Tasks & Asks

James is an interesting book, written by Jesus’ half-brother to His Jewish followers all around the world. It’s mostly practical, asking and answering the question, “What does your faith look like on the ground?” But it opens without preamble into an instruction to rejoice in trials.

I don’t know about you, but when I read the word “trials”, I automatically translate it into “sufferings”. And there’s no doubt that the early (and sections of the modern) Church faced a good deal of persecution: physical, social & relational, financial & economical, and political. It seems unimaginable to greet these things with joy – as if the Scriptures were calling us to some sort of bizarre masochism.

As we read on, James elaborates on the results of trials, but let’s have a look first at what else the term “trials” might encompass.

I’m a big fan of The Block, a reality TV show where contestant couples each renovate a flat in an apartment building, and compete for the greatest profit margin at auction, keeping any amount over reserve into the bargain. They sacrifice their regular lives on the gamble that the gain outweighs the rigours of involvement. Like most competitions, there are “challenges” interspersed throughout the duration: side projects, often for charities, giving contestants the chance to up their skills and make extra money to put towards their main goal. In many cases the contestants acknowledge that, while finding these tasks difficult, they come out with a sense of joy that they have contributed toward the cause at hand, regardless of whether or not they’ve won.

What if “trials” aren’t only about terrible things happening to us? What if they’re assignments? Opportunities? Side quests, to use gaming parlance? Professional development, so to speak? Pierasmos, sometimes translated temptations rather than trials, is defined as follows:

a putting to proof (by experiment [of good], experience [of evil], solicitation, discipline or provocation); by implication, adversity: — temptation, X try.

Suffering, therefore, is part of the equation, but so is simple testing to see how we handle both the good and the bad that comes our way. The Block contestants get to do exactly that, what with setbacks, do-overs, tradies that don’t come through or cut corners, costly mistakes, unexpected bonuses and expert coaching. In the end, they find the experience ultimately rewarding, affording them both material and personal growth, sometimes to the opening up of new careers and opportunities. And unquestionably it reveals what they are made of.

God isn’t asking us to be masochistic, but rather to see whatever comes our way as an opportunity to grow and gain, even in the midst of sacrifice, hard work and hardship – keeping before our eyes the joy set before us, in order to scorn any shame we might encounter along the way. Nor is God performing random experiments on us, like lab rats. We find ourselves facing things we wish God would prevent. But He is not “finding” us in unexpected circumstances, nor plonking us down in them. He knows we have awakened in a fallen world, in which He will lean on outcomes but will not force any of us to do the right thing. Under those conditions, He has set His face to redeem what He can – and there is much – from the hash other people are making of our lives. God is a master upcycler and (with the greatest admiration and respect) an opportunist. We are talking about the God who makes pearls out of the bits of grit that irritate oysters, who uses the very decay of compost to grow healthful vegetables, turning smog into sunsets and terrible forest fires into terraforming.

Am I smart enough to welcome trials? Can I see them as puzzles to be solved in myself, rather than devastation by which I could be laid low? Can I relish being presented with a dangerous side quest, knowing that I will pick up artefacts/tools/weapons/wealth/energy/provisions for my inventory as I go along? I suspect not, for the most part, even in my most “can-do” optimistic mood. And so God Himself provides the way forward.

It’s okay to be nervous about facing trials. If we weren’t nervous, we would never seek His help. We’d be doing everything in our own strength. I’m nervous about what the trials might contain, and I’m nervous about whether or not I can make the grade – whether I’ve got what it takes.

Trials, God says, develop perseverance. They are like the workouts that enable the athlete to run a marathon without flagging. They may be not only par for the course, but indispensable. While exhausting rather than invigorating, getting pushed to the limit does extend our capabilities. Nobody enjoys the actual sensations of that pushing, but the endorphins and the results are rewarding, yes?

Perseverance, He says, is what brings us to maturity and completes our kit. It has to finish its work, like a course of antibiotics, to bring about this completion. We don’t have to like the taste of the pills, but we do need to be very, very glad they’re available, knowing them to be invaluable. Both trials and antibiotics seem counterintuitive: putting in that which is negative in order to bring about that which is positive, and indeed to put what is wrong in us right.

Clearly, God intends maturity to be achievable. With my emotional nature and constant bumbling, I have at times despaired of ever reaching maturity, wondering if it would take my entire lifetime to achieve. But James does not speak of maturity as the finish line at the Pearly Gates. It’s more like the university degree we get under our belt as we move forward into adult life. It’s not the summation of living: it’s the tool for living.

Maturity, James says, is a state of lacklessness, or completion. I do not think he can possibly mean perfection, or the cessation of growth. There is a completeness where there’s a sense of arrival, yet room to add more and more richness. Think of it again like the Block apartments. A unit with dilapidated rooms is not complete. A unit with sound rooms, fully furnished, is complete. A unit made spectacular with objets d’art is glorious. So then, the Word invites us to renovate our heart-rooms with God, hinting that completion is possible and that we can then go forward from glory to glory.

The first lack we can make up to move toward completion, James says, is the lack of wisdom. And this, it turns out, is a free resource. You simply ask God for it. The only catch is that you have to believe you’re going to get it. Here’s where we can get tripped up. The Word has told us we can ask for anything we need, but has also cautioned us that we don’t get things we request for selfish reasons, or things that aren’t in His will to give us. However, the goal of maturing our own soul is not selfish. Rather, it puts us in a position to outwork love competently – and love is never selfish. It’s a win/win: we are blessed AND we are a blessing. James tells us outright that the request for wisdom is ALWAYS in the will of God. He wants us to be wise. Jesus is wise, is He not? And we are called to become more like Him, are we not? God is neither short of, nor stingy with, wisdom. So if I ask Him but doubt I’ll receive it, what’s really going on?

First, I need to believe God doesn’t see His wisdom as a non-renewal resource, to be parcelled out carefully, and only to “worthy” recipients. What He offers is not a divided pie. It’s more like an information website multiple people can access at once. It doesn’t “run out” or even crash, and you don’t have to earn it.

Second, I need to believe Him when He describes Himself as generous and non-judgmental. God doesn’t see me as a gumby who’s so dumb she has to ask for basic smarts. He knows my limitations and the gap between what I know and what He knows. He probably thinks it’s sharp and commendable to go to the right store for the right product. The decision to depend on God is the smartest one we can make, even in our un-smart state. He wants to be asked, and He takes all comers. When we ask, we are affirming our faith in His nature. We don’t just come to God because of what He has: “I know You are rich, Dad.” We come to God because of who He is: “I know You love me to bits, Dad.”

Third, I need to believe that it’s possible to receive wisdom from God. Can I trust my instincts, forget for a moment that my heart can be deceitful, and make decisions trusting that God has done the necessary direction-nudging in me, giving me the mind of Christ? Is wisdom only for decision making, or is it also about outlook? In that case, I would get to improve in the way I approach life and other people. Wisdom would then be about learning to see things as God sees them. It would be about becoming more like Him.

My thick skull is not a rock He’s made that’s too big for Him to lift. What hubris it would be, to believe my mind so dense that even the wisdom of my almighty Maker cannot penetrate it! He can impart to me anything He likes, and He’s offering wisdom for free, almost begging me to come get it. I think I’ll take Him up on that.

