Ear, ear

I’ve been reading in Luke – a gloriously happy account of the gospel. Of course, once you get to the Passion end of the book, it isn’t quite so glorious; in fact, I quite dread reading about the injustice and trauma inflicted upon my Lord. But today, I want to pull one more happy-ish thing from even that awful scenario.

Jesus has been talking with the disciples about two different mission approaches: take nothing, God will provide and go prepared. In Luke 22 He even tells them to sell something and buy a sword, probably talking about the supremacy of being armed in God’s Word; whereupon they produce two actual swords and He says, ‘Forget it.’

The disciples might not have understood all that Jesus was trying to tell them, but they knew enough to be depressed; when they fell asleep in the garden of Gethsemane, swords and all, they were worn out with sorrow. Jesus wakes them up and chides them for leaving their posts at crunch time, and enter Judas, with a lynch mob. Such was Jesus’s nondescript appearance that Judas had to physically identify Him to the crowd.

Peter, always gung-ho and, tonight, emotionally overwrought, had a mistaken ‘This must be what the SWORDS are for!’ moment, and lops off the ear of Malchus. What does Jesus do? Emit a war cry? Charge the mob? No. He reaches over to this arresting officer and heals his ear.

This strikes me as an arresting (pun intended) piece of generosity. Malchus was the servant of the high priest. Since he was close enough for Jesus, under arrest, to reach his ear, we can surmise that he might have been what we would call a bouncer, currently engaged in wrenching Jesus’s other arm. The Jews wouldn’t have had any kind of military or policing arm under the Romans, but what they were permitted was religious leadership (a small miracle in itself). And so it would make sense for the high priest/s to have a coterie of big guys, lackeys, fanatical yesmen, and a veneer of wisdom in the Sanhedrin to lend credibility. It would be important to keep the Romans pacified, to keep them onside, lest the miracle disappear; and so some level of collaboration (especially financial) would need to take place. This is what makes it so monstrous that they had the hide to look down on people like Matthew and Zacchaeus, the tax collectors. The main difference between them was that Matthew and Zacchaeus were open thieves. Possibly all of them, to some extent, took money from Jewish pockets to line Roman ones and their own.

So Jesus is being strongarmed by this guy Malchus; one of Jesus’s hotheads lashes out with the pointy end and relieves Malchus of an ear; and Jesus’s response is to restore the ear. I do wonder whether He picked up the fallen ear and ‘glued it on,’ or produced a third one ex nihilo!

The idea I want to bring out of this story may be reaching a little, but see if it works for you.

There are times when those who work for Jesus get hot-headed. There are times when they wield the Word of God like a cutting instrument. Some of them do this with expert training, others with none. Some do it incisively, like a surgeon bent on helping us, and some do it wildly, like a fanatic on the loose. Many of us have been damaged by ill-applied Scriptures – taken out of context, taken out of historicity, mistranslated, blandly applied broadside in lieu of a bandage, sent in to do a needle’s work with an axe. Occasionally this even happens maliciously, with the intent to wound. But most of the time, it’s someone who loves God and has just gotten carried away. The Word may be right, but the circumstance is not. Job’s friends come to mind: spouting all kinds of things about God that sounded true, but had absolutely no bearing on what had caused Job’s situation. Applying equations (‘sin + judgment = suffering, therefore suffering = sin + judgment’) is not the same thing as walking the journey with God and with your friend. As Brooke Fraser sings of Him, ‘You are so much more than arithmetic.’

We’ve all been that bigmouth from time to time. The good news is that Jesus is about restoration. Yes, also about agenda; but the terrible agenda of that day was still one that had its roots and branches in restoration. I want to posit that for all of us who have wounded others with our misapplied Scriptures, there is a Saviour who has paid for our mistakes and is willing to forgive them. In His grace we humble ourselves and go on to do better on the next round, and perhaps offer restitution to the one we hurt.

And for all of us who have suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous leadership, who are afraid to trust the Word of God because it has been used in such an ugly manner, afraid to listen for His voice because His representatives have shredded us with theirs – there is a Redeemer who wants to reinstate our ability to hear Him clearly. He is the restorer of broken walls and the rebuilder of communities. He restores the years that the locusts have eaten. And if He heals the ear of His aggressor, how much more will He be willing to heal the ear of His dear child?

The Care Scare

We will never run out of things to care about.

One glance at the internet, particularly if you run in certain circles, will bombard you with things that urgently need your prayers, your attention, your energy, your money. A great number of them are truly worthy. Like a deer in headlights, a sensitive person is arrested by need and overwhelmed by urgency. Each ‘terrible thing’ is like a gut-punch. How can we be okay, when there are things in the world that are not okay? How can we have peace, without guilt, in the face of injustice, horror, and evil? Should we be ashamed to be happy?

First of all, I have to remind myself that this is not a healthy metric. If I am waiting to feel peace on the condition that all the world is at peace, I will be waiting a very, very long time. So, while God does not ask me to turn a blind eye to the world’s inexorable needs, He does tell me that His joy and His peace are available to me within that context. If He was able to leave His peace with the disciples in the middle of the vicious Roman Empire, then He can surely leave it with me, too. So, on days when I feel overtaken – steamrolled by the sheer torrent of crises facing our world – I can take heart. Breathe. It is not all on me.

Yes, time on this earth is short. Yes, we are moving toward the fulfilment of the ages. But no, God is not in a hurry. His ‘suddenlies’ are His own business. And they that believe will never be in haste (‘be stricken with panic’). Panic is of Pan, not of God, and the gates of hell will never prevail against the church of God, because He is her builder.

The children of God should be peace in a churned world. It is not irresponsible, nor is it callous, nor ignorant. Peace is a Spirit-fruit flavour, and one of the world’s sorest needs is oases of peace. Be such an oasis. Don’t get sucked into survivor guilt because of the suffering of the world. Just do whatever God tells you to do about it, and do it with all your might.

There are three responses to the influx of negative information that come to mind, straight-up.

