hessian hair and just be. Listening and loving.

It makes me wonder about God and my prayers. The name “Abba” is one of the most significant names of God in the Bible. The word Abba is an Aramaic word that most closely translates as “Daddy.” It signifies the close, intimate relationship of a father to his child, as well as the childlike trust that a young child puts in his “daddy.” We forget that sort of childlike trust as get older.  But a strong memory of my own Father brings the Abba context home to me as an adult.

I was in my mid-twenties and, late at night, Dad and I sat discussing the world over scottish whisky. Due to the circumstances of my parents’ messy divorce, he and I had taken more than ten years to work out our relationship. He once said, due to the fractures, he would never presume to give me the Fatherly advice he would offer my half-siblings. That night, scars and guilt softened by the taste of peat and tarred string, he mentioned what he missed, what he really missed, was the time as a young child I would clamber on his knee and talk to him. So, with tears in my eyes, and a whisky tumbler in my hand, I walked across the room and curled into his lap.

Remembering God as Abba helps me curl into His lap. Remembering Him as Abba means my prayers may be free-form, may hop across many subjects like my son, but that’s OK. Because I’m there, shrugging off adult-things, and enjoying the time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hospitals For The Broken: Four Blessings

broken heartWhat I have learnt in the past six months is that churches are not filled with shiny, perfect people. They are hospitals for the broken. Recently was a crap Sunday. A culmination of four days that had left my heart and soul fractured. Living on a fault line, as Katy Perry sings in ‘Grace of God’.

So the perfect day to go to church. Yet also the worst. When you are fragile, exposing your fragility publicly is terrifying. Yet I needed the comfort of faith more than I needed my mask of normality, which is what I had plastered over the fault line to get me through the four days prior. My strength tank was dangerously dry. The bowser of the Bible had nurtured me. Yet even though I was comforted by faith, I sought the magnification that regular attendance at church delivers.

My God it was tough. On my own on the drive over, I just cried. Not sure I can do this  today. Not sure I’m going to be anything but a saline snot heap. Not sure I’m ready to crack that fault line. I sat in the car, parked outside church, wiping away tears, slugging back caffeine and praying for the game face that would get me in the door. Knowing it is a safe place to turn up to in a mess is very different to actually doing it.

Deep breath. Dark glasses. Open car door. Then, blessing one. Someone who was leaving after the earlier service, whom I have never met, was parked close by. He buzzed down his car window. Sent me a gentle smile. Introduced himself and hoped I had a good day. Insignificant in content, but significant to me. God’s gentle reminder of the comfort of His community.

I confess it didn’t bolster me so much that I marched in revived. I sort of slunk in, avoiding eye contact, and immediately revolved straight back out before I even made it to the name badge table.

Deep breaths. Back in. To blessing 2 – a jovial older member who has been supportive of me on this road. He stood talking and introduced me to someone whom I had not yet met, who kindly mentioned how lovely he had found my recent testimony. Which had me hiccuping, excusing myself and diving for the nearest ladies room. Where I replaced the prescription lenses in my sunnies for tissues.

Deep breath again. Exit the ladies room. Make it to the reception table. Where, of course, the senior pastor and connections pastor are standing, right in front of my name badge. FFS God, I’m not getting in under the radar here am I?

“Phil, how are you?” they enquired. Don’t know about you, but when I’m on an emotional fault line and someone asks me that question there’s only one result. Saline and snot. Time to be honest, or at best take refuge in flippancy. “Umm, I’m wearing my game face today,” I admitted from behind dark glasses.

Blessing 3, as the connections pastor takes the conversation to more neutral, less emotive territory: the books for sale, what had I read and what he wanted to read – which just happened to be over in a quieter corner. It felt like a kindly boarder collie gently shepherding me along. And there, right there, he picks up a book on a topic that pretty much covers everything I’ve been recently fractured by. Tears turn to somewhat hysterical laughter at God’s prodding. Let it all out, let Me, let My people help.

Well, obviously, I chose the back row at church. Where a fantastic older lady, for whom I have huge respect and admiration, asked if she could join me. I admitted I was slinking in with my game face on. “Me too,” she replied, as we both pulled tissues out our respective bags. She made me laugh as the Children’s Minister stood on stage announcing that there would be a water theme – complete with a water-filled, bursting balloon fight – as they discussed the birth of Jesus. Exploding membranes. Fluid. We caught each other’s eye like children misbehaving at the back of the school bus. “Probabably not the best imagery, water and birth,” she whispered.

Then God’s humour, His way of showing me that I was noticed – that WE were noticed in the back row. Of all the Sunday’s for the big screen church projector to fail. So everyone in the congregation turned around to face the back of the church to sing hymns from the smaller screen that was positioned directly above our heads. Everyone. Facing the back row. Yes, you are seen, yes, you are noticed, yes, you are loved.

And the finale? Over the days prior I had prayed, wished for a mother figure. Someone wise and maternal from whom I could draw wisdom. That, I admit, is my major hole. I did not have a typical maternal relationship with my own mother. Our roles had been reversed since I was quite young. I have always noticed that gap in my emotional responses, typically tending towards a more masculine ‘deal with it’ over feminine compassion. Not that those feelings are gender-dependent. Simply that I have always ‘dealt with it’ and too often forget that others require more support.

Seeking maternal wisdom is different to paternal. Or even using male and female peers as sounding boards. Blessing four: the lady who joined me in the back row delivered me gold. Gentle, wise-woman strategies to help navigate my confusion in a more compassionate, Christian-way. Along with the women’s minster she prayed and cracked open that fault line with sensitivity. Let in light and grace.

I went in broken and weak. When I came out I wasn’t shiny. Or new. But I was comforted, supported and strengthened for the next steps on the path.

I think of you through the watches of the night.
Because you are my help,
I sing in the shadow of your wings.
I cling to you; your right hand upholds me. 

Psalm 63:6-8