So, to answer my original question about what’s going on when I doubt: it’s failing to trust that God loves me and tells the truth about Himself. And that trust underpins the whole Christian life.

Scripture hints that God cannot/should not/will not give us anything (I’m not sure if this is specific to the wisdom-request, or refers to general asking) that we ask for in doubt. When we ask and doubt at the same time, according to James, we put ourselves at the mercy of circumstance, emotion, and cognitive confusion. Faith in the kind of person God is – generous, kind, accepting, with intelligence that sees us to our core and foreplans all of time – is the path to stability, as well as the key that unlocks the treasury. When He says, “This you can ask for, and I’ll unquestionably give it, because I’m generous,” we’d be nuts to turn Him down. When we say, “I’m asking, but I don’t think You’ll really do it,” we’re calling Him a liar when He has testified about His own identity. He may actually find it insulting, as if we have said, “I think you might love me a little bit, Dad, maybe, some of the time, despite what You claim.” We think we are being humble, calling into question our own worthiness, when in fact we are calling into question His truthfulness, the size of His love, and therefore the content of His character.

Trials are not God’s expressions of suspicion, looking to see how quickly we’re going to fold. They are the natural results of the Fall, recycled by Him into invitations to level up. So it’s wise to embrace them, and if we lack that wisdom, well, He’s holding it out to us.

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What Women Want

I hear that many men are asking this question, so why not take a whack at it? Though I will confess to a little trepidation! I’ll be looking at this through the lens of Christian marriage, but much of what I’ll say will hold good for unchurched relationships as well, I hope.

Honestly, this is not as hard as it seems, though it is complex. I find it strange that there is even a mystery attached, because it’s not as though no woman has ever talked, done research, pleaded, cajoled, threatened or fought to reveal or attain what they want. Women have been telling men what they want for, like, ever. The problem isn’t that we can’t articulate what we want. The problem is that the things we want appear, as a collection, to be incompatible – and a lot of hard work, to boot.

Here’s what women want. Or at least, what this woman wants.

I want to be known, loved, and valued.

Nobody but God is ever going to know me thoroughly and fully – as my favourite author Lois McMaster Bujold puts it, “right down to the muck at the bottom of the soul’s well.” But I want to be known as fully as possible by my husband. While this will severely reduce my manipulative potential, it will also massively enhance my belief that I am accepted. For if he knows me pretty well and still sticks around, it not only says something about his character, but hopefully about mine. That I’m not all bad, for instance. When someone knows us, they can make assessment, yes. But they can also hold our hand and let us know that we’re not alone in the morass of things we struggle with. To be known is to not be alone. While our darkness becomes evident, so does the light of our best intentions and sincere efforts. The very shape and colour of our soul can be observed, admired, explored and cherished.

There’s a difference between being loved and being valued, as the same author once pointed out. You can be loved without being valued; this looks like patronism. “Let me pat you on the head, lovable idiot who contributes nothing.” Might as well be the cat. And you can be valued without being loved; but this is mercenary. “Keep proving yourself useful, because that’s the only reason I keep you around.” Might as well be the gardener.

To be known, loved and valued is to be celebrated. You can be quietly celebrated – as when you enter a room and get a warm smile in response. You can be loudly celebrated – with praise and professions of undying love. And you can be celebrated in absentia – when your partner brags about or sticks up for you.

The thing is, I want to be known, loved and valued in all three areas of my being: body, soul & spirit. And now we have a matrix of nine things, and men’s apparent confusion begins to make a glimmer of sense! Perhaps a table would be helpful. Keep in mind that these are not prerequisites, but long-term goals. That said, those who have several prerequisites under their belt going into the relationship, or the general seed or shape of them, or who show an openness to learn – these men have a much better chance of not being eliminated in the candidacy period! Also, keep in mind that this is one woman’s matrix. For example, I’ve listed “corrects me privately and gently”, because if I say something silly, I’d rather not say it again the next day; yet some people thrive on straight-up, loud confrontations which clear the air. I’m just not one of them. And there’ll be an equal amount of correction flowing back the other way, that I’ll try to give respectfully and kindly. So, don’t be daunted by the amount of information in the matrix. Just take it as a helpful guide, not as the Nine Commandments.

 

BODY SOUL SPIRIT
KNOWN

 

communication research
 fascination

he knows my health, physical needs, sexuality, capabilities, talents, limitations, preferences he knows my strengths, weaknesses, triggers, history, dreams, longings, detestations, anxieties, wellbeing needs he knows my spiritual gifts and goals, my calling, my priorities, pitfalls, attitudes & posture toward God
VALUED

 

noticing
esteeming
gratitude
celebrating honouring
respecting

he admires the things my body can do – for his, and for him, in my work, ministry, hobbies, our home, our family; he contributes at a similar level he understands or acknowledges what drives me, he’s committed to my personal growth and mental health, he respects me, my vibe is wanted around, my conversation is welcome and matters, I’m not a burden he takes me seriously as a Christian and workmate in the Gospel, he trusts me to hear from God accurately as an individual, he seeks my prayer support, he nurtures my spiritual life, we share insights and learn from each other
LOVED

 

care
compassion
protection
provision
cherishing
affection

whatever my shape or condition, he is fond of my body because it’s mine, he loves to make it feel good, he is undemanding, understanding of its cycle, he will go all out to protect and care for it and get it any help it needs; he ensures I do not burn out he finds beauty in the way my mind works, listens to me and hears me, makes reasonable adjustments when feasible, corrects me privately and gently, notices the way I treat others, appreciates my tastes and humour, enjoys my company he understands that Jesus must come first, he makes room for my relationship with God, my commitments, my development and my calling to flourish, he finds me beautiful when I worship, he finds a reflection of Christ in me

 

You can understand now why some wives are uninterested in opening up their legs on a given day, if they’ve not yet been able to open up what’s in their heart. This is not a condition imposed on coitus: “I won’t sleep with you if you don’t talk to me.” It is rather an optimal setting for coitus: “If you talk to me at some point today – ask me how I am, be interested in what’s on my mind – treating me as a whole person rather than just a warm body – I’ll feel much closer to you, and emotional intimacy makes physical intimacy far more appealing to me and far more likely for you.” Without making it an end to a means, it’s like car maintenance. Sure, the car can be run as soon as you turn the key; but it runs far better when you warm it up, keep it well-oiled, and put fuel in it. This works for an inanimate machine. Since a woman is more than an inanimate machine, using the warmth of patience, the oil of kindness and compliments, and the fuel of communication becomes the bare minimum.

The problems can also arise because there are, indeed, conflicts within each woman. Some days she wants to talk; some days she needs more Cave Time than you do. Some days she wants desperately to be touched; other days the slightest touch makes her want to scream. There is no remedy for this other than understanding. You can’t predict the Touch-O-Meter reading unless you track her cycle (while not tying the entirety of what she feels to it), read her body language, or keep a close eye on the stressors in her life. Knowing her well is obviously key.

