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.

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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

Clipboard

There’s a man who follows me ’round with a clipboard
.    Takes off points when I mess up
All day long, they come off wrong, I come on strong
.   And at night, I have to ‘fess up

What I wouldn’t give for 24 hours in a row
Without the need to apologise
What I wouldn’t take to be sure I’m not alone
To look the clipboard man in the eyes

There’s a sign hanging over my head like a verdict
.    Too uneven, not parallel
No relent, constant repent, can’t pay this rent
.    Bar keeps moving closer to hell

What I wouldn’t give for 24 hours in a row
Without the need to apologise
What I wouldn’t take to be sure I’m not alone
To look the clipboard man in the eyes

And blink
And breathe
And think
At ease

Admissions

 

“Dear Abby” Van Buren once said, “The church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.” As I begin my therapy journey today, I feel very much like the proverbial patient. I’m asking myself ridiculous questions, such as, “Should I put on makeup so I have at least one thing to feel good about? Or will I just cry it all off anyway? Should I wear a naked face to help me undress my heart?”

I’ve never had a problem appearing “naked” before God. I was raised on the twin ideas of inherent sin and an omniscient God; there’s never been any point hiding the Real Me ™ from Him. He sees me to my spiritual bones. I’ve never had too much of a problem baring my soul to my friends, either. I’m not gifted with a mask, so I gave up trying to create one, except for times when it’s plain my honesty will be inappropriate or weigh someone down. I’ve tried hard all my life to avoid the label of “Christian hypocrite” by opting for transparency instead, even to the point of answering “How are you?” truthfully. In the immortal words of Indigo Girls, “Maybe there’s no haven in this world for tender age/ My heart beat like the wings of wild birds in a cage/ My greatest hope my greatest cause to grieve/ And my heart flew from its cage, and it bled upon my sleeve.”

But today I am about to show the ugliest parts of my inner self to a psychologist (and I’ve picked one I know, one who understands my theological point of view). I’m a little nervous about the social implications of that.

Imagine – suspending the obvious issue of modesty – if we all went to church in hospital gowns. Maybe the Salvos have it right: uniform is a great leveler and reminder of who we are. Picture this: you arrive at the church door and are ushered to a changing booth, where you doff your street clothes and put on your hospital gown. You spend the entirety of the church service with your back exposed, as does everyone else. The songleader wears a hospital gown. The preacher wears a hospital gown. Everyone in the room is a patient.

Someone walking in is not going to be met by a cadre of well-dressed, successful, “be-like-us” professional-looking Christians. Instead, they are going to know themselves (a) in the company of people who all acknowledge that they need help, and (b) in a place where help is offered, no matter how long it takes you to get well. Anyone can ask for help. Nobody can hide their status. Everyone is in an attitude of awkward humility, but also sharing in the camaraderie of all being in this unusual boat together.

Of course we can’t wear hospital gowns to church, and most of us will recoil in horror at the very idea. But the point stands: we will reach a whole different set of people with less gloss and more grit.

The idea, then, is to find a way to be fully dressed as well as fully drossed. Here’s what I want to honestly say as a member of my church.

I may not have the best testimony because I am not an unqualified success, or my miracle hasn’t happened, or hasn’t happened yet, or I never had a watershed moment. My life has been two steps forward and one back, lather rinse repeat; and I’m still living with xyz and I have no answer for why. Hearing people give their shiny testimonies about how, unlike me, God delivered them from their deal in an instant, makes me want to punch them. I mean, I’m happy for them, and glad their words help some; but I can’t accept the idea that if you just had enough faith you’d get your healing too … ergo, your sickness is your fault. Make no mistake, there’s healing here. But if, like me, your miracle hasn’t come overnight, well, there’s love here too. Love looks to the long haul. And the failure to break through is not because you don’t have enough faith: Jesus said you only needed a tiny bit. So don’t tell yourself you’re disqualified. Yes, look into other factors, but know that there are people here who will journey with you whether you get your miracle or not. Because we don’t just celebrate success. We celebrate a God who loves us no matter how unsuccessful we are. He died for us in the midst of our terrible failure, because we needed Him to. It would have been pointless if He’d done it as a reward for what we could achieve with our own positive thinking & action.