  • Flee the vicinity. Take a Facebreak, or snooze anything that is too meaningful to cope with, if it arrives in a flood of meaningful appeals. This is a good temporary measure, especially for mental health reasons.
  • Tackle them all. Give to them all, repost them all, get involved in them all. (That way lies madness.)
  • Ask God which you should focus on, and give the rest to Him.

At the moment I am trying to go with (3). Amber alert? Lord, help that child get to home or to safety. Give them opportunities to make wise choices. Open clean paths before them. Awaken their hearts, close the eyes of their captors, send good people to help. Call them to Yourself. Environmental crisis? Lord, give us solutions to make positive changes in the way we care for Your planet. Give Your people bright, sustainable ideas that honour You and Your creation, leaving a clean legacy for future generations. People group in danger? Lord, bring change to that situation. Empower light and raid darkness. Rebuke the enemy for us, Lord. Make a way for these people to know You. Shift the politics. Show us what action we may need to take. Let there be a solution and a way forward that opens paths to righteousness and faith in You. … Now. To business.

Your prayers will differ from mine, but you get the drift: God is across all of those needs, and for whatever reason, delights in partnership with us. We won’t know how powerful our prayers are until the curtain lifts at the end of the show. They might be small increments that require many of us to wield them. They may be single nation-transforming sentences. We don’t know.

What we do know is that we are called to run our race, but only in our lane. St Paul might have had a tremendous ministry as a gospel singer, for all we know; but he gave it up to be a missionary. Perhaps he had many talents we don’t know about, but he picked tent-making. Was he wrong, or wasteful? No. He ran in his lane.

The world needs many things, and as God’s agents, we are part of its answer. But Jesus Himself needs only one thing from us: to sit at His feet. From there will come the awareness of our individual and corporate calls, and the assignments that fit within that scope. The passion of His heart runs in millions of directions, but we can only run in a million directions because there are millions of us. We have just two legs and one lane each. Therefore run in such a way as to get the prize.

As writers we can sometimes be lost in a myriad of opportunities. The scope for writing is wide and deep. There will always be a nagging or hysterical back-voice that says, ‘What are you playing at?! You should be writing about THIS!’ Unless this is the voice of the Holy Spirit, resist it. Write what is given you to write. Write what you know. Write into what could be, calling things that are not as though they were. But never submit to a tyrannical sense that whatever it is you write about, it’s not enough. It is enough. You were not created to be everybody. For every good work that you do, for every piece you deliver that says, ‘This issue matters,’ there will always be a chorus snapping back at you, ‘ALL issues matter!’ For every voice decreeing that you should be pouring the oil of your talent on the head of Jesus, someone else will be insisting that you should sell it for charity. But only one opinion truly matters. Focus on discovering, in partnership with the Lord, exactly which good works were prepared in advance for you to do. And have peace that the remainder will find good homes.

Prayer:

Lord, when my heart is overwhelmed, lead me to the Rock that is higher than I. My heart wants to contribute to Your mission, and it goes out to all whom You love. Yet I am just one person. Show me the path I should walk in. Teach me to hear Your voice accurately, so that I don’t drown in scope-creep. And when I am low on peace, please lend me Yours, from the bounty of Your Spirit, from which all the fruit emanates. Ripen Your fruit in me as I turn continually toward the Son. Thank you for all You do in and for me, and in and for the world. I’m Yours. Amen.

On Approach, Mark 2

I love the rooftop miracle. To recap – combining the recounts of Matthew 9, Mark 2 and Luke 5 – Jesus has returned to His base, Capernaum. He’s gone back to the house He stays in, and because Audience, He’s started preaching. Pretty soon the house has filled up, mostly with rabbis and scribes. And the stoop, and the yard. A crowd gathers. You can just imagine the rumour in the neighbourhood – ‘Morpheus is fighting Neo!’ – and they all come running.

To start with, I can only imagine the sharp contrast between the teachings of Jesus and the existing teachings of the day. Using the exact same base material, two very different approaches emerged: that of the Straight And Narrow, and that of the Narrow Way. The first was all about self-righteousness, and the second was all about highlighting how impossibly out-of-reach true righteousness was, unless you’re leaning on the character of God. Yes, I know, I sound very sure about a dialogue I wasn’t present for. But we know the general shape of Jesus’ teachings; and we can reverse-engineer the teachings of the Pharisees from the things He criticised.

It appears that the group had a reputation as very, very good at legalism. As long as you (literally) nitpicked your whole caboodle of life actions, you could be as nasty or indifferent on the inside as you liked. You could dispense with compassion and charity if you could find a loophole to do so – as long as the loophole was documented or precedented. You could approach God with the best of Cain’s ‘moral vegetables,’ tick the box, and saunter out again. To them, religion was about rule-keeping and all about self: ‘I do the right thing; what are you doing?’ They were sincere and devoted about it; God was keeping score, after all! So when Jesus turned up and started saying that pure and acceptable religion was about looking after the marginalised – that everything in the Law was geared towards loving God and loving people – this severely devalued their investments. Nobody wants to hear that they (and their revered forebears) have been doing it wrong their whole lives. From Jesus’ point of view, they had built up a litany of rituals that, far from emphasising the true nature of His Father, besmirched it. Anyone hearing their Father misrepresented gets indignant. Jesus was remarkably gracious about it, all things considered.

So Jesus has come home from a trip, and waiting for Him is a large group of ‘experts’ wanting to take apart His theology. Luke tells us, ‘and Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting there. They had come from every village of Galilee and from Judea and Jerusalem. And the power of the Lord was with Jesus to heal the sick.’ That’s not a delegation; that’s a convocation. And He holds His own, as He’s been doing since He was a boy. But nobody in that conceptfest is there to seek the healing He has come to do. Those who needed healing had been crowded out by the nitpicking experts. They literally could not get in the door to God for the religious presence blocking the way.