There are other conflicts, too – internal ones, strange oxymorons in how a woman feels about herself. Take myself for instance. I am Generation X, but brought up even more old-fashioned, as the Church was still rather enamoured of the ’50s way of life, even in the ’80s. I grew up on a steady societal diet of “be beautiful (and well-mannered and snappily dressed) at all times. And you’ll get the boyfriend/social life/opportunity/ promotion/husband worthy of you.” I wanted to be beautiful, and sexy, and desirable, sought-after. Since I simultaneously wanted to keep my self-respect and virginity, this was mostly manifested in clothing, hair and makeup. And there’s a certain amount of “keeping up with the Joneses” in there as well, of course. Incidentally, this did not contribute to my self-respect. Every bad hair day made me cross with myself and feel like a failure.

Beside this out-of-proportion, media-fuelled thirst to attain to a physical pedestal, was a sense of annoyance. I did not like that I Iived in “a man’s world”. But it was the world I had to deal with; so I would use any advantage available to me that didn’t compromise my integrity. At the time, I mistakenly believed that beauty and sexuality were the only tools women had (and I wasn’t at all sure I possessed either). Too much intelligence would get you blacklisted by dumb men in authority who felt threatened by you. Too much wit would disgust dignified patriarchs who were accustomed to being planted like implacable oaks in an ancient grove. I was not a game changer. It was simplest to fly demurely under the radar and take whatever you could get, hoping things would improve for women as time went by.

Today there is still a tendency within me – even at this late date, with 23 years of marriage under my belt – to wake up in the morning and quickly arrange myself on the pillow as artistically as I can. I’m … somewhat posed. I call it poise, but that’s what it is: posing. Deep down I still believe that moments of ugliness are dangerous and anathema for women, though I surely have them. Now that I’m 47 and no Barbie doll, well … it’s hard to reassess my wifely value when I have placed my value in such a dubious box. I know the beauty box is a lie. So does my husband. We are both baffled by how important it remains to me to be as beautiful as I can. I am ashamed of how shallow this is – as if to say that only the Beautiful People deserve good things! Or that his love is attached only to my person! I am also ashamed that my hope for a better future for my daughter relied on the hard work, sacrifice and courage of other women, pioneers such as I never thought I could be, blazing a trail I could barely envisage. My big dream was up to God; but my paltry dream at the time was to be the best Little Woman I could be, while I waited for fame & fortune to descend from on high.

I was taught to believe that men (all men without exception) are rabidly lustful creatures with hooting eyeballs, who are only too keen to make the most of any and every opportunity offered them. So imagine my surprise to find that my husband doesn’t want to be sexually “on call” any more than I do. That he has other interests that sex does not necessarily trump. I didn’t marry a drive: I married a person! And alongside my insane need to be treasured as beautiful, was an equally insane corollary that said, “So if he’s not falling over himself to get you into bed all the time, you must be very ugly and unacceptable indeed. Because if, after all, any consenting adult vagina is a good one – and yours is being turned down – then yours must be the only vagina in the universe that isn’t a good one. Which makes you less than nothing.”

All of this, of course, would go away if (a) the vagina was not, after all, the sole call of a woman’s worth, and (b) I could only keep remembering that my vagina isn’t about anyone else. And, for that matter, neither is my soul – though what comes forth from it is. But I see clearly in the above paragraph that I have done the very thing I resent, and I have done it to both of us. I have reduced two human beings to the sum of their parts. The husband’s body might belong to the wife, and the wife’s to the husband, but both of them have to deal responsibly with the soul that comes with the body, as St Paul goes on to elucidate. Hence his insistence on love, respect and mutual back-having in marriage.

Let us suppose for a second that my husband was concerned – solely concerned – with bedding me. That he had no thought in his head about what sort of person I was, how I made him feel in my company, that I am a child of God, what my talents or capabilities or potential were. Might as well be a prostitute. Or a blow-up doll, for that matter. I don’t want to just be valued for my beauty & booty. I am so much more than that. And, thankfully, my husband agrees; but I remain subconsciously convinced that the physical is paramount. No amount of logic has been able to fully shift this silly belief. And because I am getting older and the physical is slowly but surely declining, I feel panicked and vaguely resentful. This is patently unfair to both of us. It needs to change. As I learn to rule over rejection (real and imagined) in my life, and shift my focus to cultivating inner beauty with the same ferocity with which I obsessed over outer beauty, I hope that it will.

The matrix, complex as it is, is important. But while it could conceivably be used as a how-to, every woman is subtly different. Her psychological traps (such as my beauty trap) will be different. There are probably women who believe intelligence is paramount, and despair because they cannot spell. Or that silent endurance is key, and drink because they are desperately trying to bury a fiery personality. Her needs will be different. Her love language will be different. (Me, I like all five love languages, and if one is not in evidence, I want to know why!) So take it with a grain of salt, but try to remember that the grain of salt is probably a dried tear. Don’t look at it with despair and believe it to be unachievable. Think of it like a Bingo card. If you’re kicking goals in several areas, you’re doing great. You’ve got the rest of your marriage to see, one by one, what may be done in the others.

No spouse is perfect overnight. And it’s not all on you, my dear male reader; both of you have agency to enact change. Women, however, speaking broadly, are natural renovators as well as connectors: we focus on building and maintaining and improving the marriage far more than our spouses do, I think. Perhaps it’s because we are less satisfied with the static, or perhaps it’s simply that men may prefer the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” route.

I’m generalising madly, aren’t I. I still don’t know the depths of my own sexism. For instance, I am perfectly capable of asking my husband for sex, help with the dishes, a date, a conversation; but there is still this idea deep in my scripting which says “let the man do the chasing, or you’ll get hurt”. So if he doesn’t chase, do I go without? I feel humiliated when I verbally ask for sex (as though I don’t have enough allure to be invited to it). I feel frustrated when I ask for practical help (as though the pile of dishes doesn’t speak for itself). I feel nervous when I ask for a date, and pathetic when I ask for conversation (as though the contents of my mind are not interesting enough to be sought out). I do initiate all these things from time to time, but again there is an element of resentment, because in my head they are as much “men’s work” as, well, things we traditionally regarded as “women’s work”. And that, my friends, is my great hypocrisy!

I just don’t know how to feel differently, though. Perhaps husbands are stuck in a similar rut. Maybe we all secretly want gender roles of some kind (though not necessarily those of the ’50s or ’80s!) just so we can know we’re on the same page, or whether we’re each holding up our end. But redefining these roles is not the same as living them. We’re always coming up against our upbringings and the unwritten rules and expectations in our souls, even when we know cognitively that they don’t make sense.

Pages could be (and have been) also written about what a MAN needs in a relationship; but since this is not my area of expertise, neither being a man nor intimately knowing more than one man and his needs, I leave this to those who know more. I can’t know more about what a man needs than the man himself, unless he’s seriously delusional, of course (as in the case of an alcoholic in need of intervention). So whatever you do, don’t ever let on that you think you know more about what a woman needs, than the woman in question who has just TOLD you what she needs. Take her at her word, give her the benefit of the doubt. In other words, believe in her. And never give up communicating.

Out, damned spot!

For so much of my life, I thought I was normal. In fact, if people weren’t like me, I used to think to myself, “Well, Beck, you’ve been lucky; you’ve grown up with excellent teaching, you’ve had all your ducks in a row from Day Dot.” I would tuck my theology under my arm and smile benignly, knowing that as time went by, all of us would gain similar insight and wisdom.

