Penned Up

I feel like a fraud.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

www.beckoncreative.biz/publishing

The Space Between

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another In The Fire lyrics © Hillsong Music Publishing Australia

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

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

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

Heroes, Part II: Dream Small

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sideways Gospel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does God get out of it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s in it for you?

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

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

So where do we get this sort of faith?

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

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

Are we there yet?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Depending

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

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

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

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

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

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

Re-potting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whitewash

I’m having trouble getting this song to work in the cadence I want, and it’s not too consistent yet — but I’m liking the lyrics, so I thought I’d share them.

People are falling off the Christian wagon left and right. They are not lost. They are reconfiguring. This is a good thing, a necessary step towards authenticity. Be patient with them. God is in the mix.

 

WHITEWASH
© Rebekah Robinson 2019

Put down your brush, heavy head
You’ve been painting so long
Let fall that can, it feels like lead
You can’t carry it, and stay strong

Been painting over doubt
Covering the pain
That we don’t talk about
The scar and the stain
Elephants and flies
Persistent truths and lies
Let it all go …

And come to Me
Bring Me all the hard questions
Come to Me
Sit with Me in pain
Come to Me
I will give you rest.

Laying aside the fight with issues that linger
No wonder you feel free
Getting to the bottom, to raw timber
There you will find Me

Been filling in the blanks
With activities
Coming in with tanks
At anomalies
Minimise the horses
Emphasise the carts
Signing up for courses
Bending broken hearts
Let it all go …

And come to Me
Bring Me all the hard questions
Come to Me
Sit with Me in pain
Come to Me
I will give you rest.

Strip down the walls
Peel the layers off
Bare timber
Bare timber … and Me
There you are
And here am I.

Someone to Look Up To

Announcing the launch of my very first book: SOMEONE TO LOOK UP TO – A Lay View of Leadership. Yay!!! It’s a feedback book about doing church leadership well. You can get it here or from your favourite store.

This book scooped up several of these blog pieces, and a heapin’ helpin’ of extra thoughts around church leadership and the way we approach it.

I’m connected to a lot of leaders. One of the trends I noticed last year was that when people posted about what they were learning in their leadership seminars, the quotes seemed very … strident. Almost anti-congregation. It was as if new leaders were being trained to see themselves as a totally different, and oppositional, race from those they wished to lead. It was all very Them and Us. It was coming from several unconnected sources. It put my back up.

In addition to this, as some of you know, I’m a spiritual abuse survivor, so issues around leadership (especially combative leadership) hit all my triggers. And since the bulk of the leadership I actually engage in centres around my parenting, and I’ve had no luck with yesterday’s parenting methods, I began to see that yesterday’s church leadership styles weren’t headed for a stunning future either. And that this would be especially true of adversarial approaches. In the words of Patrick Lencioni, today’s kids “need to weigh in before they can buy in”.

I had very good leadership classes when I was in Bible college, but I don’t remember ever being taught much about spiritual abuse: how to identify it, how to avoid suffering it, how to avoid perpetrating it, how to recover from it.

Well, these three gaps – adversarial approaches, out of date approaches, and harmful approaches – coalesced in my head under the working title Consultative Leadership. I wrote 5,000 words on that first day. That was June 2018 (it’s now September 2019). I am almost finished the study-guide notebook that goes with. It’s my hope that the book (and its guide) find their way into rotation in Christian leadership classes and colleges. On a smaller scale, you can do the study in a connect group as well. There’s plenty in the book to interest observers of leadership as well as its agents.

I’ve started a Facebook author page here, and this is my website.

The book is 182 pages long, has 13 chapters, is easy to read, and is friendly in tone. I hope you enjoy it. I hope it gives you some handy pointers, big signposts, and food for thought. I hope it encourages you and helps you thrive.

 

Listing in the storm

I may not be CEO of this house, but I am certainly Managing Director. I am overwhelmed with checklists. I need a shower and breakfast every morning to function. My doctor wants me to exercise daily. My physio wants me to do a range of stretches for every 30 minutes I sit. Nutritionists want me to eat a ridiculous amount of veges every day and drink 2L water. I need to invent, plan, shop for and balance all the meals for all the family (adding for variety, seasonal availability, and budget). I need to monitor all the rooms, the cupboards, and the fridge for items that need replacing, trying or adding. I need to water the plants every day. I need to keep old food out of the fridge, clutter from the surfaces, dirty dishes done or queued to be done. A certain amount of housework and cleaning should be done – toilets, floors, benchtop etc. I need to marshal all the people in the house who do chores to actually do them. I need to memorise and plan around everyone’s schedule, including my own. I need to take care of the emotional needs of my family and be sure to spend time with them. There is a brief five minutes of bliss at some point when all the laundry is done. If I go out, I need to check the petrol (and once a month the oil and tyres). I need to pass on/pay the bills. I need to pray and read my Bible. I need to be involved in church and be diligent with my ministry.  I need to be in a life group. I need to not neglect my friends. I need to run my business/job/career. And I need to find time for self-care. Smiling, and exhibiting the fruit of the Spirit. All of this, every day. And I’m supposed to look pretty while I do it.

We were raised with a checklist, girls like me, pre-feminist. There was always this sentence in the back of your mind: “You’ll never get a husband if you don’t …”  These days a girl has more options for her future security than the acquisition of a sugar daddy. But she wants to be loved, she wants to be cherished and found fascinating. She hopes that the man she chooses, or who chooses her, will be the repository of all the beauty in her heart, as well as the eager recipient of her bodily favours. Sometimes, she chases him until he catches her.