Three enterprising friends take matters into their own hands. Presumably these houses were close together (maybe even apartment-block style?) and I don’t see them accomplishing this with a ladder. So they go next door, two of them carrying the third on a litter, go up the stairs, get up on the roof, go across to Jesus’s roof, and chip up a bunch of rooftiles (as Luke has to tell the baffled Greeks, whose ceilings weren’t so permeable). They lower the litter down through the ceiling to Jesus’s feet. And Jesus saw their faith: pistin (faith, belief, trust, confidence; fidelity, faithfulness.)

Press pause. Most of us assume that these two couriers had faith in the ability of Jesus to heal. Maybe, even, faith in His willingness and generosity to heal. Perhaps faith that the Father had not deserted His children after all, but had cared all along. Maybe no faith in God at all; but they’d heard rumours of healings, and any chance was better than none. However, it’s also possible that Jesus simply admired their dedication to their disabled friend. They simply had to get him his miracle, whatever it took. And so they kept on trying things until they finally hit on the idea of damaging the house (and presumably paying for the damage later) – anything to get their beloved friend well again! That is faithfulness. These friends had stuck by the paralytic, without questioning his karma or the limits of their box-ticking obligations or personal convenience. They were full-on about loving their neighbour as themselves. They were on the Narrow Way and heading for the Small Gate. When they found the Small Gate blockaded, they forced their way in by thinking outside the box. ‘The eager (violent) take the Kingdom by force’ comes to mind.

Jesus never asks how the man got disabled. He could have fallen down the stairs in a whorehouse, for all we know. He could have had a childhood accident, and these are his besties. He could have been injured on a building site, maybe even through the negligence of his porters, who are now so anxiously trying to fix him up. Who knows? Jesus doesn’t ask. He looks at the paraplegic and says, cryptically, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’

Press play. I’ll bet you could have heard a pin drop, in the nanosecond before the uproar of ‘You can’t say that!’ ‘I mean, I knew he would say some outrageous things, but of all the nerve!’ ‘Who does he think he is?’ (I feel certain the Pharisees did not speak of Jesus with capitalised pronouns.)

Press rewind. This is a culture in which at least some of the people, going back to Job, and very likely the central ‘Moses’s disciples’ audience, had a strong and unassailable belief that the wages of sin is illness. You’re sick; ergo, God has judged you (or your parent) ‘a sinner’. You deserve what you’ve got; you’re reaping what you’ve sown. Good luck with that; seeya later. And while it’s true that there were deterrent curses and/or predictions built into the Mosaic Law, there were always going to be other factors at play in a fallen world. Adam and Eve could have lived in sinless perfection and still tripped over rocks and fallen out of trees and had the wind blow bugs in their eyes. Blood is made red, after all, so you can easily locate punctures.

So – completely aside from the issue of claiming a privilege reserved for God Himself, or doled out by a delegate priest over a sacrifice – for Jesus to announce that the man’s sins were forgiven, was to remove (in the audience’s eyes) the reason he was disabled. I always believed Jesus was here putting a premium on spiritual healing over physical. But I think it was also a clever test. It will be three more chapters (in Luke) before Jesus casts out demons. In this scenario, He is casting out sin and its legacy.

‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’ So, look closely, everyone. Is the man still disabled? Yes, he is. So, it can’t have been sin that kept him on that mat, then, eh? Your hypothesis is disproved: there are other, mundane reasons a person might not be well. It could even happen to you. The unspoken word ‘idiots!’ may well have rung in the air, if Jesus had been that sort of guy.

‘Easy for you to say,’ mumbles a smartypants. ‘It’s not like we can observe guilt leaving. Even if you could forgive sins – which you can’t.’

‘Well then. Proof of the pudding. Get up, son, pick up your mat and go home.’ The man gets up; the jaws drop down. He goes home with a double healing, not even staying for the sermon (or perhaps he was the sermon!) The rest go home with a double lesson: Jesus can heal both body and spirit, and is clearly authorised to do both. If you approach the scene with ‘how do we know his sins are forgiven?’ there is the evidence that he rose up and walked. If you approach it with ‘how was He able to heal the man?’ there is the answer, ‘because God helped Him do it; so surely this is evidence of God’s work, another of which is to forgive sins.’ All bets are now off, even in a town as hard to turn around as Capernaum.

An especially snide Pharisee, on the way out the door, can’t help but jab out, ‘He’s not supposed to be carrying his mat on the Sabbath.’ Jesus just looks at him, with a flat look reserved for gymnastics judges and insurance companies who weasel out of payouts by calling floods ‘sky waters, which you’re not covered for.’ Are. You. Serious. ‘The Sabbath exists to give people a break, not to break them!’

In The Passion Translation footnotes of Mark 2, Brian Simmons observes that this mind-blowing event ‘teaches us that salvation not only involves the forgiveness of our sins, but gives us the power to rise up and walk.’ And this seems to me an accurate description of grace.

Grace involves the forgiveness (the insurance, even) of our sins. It is a position of divine and unmerited favour, rooted in the relationship that arises from faith in Jesus and His work. But it is also the power to do better than to go on sinning. Paul uses the phrase, ‘This grace was given me …’ to describe the privilege and enabling of his ministry. Therefore, grace can be a kind of empowerment, not just a band-aid. Perhaps it is a supernatural ability to do something that we can’t do on our own. That would certainly describe most of the things God asks of us! I do not fully understand this concept yet, but I believe it will wind up being tied to walking in the Spirit and developing the Spirit’s fruit. I look back on my life and I can point to things and say, ‘I have no idea how I did that.’ Sometimes I was conscious of the help; sometimes not. Many times, I turned away from the help. Fortunately for me, there is forgiving grace to cover the failure to accept enabling grace!

May we all enter the Sabbath rest of God, in which we accidentally ‘work’ as an effortless and automatic response to the immense healing He has granted us.

Penned Up

I feel like a fraud.