It was eye-opening to gradually come to realise that my life has not been normal, and I am not normal in consequence. (In fact, very few people are.) And it was complete shock to finally confront the fact that I had a mental illness.

Dial back a second. I’m not nuts. I just have giant holes in me. Holes named Anxiety, Doubt, Confusion, FOMO (fear of missing out).

I used to find it baffling that my children were not like me. They’re a little bit like their dad, and a traces of me show up now and then; but their drives and interests are their own. For a while, I was stumped. I was raising them on the values I was raised on; why had they not turned into carbon copies of me and my brothers? And then I realised: their life experiences, and the times they are living in, and the country we reside in … all of these things are different. They would have to live my exact life, with my soul, in my times, to turn out like myself. So when my daughter, at the end of a big fight, turned to me and said earnestly, “This is all in your head! You’re getting worse, Mum. You need to see someone!” it was time to acknowledge that Things Weren’t Going Well. And my life and upbringing, whatever their advantages, had not dealt me universal blessedness.

Hear me, now. I’m not blaming others. I had good parents and good churches and good pastors (for the most part). It could well be that when I say, “I was wrongly taught xyz,” that in fact I was taught correctly, and I filtered it through my very own xyz and that’s where it got distorted. God knows that the artistic temperament does tend toward the negative. And it could be that xyz was wildly fashionable back then, and taught vehemently, to the detriment of abc. And it could be that xyz really was a bunch of rubbish in the first place, but nobody knew better at the time. And it could be that they did. All of these things are possible; I just don’t want you to get the impression that I’m passing the buck.

All my life I have been conscious of inherent sin. Most churches teach that all people are born with a tendency toward sin, as part of the curse that came upon us in the Garden of Eden. The curse can be lifted by submitting yourself to Jesus Christ as your boss and rescuer; we call this becoming “born again”. What I couldn’t work out, though, was that if I was a new creation, having given my life to Christ, why did sinful thoughts still run through my head? Because they undoubtedly did – with disturbing regularity. And so, convinced I was missing some important step, I jumped through as many hoops as I could. What was I missing? Was it just a case of His DNA taking a lifetime to be unpacked in me? I shouted Scriptures at myself. I came forward for altar calls. I loathed myself. In the end I just resigned myself to not understanding why it worked for everyone else but me. I would just have to lean on the Blood and hope for the best.

The tendency in church life is to tackle EVERYTHING from the theological end. While this is good from the “letting God handle it” point of view, it can leave large gaps, not because God is inadequate but because the people teaching the approach are the ones with enormous gaps in their knowledge. All of us talk about what works for us, or what we’ve heard works for people we know or have read about, or what works in theory. These are not blanket cures, though, and they can be flavoured by a flood of well-meant misinformation. And there you have a person like me, who has mental issues but believes they are broken because their spiritual answers aren’t doing the trick. “You must be doing it wrong,” I told myself. “You idiot. Keep up!”

Rachel Denhollander said recently about poor church response to abuse, “[Biblical truths] are really used to mitigate and to minimize—almost as if the victim handles it ‘properly,’ if the victim just forgives, all of the feelings are going to go away. That’s not true and that’s not what Scripture teaches.”

http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2018/january-web-only/rachael-denhollander-larry-nassar-forgiveness-gospel.html

I can attest to this, and to what she goes on to say about pursuing God’s justice as well as His mercy. It’s hard work to recover from spiritual abuse while you watch your abuser get a free ride and a love offering. You’re sitting there, week after week, praying blessing on your enemy, all the while feeling guilty that you see a brother in the Lord, a pastor, no less, as your enemy. When you don’t feel you have a voice, when it’s not safe to speak up, it’s a soul-destroying place to be in. And you know that when people look at you, they see someone scarred. Scarring is not beautiful, and opportunities go to the beautiful people. The best thing you can say about your battle scars is that you got them because you refused to sit on the sidelines. You got them because you showed up for the fight. Let no one disqualify you for them!

That was a rather long detour about the failure of “properly handling things” (which even Job, the most righteous man who ever lived, couldn’t do consistently), but what I’m trying to focus on here is the comparison between tackling things from a spiritual “God knows best” point of view, and a cognitive “What are we missing?” approach.

I got breakthrough in therapy. My psychologist (a pastor himself) took me through a process called cognitive defusion. At least, I hope he said “de-fusion” and not “diffusion”. We talked about the early maladaptive schema (when your brain as a small child creates a dysfunctional program for dealing with certain things). We identified three probablies and two maybes, so off my own bat, I mindmapped them all, since that works well for me for loosening up ideas and extrapolating them. He’d asked me to think about when each occurred and what each sounded like, what my self-talk said to me. What I wound up with was a giant sheet of paper covered in vitriol.

When I showed my psych the paper, we talked about some of the issues. He said that I had a lot of leniency toward people who’d hurt me, but almost none for myself. (“They behaved this way because they had xyz happen to them.” “They’re Muggles, they don’t know any better. But I should know better.” … etc) And then he told me a very interesting thing. “Thoughts just come to you,” he said. “You can’t control them coming in.”

Now, I knew this was true about feelings, though I’m still pretty good at beating myself up for feeling the “wrong” things, just as I’m an absolute expert at beating myself up for thinking the “wrong” things. But I’ve been taught all my life that “as a person thinks in their heart, so they are” and that a good Christian should be “taking every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ”. Add to that a keen awareness of having sin in me. So I’ve been going through my whole life, believing that (a) I have darkness in me – which is true enough, if not the whole truth; (b) I am my thoughts, lots of which are bad; and (c) it’s my job to gate them and eradicate them. And then I’ll have a right to feel okay about myself. Someday. When all my thoughts are pure. And I won’t have to stand ashamed before God, needing yet another wash.

Well … it turns out, that process is really, really bad for me. (So now I have solved a mental issue but created a theological one!) I’ve been taught to deal with negative thoughts by reciting Scripture at them (this from the church) or by replacing negative thoughts with positive ones (this from pop culture). My psych says that’s pretty much like a person busting for the toilet chanting “Don’t think of water, don’t think of water.” All it does is prime the negative thought. He said the key is not to wage war against the thoughts, but to give less attention to them.

Mirabile, this is actually working for me. My brain can shout nasty things at me all day (“You horrible degenerate! That’s not godly! You’re a big fat fake!”), but I’m no longer obligated to listen. The insults are well-worn ruts in the road, of course, so the wheels keep on tending to go down there, though as time goes by the accidents are getting less frequent. Much more quickly, I’m able to shake myself and go, “Wait, I don’t have to pay attention to this.” It’s like a Get Out Of Jail Free card. I can walk away from all that self-flagellation and not, well, feel like I’m wagging. It’s awesome. Not my circus – it’s just my wetware glitching, always was – so not my monkeys. I feel lighter than air. I can’t believe I lived so long under condemnation I knew I wasn’t supposed to have!

So, where does that leave the Bible verses? Can I reconcile the truth of God’s Word with the truth of my experience?

Let’s have a look at the big one, 2 Corinthians 4:5b. “We take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.”

This verse does seem to imply that every passing thought ought to be swiped into a butterfly net, pounded with a rock until it conforms, and then put neatly on the correct shelf with a solid “Hmph!” No doubt this verse was thrown at us a lot in our formative years because “everybody knows teens think about nothing but sex all day long.” But just look at the damage it’s done in my life, without its context. It had me running exhausted day and night, trying to marshal all the random stuff that the brain just generates naturally because that’s what it does!

