Category Archives: Church

I wonder how Jesus felt about someone else carrying his cross

The cross is where we see Jesus at his most human and most divine. It is heart breaking to read about his anguish, even though we know the triumph to come. This in itself is something Jesus understood – when his friend Lazarus has died (John 11:38-44), Jesus wept even though he knew that in a moment he would raise him to life again.

I feel this emotional pain when I read the account of Jesus‘ arrest and crucifixion. My heart breaks for him when he struggles with God’s will and yet accepts it. Even when an angel appears and strengthens him, Jesus is still in anguish and “he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.” (Luke 22:42-44).

And this is because of me, I think. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. This is what the cross means. This is what Jesus’ suffering means. His anguish, his pain, his fear, his sorrow – it was mine. It was my fault.

Even though I know what it means. Even though I know what happened next, is still feel the sting of shame that it was my sin that put him there.

And yet even this shame of someone else carrying our punishment is something that Jesus felt. In Luke 23:26 we see that “as they led him away, they seized Simon of Cyrene, who was on his way in from the country, and put the cross on him and made him carry it behind Jesus.

As I was reading in my quiet time, this stood out starkly to me as I contemplated my shame. Jesus, on the road to his own crucifixion, having accepted the will of God, even though bodily broken, was forced to accept the suffering of another on his account.

The crossbar of the cross is estimated to have weighed around 32-42 kilograms (or 70-90 pounds) and the whole cross in the order of 136 kilograms (or 300 pounds). Even carrying the crossbar would have been a struggle for Simon on a long journey through jeering crowds along hot dusty roads to the crucifixion site – the whole cross so much more. And Simon must have tripped and strained and stumbled his way behind Jesus. And Jesus, walking in front, knew he was there. And knew he must have been suffering.

If I was Jesus, I would have felt shame. Shame for the pain of Simon, picked out of the crowd at random and forced to suffer because of me.

But this is where again we remember that Jesus was fully human. He felt what I feel when I contemplate the cross. He knows and understands us and our emotions so well – because he felt them.

And this is where I remember not to stay in my shame. You see, shame is a spur to correct behaviour. It’s a trigger to change the heart. It’s not a place we should stay. Because I am aware of my sin, I feel shame. That shame is a spur for me to breathe life into my faith with deeds – deeds of gratitude and obedience to the one who saved me, the one who gave everything for me.

The shame leads me to a gratitude deeper than an ocean. He did this for me – for all of us – while we were still sinners. While we didn’t know him, while we ignored him, while we held him on the cross with our sins. The expanse of God’s mercy is breathtaking.

And Jesus, our saviour, our shepherd, our treasure. So human. So divine. It’s unfathomable. And yet we can see these little glimpses in the gospels of the state of his heart, which in turn helps us to understand the glory of his divinity.

Read the gospels again. Read the crucifixion accounts. Hear his words. Feel his pain. And remember his glory. Because God’s actions are about the glory, not about the shame. Let your shame take you to gratitude, and as we celebrate this Easter, let us bow down and worship at his feet, because he deserves everything we have.

Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Luke 23:34

We must be a life-line for those in self-isolation

Whether you’re in Australia, the US, Italy, China, Singapore or Timbuktu, we are all facing the realities of the COVID-19, or corona virus, pandemic. I’m not going to go into the panic buying (although that is shocking) and I’m not going to post prayers as I hope that’s a feature of all our responses as Christians.

What I want to talk about is how we support people in isolation. At the moment that might not be so many, but the number may increase, and potentially quite dramatically.

Parents with kids may look on this with a heavy heart. Some who will be working from home might initially jump at the idea. Some introverts might even look forward to the idea of being able to catch up on all that reading.

But there’s a hidden risk in self-isolation that may only become apparent when we’re in it – and that is an impact to our emotional health and mental well-being.

There are four aspects of this:

  1. We need interaction. Humans are social creatures. Even for us introverts and ambiverts, we need contact and communication. For extroverts, who are energised by being around other people, being stuck in the home can be especially difficult. We can go about our daily routine, work-from-homers can hold our meetings and so on via connective technology, but we’re missing the communication that we get in church, at the play group or at the office that is of vital importance to emotional health and mental well-being. We miss the water-cooler talk, the chats over lunch, the side comments after something funny or annoying happens, the coffee runs, the post-weekend catch ups. In other words, the day-to-day nothingness that enriches our day in community with others. Without it for prolonged periods of time, this can become a slow track into adverse mental health. It provides fertile ground for people being in their own heads too much – unproductive and circular negative thinking – which can lead downwards into depression.
  2. We need a pressure valve. We work in industries and live lives that can involve high pressure situations, whether that means deadlines and aggressive project timeframes, or relentless energy being poured into aging parents or multiple children. One of our coping mechanisms can be the interaction with others in the same situation. It helps us to talk and laugh and blow off steam. Being in isolation can mean that coping mechanism is removed.
  3. People are experiencing fear on top of fear. There have been a lot of scary things happening in the last few months. There’s been the Amazonian and Australian bushfires, floods in Australia and the UK – and now this. These are real life events that we’re used to seeing in disaster movies. Except this is not Hollywood. This is real. This can cause very real feelings of fear and uncertainty. When people are dealing with this on top of their day-to-day real life, this can very quickly become hopelessness. And when people feel hopeless and helpless, they can begin to despair.
  4. The home may represent additional pressure. People’s home lives can come with extra stresses on a normal day, and more so if working/existing in isolation. There could be elderly parents to take care of and kids that becomes extra pressured if fixed within four walls. The home situation might not even be a safe one for them. The world outside the home could be the place that they go to every day that represents safety and security and fellowship. These people could be facing compounded pressures at home during this time that reduces their coping mechanisms. In a time of additional stress and pressure, it could even be a potentially more dangerous place for them.