In 2019 I wrote my first book, Someone to Look Up To. It came pouring out of me, actually, with three more lining up behind it. It wasn’t at all the kind of book I dreamed of writing in my youth; it isn’t particularly funny, and it isn’t sweeping fiction. The fantasy stories I wrote when I was twelve, the existentialist poetry I had a whack at in my teens – none of that is evident in my little book about the effects of leadership on lay people. The only ‘real’ writing I’ve done in the last decade has been this blog, largely because I spent all of my twenties and thirties trying to master songwriting.

So, here I find myself, a member of three writers’ groups, all of them very serious and dedicated to their craft. I am the awkward Plus One in the foyer, with pixels and quavers under my nails. Do I write every day to hone my skills? No. Do I enter competitions? Um. Do I have an agent, a publisher, a five-year plan? Do I lie awake at night, dreaming of tighter sentences and literary awards, logging a daily word count? I’m afraid not.

I probably should, you know. Take it seriously, that is.

The reason I feel like a fraud, hanging out in writing groups, has nothing to do with whether I believe in what I do. It doesn’t mean that I doubt God has gifted me for it or called me to it. It definitely isn’t any kind of poke at the intensity of others. It’s about my identity.

Up until now, I’ve lumped all ‘arts ministries’ in this one, big category, where Special People do Special Things and everyone claps/is blessed/has their lives powerfully transformed. I say that without any mockery. I was called at 15 to be a singer, songwriter and recording artist, writing skills notwithstanding. I spent the next 35 years massaging my middling musical talents into something middling-plus. And this is where it’s gotten complicated for me. I have been deeply, inextricably invested in my identity as a Christian musician for most of my life. It has been overthought and overtaught and overwrought in me for more than thirty years. As I begin to pull back from that investment, I find a slight repugnance for it. The very last thing I want to do is jump out of the ‘I am a Serious Musician™ ’ frypan, and dive headlong into the ‘I am a Serious Writer™ ’ fire. So, hanging out with people who really are serious writers leaves me with impostor syndrome. I’m not laughing at them; I just don’t know if I can immerse myself the way they do. To be honest, I’m frightened to. I know exactly the sort of obsessiveness I can produce. I don’t want to drown in a new pool.

I am so much more that the things I can do. As I grow in grace, grow closer to Jesus, so much of that old thinking falls away, redundant. I am His child, first and foremost, recipient of the astounding gift of grace which inspires all the other gifts. They are tools vouchsafed to me as an apprentice to the Master; they’re not, strictly speaking, mine by origin. The weightiness of giving myself to an identity as a writer is problematic for me, but what really repels me is the pretentiousness I know I am capable of.

Here in this new direction, I have found an unexpected boon. It turns out that writer circles – against all probability – are less bouji than the music world. I did not expect that. In the music industry there is de rigueur aesthetics, attitude, skill levels, and above all, coolness. Imagine my surprise at attending my first writers’ event and finding the group completely disparate and completely welcoming. And these were not even the people of God. They didn’t care what I wore, how old I was, what my gender was, or that I wrote for a niche. I didn’t need a persona; they just wanted to share the journey.

Perhaps I don’t need to find my ‘writer groove.’ Perhaps I just need to write when I write. Perhaps God never needed me to struggle to find a niche as a singer in a world glutted with them. Perhaps I don’t have to choose between my skills, or rank them ‘primary ministry, secondary ministry, tertiary ministry’ but just listen for His prompting every day. That might be all the ‘success’ He needs to see. Maybe it’s enough to bask and plant in the riotous garden that is the lived experience of being a creative mind. Maybe, just maybe, I don’t need a label for that. What counts, after all, isn’t the plaque on my proverbial door – ‘AUTHOR AT WORK’ – but faith expressing itself through love. And if I can do that in several directions, so much the more fun.

‘Take heed to the ministry which you have received in the Lord, that you may fulfil it,’ says Colossians 4:17. Archippus isn’t towelled up about military discipline, only about faithfulness. I am no good at clockwork, but I know all about doggedness, all about tensility and resilience and persistence. I can apply these to writing just as well as I can to singing. So, if I don’t self-identify as a writer among writers, forgive me and accept me; I’m just one of God’s kids – a person – growing into my gifts and enjoying them all along the way. And, occasionally, whirling out handfuls of vocal and verbal glitter into the world.

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The Space Between

The wonderful thing about songwriting is that you know you’re not just telling ONE story. Your listeners are going to pick up the song, and apply whatever confirmation bias ticks today’s boxes. I recently had a medical scare, and the song that helped me gain courage was Hillsong United’s ‘Another in the Fire.’ The lyrics are as follows:-

There’s a grace when the heart is under fire; another way when the walls are closing in
And when I look at the space between where I used to be and this reckoning
I know I will never be alone

There was another in the fire, standing next to me
There was another in the waters, holding back the seas
And should I ever need reminding of how I’ve been set free
There is a cross that bears the burden, where another died for me
There is another in the fire, oh

All my debt left for dead beneath the waters; I’m no longer a slave to my sin anymore
And should I fall in the space between what remains of me and this reckoning
Either way I won’t bow to the things of this world
And I know I will never be alone

There is another in the fire, standing next to me
There is another in the waters, holding back the seas
And should I ever need reminding what power set me free
There is a grave that holds no body, and now that power lives in me
There is another in the fire, oh …

And I can see the light in the darkness as the darkness bows to Him
I can hear the roar in the heavens as the space between wears thin
I can feel the ground shake beneath us as the prison walls cave in
Nothing stands between us, nothing stands between us

There is no other name but the name that is Jesus
He who was and still is and will be through it all
So come what may in the space between all the things unseen and this reckoning
I know I will never be alone, I know I will never be alone

There’ll be another in the fire, standing next to me
There’ll be another in the waters, holding back the seas
And should I ever need reminding how good You’ve been to me
I’ll count the joy come every battle, ’cause I know that’s where You’ll be

Another In The Fire lyrics © Hillsong Music Publishing Australia

We sang this song again at church this morning, and it occurred to me that I’ve been interpreting it backwards. Curiously enough, the meaning is not at all diminished by this. I don’t know either Joel Houston or Chris Davenport, who wrote the song; but I’m reasonably confident that it’s supposed to be read as, ‘Look how far God’s brought you, from darkness to light; is anything too hard for Him? He’s always been with you and always will be, whatever you’re facing and however you deal with it.’