But guys! Guys! The context! Look! Look how it scans if you start at verse 4!

“The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.”

THIS IS A PASSAGE ABOUT HOW TO DO SPIRITUAL WARFARE. Not a verse about how to discipline your way into God’s good graces. Let the random crap fly – you’re not responsible for it! The brain generates it for free, and there’s not a thing you can do about it! But if you are engaged in a season where you are trying to use spiritual weapons to intentionally bring down a stronghold – THEN it’s time to pound lies with the Rock of Ages! These negative thoughts are the thoughts we have to take captive. This is the language of war: the thoughts that keep us under enemy siege – those are going to be our prisoners of war. They go under lock and key, and we turn our back on them (literally “repent” – to turn around and go the other way). THIS is the time to shout verses at your problems, because the Word of God and prayer are our two offensive weapons. This is the ONLY time you shout at yourself – and you do it because you’re on your side! And you shout encouragement, you don’t berate yourself! Cheer yourself on! Pray in the Spirit, because He knows what needs to be said!

Note, a stronghold in this context is linked to arguments, pretensions, and blockages that keep us from the knowledge of God. That could be all one thing, or four separate things. But if you remember that God is love, then the knowledge of God would be, in large part, a deep understanding of His love, as well as His righteousness and His values. So anything that argues that God couldn’t really love you, that parades around as a “smarter thought” than the simplicity of God’s love for you, that tells you you’ll never have a grasp on Him or His love – those are stronghold lies that need to be captured and annihilated. Knock ’em down, they’re the enemy.

Back to the difficult verses. Maybe, just maybe, “As a person thinks in their heart, so are they” (Proverbs 23:7) DOESN’T mean “you are your bad thoughts”. Maybe it just means “your style of thinking will shape you” – which in my case was evidently true, because years of upbraiding myself had definitely shaped me into someone defensive and insecure. But even further, consider this: it’s a quote from the King James, lifted completely out of context as well, with the result that the phrase doesn’t even come up in other translations!

Maybe the Bible was never, ever meant to be read to ourselves in a stern, accusing voice. Maybe it’s been kindly all along. I’m learning to speak kindly to myself – to speak, in fact, the way Jesus speaks to me. He never snaps, “You idiot, I’m so frustrated with you, haven’t you got this right YET?” Instead He puts an arm around my shoulder, smiles beside my cheek and says gently, “I reckon we could try that again and do it better.”

I thought that underneath everything was my inherent sin. I was wrong. Underneath are the everlasting arms. I thought everything began and ended in my shame. But it begins and ends in the love of the Father. It begins and ends in the love of the Father!

Driven to distraction

Sometime in the early 2000s, a book appeared in Christian readership circles that took them by storm: “The Purpose Driven Life”. Churches went nuts for it, recommending we all read it.

I did try. I got one and a half chapters in, and wanted to throw my borrowed copy across the room.

I mean no disrespect to the author. Clearly he intended to inspire people to get off the bench and into the game, and he did – and kudos to him. But I had the opposite problem: game addiction. I’m wondering if I can get a “Holla!” from other missionaries’ kids out there.

This is how it was for me. I was born the child of a first- and a second-generation Christian. I was the first baby born into the little church my parents helped plant, back in New Zealand (still thriving today). So, I was literally in church from birth. In addition to this, my parents were riding the crest of the wave known as the Jesus Movement. They were not pew-warmers. They were sold out to Jesus Christ. They had a destiny. They had a purpose. They had a calling and a mission. There were just so many people who didn’t even know Him …

When I was 7, and my brothers 5 and 3, we went to the Philippines as missionaries. It was much like any other adventure, at that age, only it went for two and a half years instead of a few days. I loved it (most of it!). I got to see my parents work their ministries – and it turned out they could do a lot more than sing and songlead: they could teach, and preach, and mentor, and minister healing, and live the faith-walk others just imagine. Nobody does it perfectly, but my folks were the real deal. It never occurred to me that you could have a life in Jesus that was not purpose-driven. We were here to win the lost, people! Even at 7 I understood that many people on the mission field, and general believers in harsh places, were facing incredible trials and threats, while we were relatively safe so long as we didn’t mouth off about politics and bring the local guerillas down on us.

Here’s where it gets personal. We were a team. I can’t say for sure if this (or being confronted with the concept of martyrdom/torture at a young age) was definitively harmful. My parents’ philosophy in those days was “if God calls you, He calls you as a family”. I understood, as the eldest and possibly the whiniest child, that I had to set a good example, not only to my brothers but to the community we lived in. We had to be above reproach and united in reputation.

This hit home harder on the second trip, when I was 15. I hadn’t wanted to come. It had taken me five years to finally feel like I belonged, and I was most loath to give that up. My English teacher told me it would be good for my all-round development. My parents prayed that God would speak to me, and He did. “I gave up 33 years of My life for you. Couldn’t you give Me a measly 3?” Well, when you put it like that, Lord …

Like most teenagers, I wanted to “find myself” as I navigated the transition between child and adult, holding tight to my Christianity like a life-preserver. I told my dad that I felt like a piece of furniture, carted here, carted there. He sought to resolve this by making me feel like part of the team he was in, giving me some responsibility, letting me know my good behaviour would make them look good, and any out-of-place behaviour would reflect poorly on the mission as a whole, which none of us wanted. It did, indeed, straighten my backbone. I knew the importance of what we were about. I certainly didn’t want to jeopardise it, and I appreciated this small piece of adult-treatment. In fact, all the adults on that team were fantastically gracious and understanding toward me. They took me seriously as a Christian.

But.

The weight of a mission’s reputation is a very heavy burden to bear when you’re 15 … and especially when you’re 15 and longing for affirmation. I was old enough by now to realise that it wasn’t just MKs who needed to stand up straight for Jesus. The whole world was looking at – scrutinising – every Christian, looking for excuses to put us (and by extension our Lord) down. That must not happen. He must not be discounted because I failed to represent Him well. This was the moment when I began to see myself as a billboard living in a fishbowl. I pasted on my smile and took one for the team.

Pretty soon I realised that being fake wasn’t the answer. There were too many fake people already, too many people that could be termed hypocrites because their insides didn’t match their outsides. I didn’t want to live a lie. So I made an all-out effort to not just look good, but to actually be good. This was ten times the pressure. I tried really, really hard, but of course it can’t actually be done. I thought this was my fault, or at least the fault of my inherent sin nature.

In all of this, I knew God loved me. But because I knew of my inability to be consistently good, I imagined Him in the role of exasperated father. He was obligated by His Word to love me, but He couldn’t possibly like me very much. Just look how often I let Him down. Crappy attitudes, sinful thoughts, off-limits emotions, missing the mark, dreams that fell outside of my mission role, wishing I was not where He’d sent me. When I imagined my Heavenly Father, I saw Him rolling his eyes upward, running His hand through His hair in frustration. When I came before Him, it was always in a hangdog posture. Thank You for saving me in spite of my many, many deficiencies. I don’t know why You bother, I can’t imagine what You are possibly getting out of this, but thank You. You are so faithful. I am so not.