What brings God glory? He is no doubt glorified when people tell of the wondrous things He’s done for them. He’s done a few for me, too! But here’s the most wondrous thing I’ve seen Him do for me and my family: He has stuck with us. And that is my testimony. I’m still on my journey toward breakthrough – let me not at all diminish your hope that yours is coming too! – and  I don’t have to go it alone. My brothers and sisters are walking beside me, because we’re all just walking each other home anyway. And He’s with us to the end.

I Also Ran

Lately I’ve been sitting with my daughter while she does her Year 12 assignment on Tiananmen Square. We talked about quality of life issues and human rights, and I described the paranoia we had in the ’80s over Communism, and the terrible things done to Christians behind the Iron Curtain. She asked me if I would die for my faith, or recant under torture, trusting in God’s power to forgive.

I wanted to say, “Yes, absolutely” – but I had to admit that I didn’t know. I would like to think I could stick it out to the bitter end, but I know perfectly well that I’m not a very courageous person. I’m far more reed than rock. Put me in a room where there’s even a verbal confrontation, and my mojo evaporates! A quick flick through Foxe’s Book Of Martyrs is a very confronting thing. I’m totally intimidated by saints, both ancient and modern, who have suffered for their faith. For me, it would take a special, 11th-hour, God-given sort of backbone to endure under torture. No amount of working up to it seems to have benefitted me. I remember trying to toughen myself up, from as far back as the age of 12, but all it seems to have done is (a) give me a sharp and bitter tongue, and (b) feed a persecution complex. In short, trying to be someone I’m not, results in ugliness. So I’m going to have to once more place my reliance in the Holy Spirit, because I don’t think I have what it takes, and I’m going to have to be okay with that.

I’m kind of in good company here. Saint Peter didn’t start out brave; he started out bravado. Put a sword in his hand and he’ll wave it about; but put him in a courtyard next to the place where his notorious best friend is being ruthlessly shredded, and, well … who wants to be next? In that moment he can totally understand why Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea only ever came to see Jesus on the sly. They had so much more to lose; maybe, he thinks in that awful heartbeat, they were the smart ones.

I don’t know if they were smart or not. Nicodemus, a Jewish man with a humanist “people power” Greek name – I imagine him as urbane, educated, used to moving in the best circles, treading a tightrope between the Pharisees, the Sanhedrin, and the Romans – brought his questions to Jesus under cover of night. Joseph the tin merchant was a wealthy businessman who believed but was sensitive to public opinion, so he is described as a “secret believer”. These weren’t people who stood up for their faith in Jesus “and consequences be damned”. They were hedgers and, to some extent, cowards … like me.

So can a cowardly person do anything good for God? I have good news for you. Yes, they can. You might not be the magnificent Deborah, leading the armies of Israel against the oppressors of Canaan. But you might be tentwife Jael – married to a turncoat, but a girl who knows how to nail in a good tent peg. You might be Nicodemus – not very brave, but you’ve got influence in high places when you need to use it. You might be Joseph of Arimathea – precious about your reputation, but you’ve got money at your fingertips. You might be Peter, who’s either all talk or brash action, but who freezes if he lets himself overthink.

Let me tell you about what these frightened people did. They were the lever that moved the world. Their actions – done off-stage for the most part – were pivotal moments in God’s plan. Jael assassinated the Bin Laden of her day, because opportunity knocked and she simply used what she had in her hand. Nicodemus prompted one of Jesus’ best sermons, which includes the world’s most famous Bible verse; and as my pastor Nick pointed out today, was so moved from darkness to light that he provided twice the burial spices for Jesus that the average royal person received, underlining Jesus’ status as the King of Kings. Joseph took the gospel to Britain, and Britain took the gospel to all of Europe and beyond. Spotlight-hating Peter preached to several thousand people on the Day of Pentecost. He worked among the Jews to show them that their Messiah was suffering servant, Passover lamb AND coming King. He was martyred, but by then his courage and humility were such that he insisted on being crucified upside down, saying he wasn’t worthy to die the same way as Jesus. He was the fisherman who shook the world.

Scared? Intimidated? Self-conscious? Brand-protective? Don’t have a kick-ass testimony? Feel like you’re not a very good Christian? Think you’re not hero material, that you’re just an also-ran? It doesn’t matter. God has always used the foolish things to shame the wise, and the visionary things to shame the tangible. Don’t be paralysed by what you see as your disqualifications. Worry about being brave later. Today, just have a look and see what’s in your hand, and do what you can. See where it takes you.