But since I’ve been studying the fruit of the Spirit for my book, I’ve been thinking about my trajectory as a Christian and wondering if I’m moving forward or backward. I think about my Bible college days, and how attuned I felt to the spiritual realm back then. I think about the awful years of spiritual abuse and ill mental health. Then I think about the simple but transformative revelations of His grace that I’ve received since then, and I can’t decide if ‘simple’ is a level up or a stumble backwards!

So, when I sing the lines There’s a grace when the heart is under fire … when I look at the space between where I used to be and this reckoning, I remember that even if it were to transpire that I’m not doing as well as I used to do, there’s grace for that. Today’s exam is about today’s questions. It doesn’t matter which order I sit these tests in. What truly matters is that Christ is perfect on my behalf; the Holy Spirit is still working in me, on nobody’s clock; and nothing stands between us.

Heroes, Part II: Dream Small

In high school (and sometimes even earlier) we’re asked what we want to be when we grow up. We’re called upon to make decisions about study courses and career trajectories, as if (1) we know what we want out of life before we are even out of puberty, and (2) we’re only going to have one career rather than the average 5–7.

My husband attended one of the career nights put on by my child’s high school. He came home saying it was the most boring and uninspiring event he’d ever been to. I began envisaging myself (backed by a pumpin’ band) standing in that hall shouting buoyant motivational slogans at the students, to the tune of, “Don’t you want to change the world? Get a vision for your life! Go out and make it happen!”

This never happened, thank God. I didn’t know it at the time, but this kind of thinking had more to do with a certain strain of denominational teaching than it did with human empowerment. I thought all kids should dream big because I’d been taught to dream big. I thought they should all find their purpose and calling because I had a purpose and calling.

Growing up Pentecostal in Kiwi Generation X, the popular approach (as I’ve mentioned in other blogs) was I’m gonna serrrve the purpose of God in myyy genera-a-tion. And I’m not saying that’s wrong. But I now believe that the emphasis there should not be on what I’m gonna do, but on the purpose of God. It makes no real difference which generation; it’s for all of us. But that doesn’t mean we’re all running in the same lane.

What does it mean to be a new creation? I suggest to you that it is not the Greek thought that Athena is born springing as a fully-formed adult from the head of Zeus. Instead, Jesus puts forward the idea of being born again: a baby with DNA that will unpack itself over time. We are not born victors – seasoned veterans – even though we are born onto the winning side. We are helpless, beloved little mites learning how to walk, talk and feed.

I see a lot of “we are winners” swagger out there. I’ve done it myself. It goes with a certain sound, a certain set of phrases, a lot of hype. It’s fun; it’s “up”. But it doesn’t always run parallel with “… and walk humbly with your God.” The fact is that, left to our own devices, we are not winners at all. Everything we have, and are, has come to us by the gift of God. Without His justifying faith, His empowering grace, we are no better (or happier) than our Muggle counterparts. And to present ourselves as really great at rejoicing with those who rejoice, and not so adept at mourning with those who mourn, is misrepresenting our call.

Understand that to have a big dream is not a bad thing. Let Jesus direct you into your part in His purposes. Be okay with whatever part that is. Romans 9 talks about the right of the Potter to choose whether to use the clay for a beautiful vase or a common old ashtray. All parts are essential. I know people who have the most beautiful ministries merely by doing small, simple things for others. What is our calling? To be saints. What is our purpose? To glorify God and enjoy Him forever. What is our ministry? Reconciliation. Let the nuances begin, but I don’t see a whole lot of Scriptural support for seeking a big, fancy Destiny. We are God’s stuff and we do God’s stuff (stuff He prepared in advance for us to do.) That can look like many, many things.

I’ve believed for almost 35 years that I have a Big Calling. Maybe I do. But chasing it has been very hard, very stop-start. I look back over the course of my adult life and wonder when, of all times, I would have been ready for the success I expected to descend upon me. In some ways, I see the hand of God protecting me from my dreams coming true. Be careful what you wish for … or what you expect the words of God to amount to.

There seems to be a sad, slow line of powerful and successful Christian leaders falling off their pedestals one by one. It breaks my heart. And it scares me. If these amazing people are not sin-proof – if their intense relationship with the Lord has not made them impervious to temptation – then what about us run-of-the-mill folk? All of us are just one misstep away from terrible moral falls. We can’t look down on each other, not even on those who “should know better” or whom we hold to a higher standard because their ministries are “public.” All of us know better, really. And all of us are in the public eye, and most of us in the Church eye, to some degree.

Side note. Since there’s not a single quotable person other than Jesus who is not a hot mess, I’ll continue to post profound quotes from profane people. I believe it’s fine to embrace what was good about those ministries, even if the season is over. In the same way, it’s fine to celebrate past friendships – the person that friend was at that time – even if their friendship has not gone the distance.

The high-rankers are at a disadvantage precisely because of their success. It must be hard to seek counsel for your flaws when your profile is high. Whom do you trust? And when can you see them? There’s vertigo on that pedestal, as well as elevation. Those who fall deserve the same compassion (as well as the same analysis) that we would give a friend on the same tumble.

Is it unrealistic of me to say that maybe we should let go of the Day of the Pedestal? Perhaps the percentage of “successful Christian headliners” really is still in good proportion to the rest of us; perhaps not. But what if it’s not good for us to dream big? Perhaps we should teach people to dream small, unless God specifically directs them otherwise. We can’t all be exceptional (by definition) but we can all be excellent. Here are a couple of verses you don’t hear much from the motivational pulpit:

… make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody. (1 Thessalonians 4:11–12)

… that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Saviour, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. (1 Timothy 2:2b–4)

We so easily forget that modesty is a decent chunk of the Spirit-fruit flavour gentleness/humility/meekness.