After a year and a bit, I hit critical mass. Looking back, I may have had or been on the brink of depression; it’s hard to say now. I missed my home culture and my friends terribly. I had lovely local friends who tried hard to include me, but the social model was completely different, and I longed for the old one. I wasn’t getting along with my dad and I couldn’t feel God at all. I found it hard to be present. My parents made the difficult decision to let me go. They offered me a choice between an American boarding school in the capital, or returning home to New Zealand. I chose home. I was 16.

Thus began a reversed cultural shift. In the Philippines with my parents, I was in home base in a strange place. Moving in with my New Zealand youth pastors, I was in a familiar place but not in home base. They lovingly opened up their home to me, but it was not the same home, of course. The rules were different, the vibe was different. They looked after me well and taught me many things. I repaid them by being a rather repellent teenage girl. I sincerely hope this behaviour helped get any kinks out of their parenting style early, so that their two small girls eventually lived to benefit from my mistakes!

The biggest thing I learned in this bustling new home was that involvement was not optional. We had stuff on every night. Those were the times: idle hands, etc. There were youth meetings and prayer meetings and church meetings and rehearsals and other young people dropping in every day. We were the hub of the church social life. I learned important ’80s words such as motivation and commitment and priorities and perseverance and purpose and zeal and faithfulness. We were in it to win it. Born to win, in fact! We shook that city; we rose up; we wanted to serve the purpose of God in our generation – and other songs.

I can’t help but applaud the zest with which our pastors and flock attacked Christian life. It was commendable and inspiring and driven by a love for God. Was it sustainable? Maybe, for some. But it was tiring. And for me, whether because I didn’t listen in the right bits or because the right bits weren’t the current emphasis, it was all about effort. And constantly trying to get the slippery inner self to keep up with the frenetic outer self. If at any time I flagged, “let us not become weary in doing good” was there to flagellate myself with on a moment’s notice. I wonder now if the correct interpretation might be “don’t burn yourself out; pace yourself, for Heaven’s sake!” But at the time, I thought this cycle of flagging and flagellation was normal. Gee up.

I have no idea how this display actually affected the unchurched people around us, whether they appreciated this all-out thirst for life and godliness and went Wow!, whether they noticed how hard we were trying to not be hypocrites. Maybe they saw us as frazzled rats on a treadmill, too worn out with Christian activities to be kind friends, too preoccupied with winning the lost to get to know them, too insulated in our exciting Christian bubble to admit the unlathered.

I boarded with the senior pastors for a short time and finished high school, moving to the city and into yet another home culture. This one seemed strangely reticent to me. Involvement was still not optional, but it was restrained. My new landlady was dumbfounded by my notion that a good Christian girl should be out every night engaged in good Christian activities. She thought that was nuts. She was right. But I was coming off the back of two years of solid sprinting for Jesus, and I resented the idea that my drive to “serve God” was being looked down on. When the opportunity to move to Australia with my best friend came up, I went. And the first thing I did was find a church that encouraged me to continue to live on overdrive. I was sold out to Jesus Christ. I had a destiny. I had a purpose. I had a calling and a mission. I had a ministry. I wanted that “Well done, My good and faithful servant!” I thought turning down ministry and involvement opportunities had to be justified with an iron-clad alibi. So I was at everything. And, to my shame, I discounted those who were not.

Imagine my surprise to discover in my 20s this newfangled thing called grace. It turned out that salvation “does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on the mercy of God.” There was a sharp sense of you’ve been doing it wrong!, and it wasn’t the last time I was to feel it.

The church, as a whole, went through something of a transition in the 90s. We were still urged to be committed and involved, but we were rediscovering the idea that God was His own agent, it wasn’t all up to us to transform either the world or our hearts. Certainly not from the ground up. It turned out that God had been planning and doing stuff and taking care of business the whole time…! And in the middle of that decade came the renovated version of the House Church movement: Cell-Based Church. After hearing all the wonders of what could be achieved if we concentrated on small group ministry, enfolding unchurched people lovingly into our world rather than yelling at them from some holy sideline, we enthusiastically adopted the idea. The problem was, we were supposed to exchange Big Church for Little Church, freeing us up from feeding the Big Beautiful Machine to actually live community lives. But what we actually did in practice was to add Little Church to Big Church – making us twice as preoccupied as before.

If you’re wondering at this point if I’ve completely wandered off topic, rest assured, dear reader, I am getting to the point. I just take a long time to get there … as you’ll have noticed in my life as well as this screed!

All of this is to help you understand that not everybody burst on the scene in 2002 going, “Oh hey, God has this thing for us called a purpose-driven life – let’s try that!” No. Some of us were already desperately ragged from decades of trying to live a purpose-driven life. And what we poor sods needed was to live a loved-driven life. And that is why, from the late ’90s to the early 2000s, God brought us what some have termed “the Princess Culture”. Because, much as the idea is attractive that God has a Huge Grand Plan for this world, and you have a Huge Grand Part to play in it, that’s not the whole story. I used to hear people say things like, “Your life is not about you, did you know that?” and “Worship is not for you, it’s for God.” These statements are designed to push people out of self-absorption and entitlement, and into the Huge Grand Plan. But when you are living in self-rejection, when, despite your best efforts, you have not changed the world or even rid yourself of your character flaws, they are further confirmation that finding your place in the love of God is a self-seeking exercise in gratification, and therefore unholy.

What. A. Gyp.

When a family adopts a child, is it their dream for that child to cower forever in the corners of the house, gnawing on a dry bread crust, because they were once outside and unworthy? Do adoptive parents have a vision of family life that involves the new child settling always for the smallest pork chop, the raggedest second-hand clothes, the tiniest amount of bathroom time, quick to apologise for breathing, trying to remain invisible and never inconvenient, all because they have received the unmerited gift of housing?

How could we ever imagine God to feel this way about us? Does the Word tell us to come cringing and downcast before the Throne of Grace, wearing our impostor syndrome, a sinner saved by some freak of Divine nature, or a glitch where we were overlooked in the count of Worthy People, or as though He had given a huge sigh and said “I suppose I’ll have to save you, too, since you’re too dumb to save yourself and I’m already invested”? Is this the definition of humility? Is this a proper use of the gift He has intentionally paid blood for? Is He really throwing good money after bad?

No. He isn’t. And yet this was my posture for years. I was trying to compensate God for saving a wretch like me, by working my guts out for Him. I thought He wanted me to remember my place. Don’t get me wrong, my purpose-driven life was an all-out belief that the purpose was worth my life. But there was resignation and anxiety behind it. And this is not what He built me for. I was adopted into the family of God. I was not adopted to snatch at crumbs under the table, fit for nothing else. No. I was adopted in the hope that I would put my shoulders back, stand in the Name bestowed upon me as a child of God, lift up my head, and take my place as a dearly-loved daughter. Because what adoptive parents want in their family is seamlessness. And God wants that too. His parenthood status is never threatened by verisimilitude; in fact, it is glorified. When an adoptive daughter lives as though she was born into that family, her adoption is proved complete, and the love of the parents is proved complete. All are served well. The family comes of age.

