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

It felt like Christmas time…. 2000 miles

Sydney to Perth is roughly 2000 miles. From one side of the country to the other. Which is how I feel about my spiritual travels over the past six months. I’m in the same country, but on the total flip side.

Which puts this coming Christmas into a whole new perspective. So far, I’ve had 42 Christmases upon this earth. Yet this will be the first where I get it. Yes, I’d been called to ‘get it’ before  – there was a reason why a practising agnostic would creep into midnight Christmas Eve services and be moved to weep, after all – but 2014? 2014, I suspect, will be very different.

It may have ‘felt’ like Christmas those 42 times before. But only to the extent that I recognised it as a a religious festival, happily accepted the public holiday, and, in a silent midnight eve moment, paid quiet attention to the pressing on my soul. That there was more to this day than turkey, brandy butter, wrapping paper and wine. Before pushing that attention into the ‘too hard’ basket and looking away. Telling myself that it was only the carols that called me…nothing more…

No-wonder that God tired of the subtleties. I wonder how many others He sees at Christmas services, all drawn towards the quiet joyfulness (even when they are unaware of what they are drawn to) and decides, “No more gentle prods. You, you, and you. This coming year, you’re all on the Wake-Up To Me Fast Track.”

Yet, we have free will. We can stick our fingers in our ears, ignore, look the other way. God meets us where we are at. Jesus extends a hand. It’s up to us whether we join the dance. But if you have that pressing on your soul? That you want to ignore because it’s too damn scary and who knows what could happen if you opened up that feeling and peeked inside? Or perhaps, like me, or my hubby Big T, you carry such a Christian hangover you could never imagine the ache in your head being less important than the ache in your heart?

May I just say, it’s a fairly awesome dance. Even when you have forgotten the steps or are worrying you are going to tread on someone’s toes. And, for those who know me well, they recognise it is ASTOUNDING that I am about to write an invitation such as this:

If, under the tinsel, the cheer, the busyness, your heart is whispering for more…. then I invite you.

If you are asking, “Is this really it?” as you fight the Christmas shoppers, as you wince at the credit card creaking… then I invite you.

If you feel like you are stumbling into this holiday period with a sense of having just made it by the skin of your teeth…. then I invite you.

Not to throw yourself in the doors of your nearest church (unless you wish to).

Not to join me at a variety of Christmas services (unless you wish to).

Not to do anything except pause. Take a breath. Listen to the quiet whisper in your heart. And then, just pray. Or meditate if it makes you feel less freaked-out about the whole thing.

It doesn’t have to be fancy. It doesn’t even have to be ‘right’. But just give it a go. There is a structure to ‘right’ prayer but I don’t think God and Jesus are going to get that bothered; if they’ve not heard from you in a while they’re going to be more excited about the fact you’re ‘phoning home’.

Keep it simple. Hi there. Thanks for everything. Show me.

And, if you really fancy changing up your 2015, you could pray for your own SAP.

Amen.

It’s a, it’s a, it’s a… it’s a sin

Disclaimer: This video was chosen ONLY because of the catchy tune and title for creative purposes. The use of this video and the subject of this blog should not be construed as any commentary on the sexual preferences of Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe. Or monks in chains. So no-one get your knickers in a twist.

That I have to write the disclaimer above shows just how explosive this small, three letter word is. In a second disclaimer, I’m wandering around the reservation on my own here. Possibly going off-piste. This blog is what I’ve pieced together since this began. I didn’t ask the SAP to do a sense-edit before I published because I wanted it to be a bit raw and messy. And to be as close as possible to how I – as a newbie – have uncovered it. All the errors here are my own.

Sin.

Straight away, all those notions of heinous wrong doings. I think this is why Christianity is so confronting because no-one likes to be told they are sinful, which is essentially what Jesus is recorded as saying in The Bible. I remember hearing it in church and immediately my back went up. “Here we go again,” I thought.

Fire and brimstone preaching and bible thumping has caused the church a serious image problem when it comes to sin. It either offends the non-Christians (NCs) (“I’m no rapist/murderer/thief” – insert your preferred style of sinner here) or causes Christians all sorts of comparison problems (“Well, I’m not as bad as her!”). It also contributes to why so many NCs think they are going to be judged by Christians and be found lacking.