I get the feeling, reading the New Testament, that “turning the world upside down” happened by accident. Jesus never told us to “go into all the world and become famous social paradigm shifters.” And yet, as His people went out into the world to preach the gospel to everyone, paradigms did shift. Social change happened. People found themselves on justice quests to do incredible things, causing history-altering positive results we now can’t imagine living without. We can’t say that was all scope-creep. It seems to have been hidden inside the scope, under the “created for good works in Christ” banner. But at its core, Christianity is a grass-roots movement designed to introduce people to Christ and help them get to know Him. Along the way, peripheral change dents the world.

Want to be a hero? Submit it to the Lord. Find out, if you must, what “good works” He has in mind for you to do. But if you don’t hear an immediate answer, then until something presents itself, proceed with the mundane part of what He still asks of us all: to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with God. To love God with all you are and to love your neighbour as if they were you (and to love you, lest that be a poor deal for your neighbour!) Walk by the Spirit. Keep calm and carry on.

The Sideways Gospel

My faith has been through so many mini-revolutions over the years. Whenever I think about sharing it, I feel at a loss for where to start. I grew up in church, but my take-homes didn’t really encompass the core concepts beyond ‘Jesus died for you; now live for Him.’ For me, this translated into Good Behaviour™. A sense of ‘this does not feel like abundant life, this can’t be all there is’ has always lurked in the background. Lately, I’ve been coming at Jesus and His Kingdom sideways and finding that it’s adding up a lot better. So, instead of my usual, rather tangled linear narrative, I thought I’d share my lateral approach with you.

The first thing to understand is that accepting Jesus is not necessarily about religious observance. Religion is mostly about conforming to a culture and doing the ‘rules’ and ‘stuff’ that goes with it.

The culture of Christendom arises out of a desire to ‘do this well, please Him, make Him look good.’ But it misses the whole point, which is that doing well enough, becoming pleasing, being a credit to Him – these are all things out of human reach. It’s a beautiful bar, but it’s so high that none of us reach it. Thinking we can do it on our own pits our abilities embarrassingly against God’s.

Jesus Himself is key. What’s He like? He took everyone aback, casting new light on old events. He talked about God’s Kingdom in ways that showed what the King was like. He extended the invitation of citizenship and covenant. Notice His actions. He went about doing good, building relationships, meeting people where they were at, correcting their assumptions about God’s motives and actions, healing them. He was realigning things. He was God translated into human form and explained at our level. And it didn’t sound the way people expected.

Jesus’s apostles, who wrote the New Testament, talked about the mechanism and legalities of the citizenship offer, and about Kingdom civics.

Frequently, Christianity gets side-tracked into observing the Kingdom first, and the King second. Even when it’s not co-opted into political power or reduced to keeping up ‘righteous’ appearances, covenant tends to get swapped for contract. The goal of covenant is oneness. When we make it into a mere bargain, it becomes less about connecting with God and His ethos, and more about exchanging obligations. God makes us promises, yes, and sets conditions, but they’re not cold transactions so much as they are warm opportunities. He describes good behaviour because it’s good for us. But the minute we try to buy Him with it, we discover that we can’t afford Him. What He wants is our heart. Behaviour will naturally follow later. It’s love

It takes some humility to accept a free lunch. In this case, what we’re offered is a free relationship, a free peerage, and a free eternity. And all we have to do is admit we’re broke and thank Him for paying.

And that’s the crux of it, if you’ll pardon the pun. We usually want to earn our own way, have our cake and eat it too, and get there by the power of our might and determination and talent. And He says ‘No. That train doesn’t stop at this station. Only My train does, because it’s My station. This is not about your work ethic or your integrity or your honour. It’s about Me helping you out of a jam you can’t get out of by yourself. It’s about Me being a whole lot bigger and smarter and cleaner than you, like it or not; but it’s also about Me stepping into your shoes and serving your sentence when I didn’t have to.’

And this is why we call Him ‘Saviour.’ Because He paid our debt for us when He died on the Cross, and rebooted humanity when He resurrected. Because He absorbs our darkness into His vast light, and slowly begins to lighten us as well when we enter it.

What does God get out of it?

He gets His kids back. He gets to demonstrate who He is – Love personified. Love, like light, can only be observed when it bounces off a subject.

As for why we call Him ‘Lord’ – this is a word that more or less means ‘boss.’ This boss is one who asks us to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength – but He reveals God’s nature to us in ways that tumble us into love with Him anyway. When you love someone with your whole heart, all of your allegiance is bent on them. Their wants become your wants, their plans your plans. You become a team. You don’t turn into them – you’re still you – but you become like them, in your own flavour. This is the intimate partnership that history’s most admired man offers us. And the fact that it is really God asking us, like a genius consulting a stick figure, is what’s so staggering.

So what about all the rules and conforming to Christian culture?

There’s merit in Christian culture, but it can’t come first. It has to flow out of our loyalty to the One we love. Faithfulness emanates from faith. Adherence can’t be offered instead of love. This Kingdom’s citizenship hinges on relationship with the King.

Much of what passes for ‘Kingdom’ culture is external: what you can and can’t do, drink, say, wear, attend, listen to, watch, and so on. Some of it has real reasons (safety, wellbeing, or fealty) behind it. A lot of it is bunk.

Some of it is internal: be careful what you dwell on, because it will shape you either toward or away from your allegiance to God. Paradoxically, although Jesusness will teach you to properly love yourself, and result in your ultimate wellbeing, almost all of it is completely upside-down from self-interest. That’s a big ship to turn around, which is why He has to revolutionise our heart.

A large proportion of the culture is relational. It goes to worldview: how we perceive and treat other people, inside and outside the Kingdom.

If we don’t filter all of this stuff through love – and specifically love for God, and living out His love for us and for others – we will screw it up by putting the cart before the horse, then judging the cart-builders.

What’s in it for you?