And I am dearly loved. Greatly loved, and made to be greatly loving. Not so that I can merely help others feel like natural children of God, with me just the lowly servant in the background, but to display that great love’s evidence in my life. Demonstrating the love of God is not only about giving to others. It’s also about showing that we live in it ourselves. And that’s why I loathe dichotomies such as “it’s not about you”. Of course it’s about me. It has to be about me. And you. And our world. And our beautiful God. It’s about all of us who are dearly loved, and it is all of us. I am important and you are important and if one side of that equation comes down, the whole equation comes down. There will be times when I have to put aside my importance, act sacrificially, when to be greatly loving requires such things of me. But my status will remain unchanged. I will not be less important; I will simply be less focused on my own importance. It’s not about negating yourself. It’s about projecting past yourself.

Ephesians 2:10 says, “We are His workmanship, created for good works in Christ, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” We are His stuff, and we do His stuff. But that’s not all. Revelation 4:11 adds, “For You have created all things, and for Your pleasure [or by Your will] they are created.” Lest we be tempted to think this will divorced from the idea of pleasure, Zephaniah 3:17 affirms that “He will rejoice over you … you will rest in His love … He will take great delight over you with singing”. That doesn’t sound like resignation, does it? It sounds like glee! And for the final clincher, early in both Old and New Testaments is the injunction that after loving God with all that’s in you, you must “love your neighbour as yourself”. If we don’t do a good job of loving ourselves, will our neighbourly love not be just as shoddy? And if our neighbourly love is top-notch, are we then not entitled to also love ourselves similarly? Again, I’m not talking about selfishness. I’m talking about equality. If the next person is worth just as much as the following, then so am I. If what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, then it’s good for the goose.

And – side note – as for “worship is for God, not for you”, well, worship is, to put it crudely, a lot like sex. When one partner physically adores the other in that intimate moment, are we going to say it’s “all about” the other partner? Is the giver not allowed to enjoy the act of giving? Does consequential pleasure negate the unselfish love in the act? And is only one partner permitted agency? Is it wrong to seek connection out of need as well as out of generosity? Who else should we go to in time of need? Is that not an expression of confidence in our partner’s love? Is that not faith?

So it is with worship. God is generous, whether we approach Him with need or with effusion. When we go all-out in our love and appreciation for Him, He cannot help but reciprocate. And we cannot help but benefit. It is truly more blessed to give than receive, but that’s because receiving is built into giving. Giving is fun – especially when the gift is perfect for the recipient. Don’t let anyone take that away from you. Worshiping God is glorious. It does not become selfish or defiled if we revel in it. Even in difficult seasons, where we worship God and don’t feel as though much is coming back toward us, we are changing and lifting our eyes and growing. And so that is what is coming back: maturity, and perspective. You can’t interact with God and not receive. He is Love, and love gives.

Preaching families of the past have been so Heaven-bent on “winning the lost” that they have failed to take into account that they might become “the lost”. I believe this is a large part of why so many PKs and MKs leave the faith. We are so busy being other-focused – sharing the love of God with the uninitiated – that we lose sight of the fact that we are ourselves loved and eligible for all the riches there are in Christ.

If you find it hard to get off the bench, then developing a purpose-driven life may be for you. But for me, I am spending the rest of my life not just fulfilling my purpose, but coming at it from the position of a loved-driven life. I am greatly loved, and made to greatly love. I believe this is bigger than, or rather defining of, my purpose. I want to love God with all I am and love my neighbour and love myself. I want to demonstrate that He loves me by loving my neighbour as He does or as if they were Him. And I will also demonstrate it by loving myself as He does and standing in the name He gave me as His daughter. Old identities are irrelevant; I’m adopted now. Because in the end there will be a reckoning: did I identify Jesus in every person who needed love, and love them accordingly? And since He is in me, did I walk in the love He said was mine, and show the world its veracity? Not that I will do any of these things perfectly. But they are the shape of the clay on the wheel.

The horns of the septuagintaunumemma

I don’t usually like to blog about controversial subjects, but I’ll give this one a crack: bathroomgate. Hold my beer … oh wait, I don’t like beer.

In the last couple of years, there has been a lot of heave-ho on the subject of gender, with one statistic claiming to have identified 71 different gender identities. (I scoffed at first, but there is in fact some science behind this.) There has been further argument that in most public places, only two of these gender identities are provided with bathroom facilities, leaving those outside the traditional definitions faced with awkward options or none. Discussions got even more volatile as battle lines were drawn up: you were either okay with your cage being rattled, or you were a cretin. One side argued, fairly enough, that a person who felt and dressed female, despite their male anatomy, would not feel safe in the men’s room; women argued back that they (with female anatomy) then wouldn’t feel safe in the women’s room. It got heated. I suspect the whole issue became even more wretched and miserable for the poor trans people caught in the middle of the argument. The key issue is, how to we cater for all, so that nobody feels either unsafe or marginalised?

I’ll get there, but let me frame things up a bit first.

The trouble with feelings and fears is that you can’t shout them out of existence. You can quote statistics at women, saying that trans ladies do not attack women in the women’s room, and that real predators don’t usually go to the trouble of masquerading as a trans lady in order to do such a thing; but you won’t necessarily allay a person’s fears, because fears are feelings, and feelings aren’t always rational. They can be generated from misconceptions and still be experienced just as powerfully as logical thought, perhaps more so. Its immediacy is what gives a feeling its validity – not its veracity. Feelings carry a bias that leaks over into (or from) a person’s biology. A fear is not a sin, however irrational it may be. It must be overcome with patience and understanding, quiet logic expressed kindly, taking baby steps. Berating someone because their feelings aren’t politically correct is not going to give the desired result. It’s certainly not going to make the person less isolationist. And while we’re talking about feelings, I must emphasise that feelings are important, but not paramount. Just because I have a particular feeling, doesn’t mean you all have to get down on your knees and worship it. It does mean that you have to take my word for it that that is what’s going on inside me. And you are allowed to address that feeling, which, handled respectfully, will take you much further than either denying or decrying it.

Speaking as a woman who is just 156cm tall (5’1½”), I have to always keep a look out of the corner of my eye for scary people who outweigh me, and until I plumped out in my 40s, that was everyone. So here’s what women are talking about: there is always, always a lingering fear in the back of your head, that someone, sometime, will overpower you and do bad things to you. And it’s because, of all the humans, you have the least muscle mass, second only to children – at the bottom of the food chain, so to speak. Any slightly-built man knows he doesn’t want to face down a strapping big hulk of a guy. But to most women, both the slightly-built man and the strapping big hulk of a guy represent Someone Who Outweighs And Outguns Me. And to small women, we’re even a little nervous about strapping big women – not that they’ll sexually assault us, but they might rob or hit us if they’re an aggressive type of person. But knowing that women, on the whole, aren’t all that interested in being physically aggressive, we feel reasonably confident that when we walk into a women’s room, there’s a very low chance that someone will be in there who intends to harm us for fun. Personally I wouldn’t expect a trans woman to be physically aggressive either, because it doesn’t seem to line up with that self-view. But she is still going to outweigh and outgun me. So no matter who is in there, I hold on tight to my handbag, and feel much less nervous if there are a couple of other “potential witnesses” in there. It’s very tiring, being vigilant at the bottom of the food chain. We have to think about it every time we go out. Stick to well-lit and well-frequented places, and don’t stick your neck out. At least, that’s my experience.