I think most of us have got the idea of sin all wrong. 

Sin, as defined in the original translations of the Bible, means “to miss the mark.” The mark, in this case, is the standard of perfection established by God and evidenced by Jesus.

So, based on that, the ‘equation’ I came up with is:

I’m not God or Jesus. The only way to NOT miss the mark is to BE God or Jesus. I am patently neither. Then I have to conclude: I’m a sinner.

Say that line a few times. It gets easier. Imagine it’s like an AA meeting.

(Sorry, SAP, if you are now pulling out your remaining grey hairs. I’ll give you a blog post to set the record straight if required. A really small one. Like one of those ‘notices of retraction’ that no-one ever spots in the newspaper).

Now, get ready for the next twist.

No matter what we do, we’re still sinners. Whether you give to charity and go to church each Sunday, or whether you go out on a megalomanic serial killer spree. There is no difference.

Now all the NCs (and possibly Cs) are up in arms. “How dare you compare me to a serial killer?” you yell. Build a bridge and get over it with me. Because much as I hate it (ego, ego, ego), God doesn’t have a sin barometer. Sin just is. There’s no measurement of it. 

If this was a poker game, it’d be feeling like a pretty crap hand, wouldn’t it? Which is why I need to get to the Christian equivalent of a Royal Flush.

Jesus. The lightening rod. The uber-blog post. The central tenet of Christianity.

Distilled down, if you trust in Jesus then all your sin is taken away, all thanks to his crucifixion, resurrection and grace.

Mind-blowing. Rather than try to rationalise it (nigh on impossible) I had to surrender, run with it,  and see where it led. Because of that commitment I made at 3am to God, to step up to the plate and sort out my ‘baggage’ around Christianity. Otherwise I’d still be stuck unhelpfully stereotyping ‘religion’, ‘church’, and ‘sin’.

Rather than being a struggle, accepting the gift of forgiveness and grace is meant to be easy. But I had to put all that ‘Christianity’ baggage down first, so I could free my hands to grasp it.

“We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.” – Timothy Keller.

What will Grandma look like when she’s dead?

I recall little about the flight to England. I must have watched  movies, slept, eaten, drank but I have no recollection. What I do remember is watching it unfold around me,  feeling part of it yet removed. I wondered about the stories of my fellow passengers. Tears would bubble up as I remembered what we’d being doing once we disembarked in London. Part of me wanted to randomly tell people that we were here because my Mum had been given but weeks to live, as if by telling them it would somehow normalise it. That by introducing them into my shocked state would help me make sense of it.

In Worcester Cathedral, this is believed to be the tomb of Sir John Beauchamp and his wife Joan.
In Worcester Cathedral, this is believed to be the tomb of Sir John Beauchamp and his wife Joan.

Originally I’d planned to drop Tony and the kids at my Dad’s home and make the trip to see Mum alone.  I wanted to see how she was (translation: how did she look) so I could prepare the children. It was a story and SMS from my cousin, Heather, that changed my mind.

A friend of hers had made a similar trip many years before. But instead of going direct to see her Mum in hospital, she went to the family home to settle her young children and have a rest. During that time, her Mum passed away and she didn’t get to see her alive. My cousin said it took years for her friend to forgive herself. “I’d just hate for you to have to experience that, especially after all you’ve gone through to get the kids’ passports and get there quickly,” she told  me.  Her SMS to me when we landed in the UK was another, specific request to do so.

Based on when my Mum died, I could have taken the detour.  Yet I’m incredibly glad we didn’t. ‘Preparing’ the children was simply my excuse to try and delay the inevitable. I will write another post about children, funerals and death, given grandparents are typically their earliest exposure to the end of a human life.  How our two dealt with it was with a matter-of-fact calm that was inspiring – and gave me much needed lighter moments. Like the time we told Miss G (then 5) we had to go to England because Grandma was dying. “Will she look like this?” she asked, dropping her head to a left angle, rolling her eyes back, opening her mouth and letting her tongue hang-out whilst making an odd choking sound. Umm, hopefully not, darling.