You get access to the Mind that dreamed up the cosmos and every meaningful and beautiful thing in it. You begin a journey of change that will have you reflecting the most sought-after virtues there are, because you’ll become more like Him, and that’s where those archetypes come from. You get the opportunity to be part of the innermost circle and the eternity-sweeping strategy to save humanity. You allow supreme, divine love, who already knows you intimately, to pour His expression upon and through you. You get His promises, His favour, His blessings, His actual enabling to do daily life (in all its harshness) with more inner resources than you’ve ever experienced. You get Heaven. You get the immense weight of guilt and shame and debt lifted off you. The pressure to perform dissipates into nothing. But best of all, you get the chance to know His heart personally. You discover that this is the meaning of life.

There’s much more to it, and in too many directions to include along this particular torch beam. But to sum up: He’s got to be first. He’s got to be freely chosen. He asks nothing but faith. And what He offers in return is astounding.

So where do we get this sort of faith?

It’s His gift to us, as His inventions. It’s that thing deep inside that clicks like an opening padlock when He calls us to follow Him. When we act on it by saying, ‘Yes!’ we find that what it has unlocked is a treasury called grace. Grace is, simply, the unmerited, unearnable favour of God. It’s a blank cheque that pays our spiritual debts both past and going forwards – not so we can clock up new debts, but so that we can live in the freedom of His favour. If faith is the ticket, grace is the train, and God Himself is the destination.

So much of my life was spent trying to be a good little Christian. It turns out that a real Christian is just someone who is in love with Christ, unashamedly dependent on Him, and letting that change them.

Are we there yet?

Last year, I had prayer for anxiety. I should write that Anxiety, with a capital, and falling over, because it’s been more than the occasional worry or tension. For me, anxiety goes like this: I’m standing at a bus stop, and my thoughts are racing. Will the bus come? Will it be the right bus? Am I at the right bus stop? At the right time? What if it’s been? What if it’s not coming? What if it goes somewhere else? Will I have the right change/card balance? Will I get a seat? Will I recognise my stop? Will I ring the buzzer in time? Will I be able to hop off quickly enough? Will I be able to get back? … Multiply this for every tiny life event involving uncertainties and variables.

I really felt like God dealt my anxiety a blow that day. I had permission to walk free. I wasn’t chained to worry or overthinking. But now a real test has come: can I navigate a crisis like COVID-19 without becoming anxious?

It turns out, I can’t. I want to tell you that that altar call fixed everything, like a magic wand or a silver bullet. I know it began something – that God is working in my life. But usually, He is asking me if I’ll trust Him. If I’ll believe in the shape of His heart. If, despite the anxiety, I’ll go on believing that the Holy Spirit’s with me, within me, working in me, doing the slow work of growing and unpacking His DNA in me over my lifetime. For a small woman, I’m a big ship to turn around (and an increasingly older one).

So … I’m as tense as the next person. I want my life back, as you do. I don’t want people to die; I don’t necessarily want revolution as an end in itself. I want us to be better people when this all winds up, to live carefully. My body is sending me all sorts of screamed messages that we’re under stress. But I’m not alone. God is with me, and for that I’m grateful.

We like testimonies: “I once was lost, but now I’m found; I once was a drug addict, but now I’m an evangelist; I once suffered from an anxiety disorder, but now I’m blithe even on the most treacherous cliff-brink.” And while these testimonies may be very real for a few, for most of us it’s going to be more like, “I’m not there yet – but we are headed in the right direction. I’m not living happily ever after per se, but I’m finding joy in the journey because I’m not journeying alone. Jesus is right beside me in harness, and His people are cheering me on, and vice versa.” Here’s my testimony: “Me and Jesus, we haven’t arrived, but by some miracle I haven’t quit, and He never will.”

I remember at one of the lowest points of my life, standing in church between my two best friends, just feeling like a huge hopeless mess of a person that everyone would be better off without. But I realised that if I tried to disappear, there’s no way those two girls would let me go. They would come after me. They would go straight into Jesus Mode. They would be Aaron and Hur, holding up my hands until the victory came, even if it took all the proverbial day. I was held.

It’s okay to be weak. When we are weak, then we are strong: one of the paradoxes of living a life reliant on Christ. God isn’t waiting for you to get your act together so He can stop babysitting you and go on to His next patient or preferred companion. He’s there for you for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health – and even death can’t part us. We do our best, but He’s the senior partner: it’s Jesus we point to. So I’m pointing to Him, not because He solved all my problems and made me perfect, but because He walks through the problems with me and does all the perfection for me. So if you want a friend to be a hot mess with, you’ve come to the right store.

Depending

I realised this week that of all the things that stress me out, for the first time in forever, Jesus is not one of them.

For most of my life, my relationship with God was seated in anxiety and shame: I must please Him, I must compensate Him for the bad deal He got when He paid my debt. Even when I understood that I was His princess, I still had this drive to (in the words of Mutemath) “Do more, be more, check your … Blood pressure.”

As I’m coming to understand the gospel of grace, and the shape of the heart that offers it (this is a learning curve, let me tell you) I feel more and more that Jesus and I are on the same team. Sounds ridiculous? Of course we are, always have been … but I didn’t FEEL it. I’m learning to move away from self-reliance and work ethic. For me, these are manifestations of pride (“Look what a good/clever/hardworking girl am I”) and doubting His love (“Caring for me is a burden I can relieve Him of, by not asking for help.”) Neither of these attitudes are relationship-builders, and certainly not when you’re in a covenant, where the goal is oneness. He has volunteered to be yoked to me in partnership for a reason. He’s not looking for an out. Depending on Him to shape me and my world and my destiny is not slackness. It is the very heart of our faith. It was never about what we could do on our own.

Jesus, when I make Him my refuge – the first one I turn to – will set next to me during any amount of shame, neither negating my culpability nor turning away in disgust. Jesus, when I ask to borrow His strength, His joy, His patience and serenity, expands my limited capacities. The hiding place I find in Him is not so much a crutch – though we are a crippled world – as a cache. He armours me up in His love and leads me out into life. Usually, from right behind.