The invisible checklist sits at the front door, but it can sometimes lurk in the bathroom and in the small hours of the night. Many of these items become automatic as time goes by, but I’m listing them because when you think about the number of considerations a woman has to have in play, every single day of her life, it’s quite overwhelming and you understand why we’re stressed and sometimes resentful. The fear is that if we don’t keep this checklist humming, we’ll “let ourselves go” and become frumpy or skanky. We run the risk of contempt. As we age, it’s hard to let go of the list, even though on some level we realise that nobody expects us, in middle age, to look fabulous. We’re aware that this is all very superficial. We’re aware that it’s not very feminist. But it’s written into us and it’s hard to break free from it. It’s hard to want to. So, if we navigate this list well, we kinda want kudos for it.

It’s variations on the following:-

  • Have you showered?
  • Thoroughly?
  • Today?
  • Washed your hair?
  • Styled your hair?
  • Does your hair colour suit you?
  • Does your regrowth need doing?
  • Does your hairstyle give maximum effect to your face?
  • Is it sitting nicely with enough product to give it shape but not so much that it’s like a piece of armour?
  • Need a haircut?
  • Put on deodorant? Maybe add some perfume.
  • Are your clothes clean?
  • Ironed?
  • Fashionable?
  • Do they go well together?
  • Are they appropriate for the occasion?
  • Do they make the right statement?
  • Do the colours work for you?
  • Are they too old/young for you?
  • Do they accentuate bulges you’d rather hide?
  • Do they cover what they should cover?
  • Are you being a stumbling-block?
  • Are you being yourself?
  • Are you representing Christ well?
  • Does your handbag match your shoes?
  • Do you have everything in it that you or your companions may possibly need while you’re out? (Purse, keys, phone, paracetamol, tampons, nail file, tiny scissors, lipstick, chapstick, comb, mirror, business cards, USB, safety pin, hair tie, toothpick, mints, tissues, wet wipes, sanitiser, water, reusable shopping bags, cards and/or card app)
  • Are your nails clean?
  • Well shaped?
  • A matched set?
  • All chipped nailpolish removed?
  • How about your toenails?
  • And your heels?
  • And your elbows?
  • Do you need sunscreen?
  • Have you shaved/waxed/lasered/depilated your legs?
  • Are they brown?
  • Have you done your armpits?
  • Is your bikini line tidy (or non-existent)?
  • Have you brushed your teeth?
  • Flossed?
  • Cleaned your ears?
  • Are you toned?
  • Checked your jewellery matches your outfit?
  • Have you plucked your eyebrows?
  • Checked your face for pimples?
  • Blackheads?
  • Stray hairs?
  • Cleansed and exfoliated?
  • Put on moisturiser? You want to stave off wrinkles as long as you can.
  • Do you need makeup?
  • Is it too thick?
  • Too thin?
  • Too dated?
  • Wrong colours for you?
  • Is there lipstick on your teeth?
  • Do your lashes look long?
  • Are you wearing a bra?
  • Is it working?
  • Does it show through your clothes?
  • Are you drinking enough water?
  • Do you look pretty and well-put-together?
  • If you ran into an old friend would you feel confident in your presentation?
  • Is your period due soon? You might need to watch your tone and reactions, and the condition of your skin, and pack extra supplies.
  • Have you taken your Pill/medication/vitamins?
  • Are there pet hairs on your clothes? Do you smell like dog? Have you washed your hands?
  • Are there any baby poo/vomit/food/milk stains/dark circles visible?
  • Do you have enough time/energy/relationship stock/cash/petrol/toll credit for this outing?
  • Put on a smile. Be nice. Blend in. Keep up.

Some men will argue that they are unaware of and not at all looking for completion of this list. Others will add to it (there are men out there who will judge a date on the quality of her nether trimming, to which the only proper response is, if you’re lucky enough to get invited there, take what you’re given with profound gratitude, bozo!) The point is that there are lots of expectations on women – far more than those on men. Whether or not we are judged by men, we feel judged by society at large, because we have been taught to judge ourselves. We’re pretty certain other women are judging us. We have internalised a paranoid system where we scan ourselves every day for flaws, and feel the need to apologise or hide if we accidentally overlook one. And our partners wonder why we lack confidence.

Not every woman, of course. But women like me. Anxious, impressionable, prissy me. I know a lot of this is pride.

Right now, on the cusp of a challenging season, I am low on steam, and I am finding my strength in God for perhaps the first time. List aside, I am desperately asking for Him to be my refuge and to lend me His strength. And He’s doing that. He’s wonderful. I am clinging tightly to Him, and I am managing not because I am heroic but because He is all-sufficient. I don’t want to ride His coattails only until I am “strong enough” to do life without Him. No. He and I, we don’t want to do life separately. I want His strength every day. Continuing to ask for it will be a test I’ll have to pass when today’s trials are over.

In a normal parent-child relationship, the parent delights in the autonomy of the grown child. He expects the young person to individuate and become their own pilot. But my relationship with Jesus is not precisely or only that of a parent and a child. It is also a Lover-beloved relationship. And in that kind of committed covenant, the goal is not increased independence, but increased intimacy. And weirdly, I’m finding that the more of Him I borrow, the more myself I can become – that is to say, who I am expands. It’s not a case of not growing up, but of growing outwards, growing new skills. Leaning on Him does not limit or stunt me in the slightest. He is not a crutch. He is an armoury.

People used to say cryptic things to me like, “Don’t do it in your own strength,” and “Rely on God.” I had NO IDEA what they meant or how to implement that. Without context, they sounded like nonsense phrases. But in this place of desperation I feel a closeness to God. I feel Him helping me.