So, we may end up with only unisex bathrooms, where not one single person feels completely comfortable or safe, at least not initially; or we may end up with three or more designated gender stalls. We may reach an utterly ludicrous place where we look at the “outweighing” factor, and designate the stalls simply Featherweight, Middleweight and Heavyweight. It would solve the mental “I could defend myself in this room” issue, but it would bring a whole slew of other dramas. Who wants to face a row of stalls and admit their weight, either to themselves or to others? How demoralising. Damaging, even, to have to go there. And, obviously, a 150kg young male boxing champion is not evenly matched with a 150kg white haired lady who watches Oprah all day. So bulk designations aren’t the answer to safety either.

I submit to you that we are going about this all backwards.

We shouldn’t be attacking the bathrooms. We should be attacking the stereotypes.

Who decides what it is to be a man? Who decides what it is to be a woman? Where do we get the concepts “this is masculine” and “this is feminine”? Why oh why do we stick with them? Why do we push them onto other people?

Christians may well bring up, at this point, a couple of key Bible verses. The first is, obviously, “and He made them male and female”. You may be surprised to learn that in some interpretations, the verse goes on to say, “male and female He created him [not them].” Since the world tsela, “rib”, can also mean “side”, either in the sense of a boat, a house wall, or a coin, some scholars believe Adam literally may have had two faces before being separated out into two people, Adam and Eve. Adam could have literally had his feminine side removed! If you think about it in terms of cell mitosis, or twins, it could even have happened at an embryonic stage. But however it was done, there is no proof whatsoever that Eve liked pink frilly things and Adam liked a few beers on a Saturday night. In fact, Eve sounds reasonably independent, and Adam a little petulant … just sayin’.

The next thing would be tackling the prohibition against cross-dressing in Deuteronomy 22. It says that the Lord detests anyone who does this. But what are we talking about? Are we talking about a squick, or are we possibly talking about fraud? I don’t have enough scholarly background on this to know for sure. But I do know that God hates fraud and lies. So I submit to you that it’s just possible that what He detests is someone masquerading as something they’re not. If there are privileges, leniencies or opportunities up for grabs and you have to cheat to get them – that could be what He’s talking about. If you are intentionally humiliating someone else by leading them a merry chase – that could be what He’s talking about. I can’t be sure. I just want to present the idea that it may not, after all, be about squick. And while we’re talking about masquerading as something you’re not … that is exactly what trans people are trying to avoid. They feel, if I’m understanding them correctly, like actors when obeying the role rules of their biological genders.

Can’t we just have a penis stall and a vagina stall, and leave the expectations of dress and demeanour out of it? In this scenario – imagine there’s no role rules – if you have a penis, it shouldn’t matter if you are thin, muscled, short, tall, wearing jeans, wearing a dress, have additional genital components, like fishing, like embroidery, or how many syllables your favourite drinks have – you pee in the urinal. And if you have a vagina, it shouldn’t matter if you have a prickle cut, a perm, a boyfriend, a girlfriend, additional genital parts, a motorbike, or a Barbie collection – you get the cubicle with the sanitary disposal box. Because no matter who you feel like you are, if you have a willy, you have the privilege of peeing standing up. And if you have a vagigi, you may at some point need the box. Your dress sense doesn’t come into it.

Can’t we translate that to life, to culture? Can’t we be who we are without being told we must seem a certain way because of our apparatus?

If we can all learn to accept each other without assigning attributes to our pink bits, maybe that would be better than ripping up the English language and the plumbing. 2c.

Agape at agape

 

If love longs for response, does that nullify the purity of the love?

If love is truly self-forgetfulness … yet the lover yearns to be loved back … how can we say it forgets itself? It might be perfectly natural – but can we call it pure?

Are humans even capable of agape, the unconditional type of love? Not even the best intentions of our heart are unmixed with self-interest. God understands this: He builds self-interest into His appeals to us. Even the most altruistic person, giving their life for their child or partner, must surely count the cost – and have their about-to-be-cut-off future flash before their eyes. Even Jesus asked that if possible, the cup might pass from Him.

I wonder if maybe pure love then is not so much restricted to Level: God, but that even in the face of cutting off all possible futures, or in the face of unrequitedness, or crucifixion, love, having counted the cost, scoffs at it and persists. Jesus, in that agonised moment where He maybe couldn’t feel love enough for us (catching Z’s in the background while He sweated blood), loved and trusted and sumbitted to His Father, who had previously set the joy of human redemption before Him. When you can’t remember all of why you go on, you fix on one sure thing. For Jesus, it was His Father’s will, and wrapped up in that was the why of the will: Their love for humanity and the display of Their glory as Love demonstrated its true colours to all realms. Maybe the purest love is simply the doggedest. If three things remain – faith, hope and love (the greatest) – maybe they remain because they just don’t know when to quit. They say, “I will go to my deathbed believing in you. I will go to my deathbed hoping you’ll respond. I will go to my deathbed remaining there for you, whether you appreciate it or not.”

I wonder if this is what the Prodigal Son’s father experienced. “One day, he’ll come back. One day, he’ll come to his senses. And when he does, I’ll be here, and I’ll meet him with joy.” Certainly this is how God treats us, in this interstice between the Resurrection and the Return. The massive, incredible gift of His heart sits unopened on many a mantelpiece. And He waits.

I hear a lot about how love is a verb: it’s not what you say or what you feel, but what you do. It’s less about attraction and more about commitment. There’s a great deal of truth in that, though I think the very best love encompasses all three. The point there is that love, like a bank balance, either finds expression or is redundant. But sometimes … in some circumstances … I think love waits, and that waiting is a kind of action as well. Waiting sounds passive. But sometimes action is denied us. Or, we’ve done everything in our power and the ship has sailed anyway. So we must wait. But in the waiting, when all our faith and hope and love are bent toward the subject, we’re praying for their wellbeing, we’re blessing them, we’re ensuring our setup is good to go, we’re offering for God to change us where necessary. And we’re seeing an opportunity to expand our own heart. How else can we grow in love, unless love is stretched past its comfort zone? If my long-range value is that I wish to become a more loving person, then in each moment, who am I choosing to become? Someone who sniffles at the sunset, or someone who sets her face to the sunrise?

Oh, but it’s not easy. I absolutely do not know where the line is between being the ultimate “there for you” loving person, and sticking up for my non-doormat self because Scripture expects me to love myself as well – and because I am not, after all, made of stone. I hurt. The simplest answers can be the hardest to live out. But today, in this moment, I’ll give it a red-hot go.

Bridge Song

Been talking
Been walking out
Every day

Enfolding
Been holding out
Anything at halfway

Apple blossom, olive branch,
All you see’s an arrow
It’s my aim to love you
But I fear you just feel harrowed

Been balking
But been walking out
Every day

Been trudging
Been judging me
And falling shorter

Been crying
Been trying to feel
Outside my corner

Longer this goes on,
Your analgesic tolls on me
And yet, where is it written
That these crooked roads must meet?

Been grudging
But been trudging out
Every day

Been falling
Been calling out
Over the rush

Been stranger
Been changing now
Drowned out by the hush

In my hands a heart on offer
Naked in the wind
Laid out in the centre
Where I’ve chosen to be pinned

Been stalling
But been calling out
Every day