God does not always rescue us from danger, sickness or evil. The book of Hebrews tells us that despite prayer and enormous faith, some get miracles and some get martyrdom. We don’t know which we will get, but we know Him. We don’t know what critieria the outcomes depend on, but we can depend on Him to sustain us through to any end. Like all of the spectators in the heavenly stadium, we can still be people of faith. It is a Spirit fruit flavour He can lend us and build in us from His limitless capacity. We can continue to pray for our world, act wisely, and put our trust in the God who, somehow, works all things together for our ultimate good, who holds us close during adversity (which He told us frankly would come along).

I have found Him generous-hearted and constant. And while His agenda may not always look like mine, I will trust in His massive intelligence, proactive wisdom, and deep, engaged love to walk me through this season. And if you’re ready to give up depending on your own reserves, being your own saviour (not to put too fine a point on it!) you can too. He’s ready.

Re-potting

After 29½ years, it was time to change churches. (The ½ matters, I always say, if it includes the Christmas pageant!)

I guess I want to document what this felt like. For one thing, it was a strange experience that deserves commentary; and for another thing, it might shed some light into what newcomers, visitors, shoppers and seekers experience when they first walk in our doors. Do keep in mind, though, that this is one person’s experience, and that one person has her own baggage and filters.

The church I left was a megachurch, a very good one. Over the time I was there, it had morphed considerably from the fellowship I joined in my late teens. I still miss that old vibe, but it was one for the times; churches should morph.

Three things were very weird for me in this process. The first was the novel experience of having a wishlist. I couldn’t decide if the wishlist was valid or not. It seemed so entitled. I was so ‘planted’ in my old church that any wishes I carried for it were prayers and whinges and discussions over coffee as a family member – not weekly dealbreakers that I held over it like a client. So, walking into fresh churches with a set of dealbreakers in the back of my head made me feel uncomfortable. Who was I to pass judgment on a church? Was I looking for reasons to write them off? Was I desperately looking for clues and cues to tell me I’d be okay there? “Please want me”?

Still, you know, selecting a church is like selecting a husband. You’re going to be long-term partners in the business of life. No man, or church, is perfect. All of them have strengths, weaknesses, flaws, beauties, a particular mindset, a direction. All of them are worthy. Yet not all of them are for you. Choose carefully, if you have the luxury of choosing. So, in the end, you really have to have (and can’t help having) a wishlist. (We decided to ‘date’ our new church for a month before ‘marrying’ it!)

What was on my wishlist? That’s very personal, so don’t take this as any kind of commentary on churches that don’t meet my particular description. In the end I was looking for a small puddle of sunlight in which to lift my hands to my beautiful God; a place my husband could enjoy and relax with me in; somewhere my gifts might make a contribution; authenticity; hopefully, the expression of spiritual gifts; and a core group of friends to do life with. It’s been a very long time since I woke up on a Sunday morning dying to get me to a nightclub.

These are mostly inward-focussed desires: things that I want in relation to myself. They don’t speak to the equally-important aspect of community engagement. But remember, as a missionaries’ kid I’ve spent my whole life facing outwards. I don’t underrate that, but I believe God wants a balance for us. Otherwise, He would never have had Paul describe us as a body.

The second weird thing was how excruciating it was to be churchless. Here I cannot tell how much this experience is unique to me. There is something very latchy about me as a third-culture kid. When I first moved from New Zealand to Australia, all of my immediate family were in the Philippines. I adopted myself into my church as a surrogate family, and held on like grim death. To leave that family decades later, even in its morphed form, was more wrenching than I expected. I thought (especially in traumatic seasons when I fantasised about leaving) that I would feel free, unfettered, the world my oyster, my time my own. Nuh-uh. I felt like a castaway. Adrift. Like a pot plant midway between pots, hanging helplessly in the air, roots dangling, soil crumbling away. Literally like a fish out of water, gasping and desperate. I HATED IT. I felt (but wasn’t) friendless. You don’t necessarily lose your friends when you change churches, but you do lose your social life. All the things that bring you together become inaccessible. I couldn’t just swan in and out, scooping up the cream without making a contribution or commitment. It didn’t seem right. So I felt isolated and alone, and I’d done it to myself. I wondered if this was one of the things people feel during a divorce.

As I’ve said, it’s hard to tell if I felt this so strongly because my attachment to church was more fanatical than is healthy. Could it possibly mean that strong attachment is the way it should be – that if you don’t find separation wrenching, you weren’t really part of the body? I’m not sure. I don’t want to push that interpretation at anyone else. Attachment is as individual as each person. So I’ll simply leave it as a record of what this individual felt.

The third weird thing is that when you already know what sort of things are in your ministry skillset, when you do walk into a new church, you can’t help but look for where you might fit. (It’s on the wishlist, after all.) So it’s a strange feeling for me to look at the team on the stage and be thinking, “Will this be my tribe? Will they like me? Will they find me Too Much? Not Enough? How long will it take to prove myself? Will I fit in? Have they got ten of me already? Will they think I overrate myself because I’ve served in a Big Church? Will they be disappointed in my rusty skills or happy that I have more than one? Will I step on anyone’s toes? Will I be allowed to step anywhere at all?” And then you meet them and you try really hard not to be yourself, because yourself is relaxed and loud and talkative and funny and affectionate, and you can’t throw all that at people you’ve known for five minutes. And so they get A-Ca-Awkward Beck who doesn’t know what to do with her hands when she talks. I do want to be honest about who I am and what I bring, such as it is … but I don’t want to lead with my resume. I just want a tribe who gets me and values me.

We’re in a mid-size and quite variegated suburban church now, and it’s working out. Will it be perfect? Of course not. Will we learn and grow and give and receive there? I feel sure we will. I’m grateful to God for the lovely people we’re getting to know, and a new adventure in a new season. Settling in. God is good.