This sounds very dramatic, but even a fraction of what I’m talking about can mean that we have people working and living in isolation in a way that can have long reaching effects.

As Christians, I would hope that we have a better handle on this supporting people even under normal conditions, let alone a crazy scary time like this. But even we might have to get more creative as we have to limit personal contact and practice social distancing.

What can we do? We need to check in with each other for no reason – create opportunities for that water-cooler talk. Think about doing that over facetime or Skype so you can have a cuppa and see each others faces.

Host a watch party so you can gather as people for something fun and people don’t feel alone. (Even, as a worker from home, host a watch party with you work team of a TED talk or something).

Go back to Old School days and send cards in the mail. Leave notes or flowers or small gifts at people’s doors. Call and pray with people over the phone. Maybe even link everyone in via Skype to have a Bible study – the point is to not just stay connected personally but to stay connected spiritually. When we are under pressure, when there is fear and uncertainty, our faith can take a battering. Remember in the Garden – “Did God really say….?”. All it takes is a shadow of doubt and our faith can fade into the noise of panic. Let God’s light shine in the darkness, even when we are hard pressed on all sides – and help each other to do it. Lets get creative in our care.

There are a lot of ways we can stay connected even when we are far apart. As a community of believers, this is an area we can excel. We are called to have mercy and compassion. Lets get creative with our application so in these uncertain times, we can glorify God and express His character through our outstanding and visible kindness and thoughtfulness.

Does the Bible oppress women or not?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. A while back I wrote a blog on sexual coercion in marriage  followed by a live Q&A on the same subject with GuruNow  (you can watch it here). There were a lot of questions and a lot of discussion afterwards – it touched a nerve for a lot of women. What was apparent was many feelings of frustration, feelings of being treated differently – not in the “equal and different” sense but in the “equal but inferior” sense. What it brought up for me, was a tangle of doctrine and culture that had apparently become intertwined over the centuries and that desperately needed to be untangled.

Over the years, the church has been accused of oppressing women and allowing abuse to happen. There has been an equal push of denial from the other side. The result is each camp has been pushed to opposite extremes with one side pushed into an (apparently) increasingly conservative corner and the other pushed into feeling they actually have to fight for their corner. The result is women feeling further ignored, frustrated and oppressed. The result is also the church feeling under attack from within. Neither of these is a good outcome.

To find equal ground we have to strip away centuries of cultural barnacles and try and get to the truth. When I say “truth” I mean the truth as communicated to us by God Himself. What did God say? What did Jesus communicate? Are we equal and different? Or equal and inferior?

Much is made of Genesis 2:18 in which God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” For a long time, the assumption has been that as man was created first, he is more important. Women were created second and are merely helpers. What this ignores though is the ontological equality – that is, as image bearers, men and women are equal in being. One is not inferior to the other.

What it also ignores is the nature of the term “suitable helper”. The Hebrew word that has been translated as “helper” is ezer and it is used elsewhere in the Bible in a context that challenges our understanding. In Psalm 89:17 “For you [God] are their [the Israelites] glory and strength.” The last word here has been translated as “strength” but is ezer. God is Israel’s ezer.

John McKinley* notes that “the issue in ezer is neither equality nor subordination, but distinction and relatedness. She is to be for the man as an ally to benefit him in the work they were given to do. Just as ezer tells of God’s relatedness to Israel as the necessary support for survival and military perils, the woman is ally to the man, without which he cannot succeed or survive.”

For me, as a woman, that’s pretty huge. I am to man what God is to the Israelites. Someone without whom the other party can’t do what they need to do. So our function is ezer. How that is expressed in our lives is as unique and varied as our individual contexts (and there is is a lot to be said about this – perhaps a blog for another time!)

We are meant to be different so that what man is missing is supplied by woman, and vice versa. This is not oppressive. That feels liberating to me.

BUT – it also seems clear to me that this has become part of a cultural attitude to women that feeds the idea of inferiority. Even by Jesus’ time there was a large cultural divide between men and women. Some of this is (in every culture) based on our obvious differences – we are physically different, we (generally speaking) think differently, communicate differently, approach issues differently, respond differently (remember I said generally speaking!).

For the Jews, a biological difference (menstruation) created a ceremonial difference. A time of menstruation was niddah where a woman was considered un-clean and was not “clean” until menstruation was over and a ritual cleansing had occurred. What is important here is that “clean” and “unclean” have no moral judgement attached to them. It is not “good” or “evil”, it is solely a diagnostic for a person’s state and ability to be in the presence of God. Many things could cause a state of uncleanness and Leviticus is chockers full of how a person becomes clean again. What is key though is that, since people in a state of uncleanness couldn’t stand before God, and menstruation occurs regularly but in changeable cycles, the chances of being in a state of uncleanness regularly and unknowingly was too high. This meant that women could not take ceremonial roles in the tabernacle. By the time we get to temple, a biological difference has become entrenched in the cultural consciousness.

Of course there are many other factors at play but the entanglement of religion and culture is what can make things problematic. When we strip this away, what does God say? The story of the bleeding woman in Mark 5 gives us a clear window (there is a Bible study on this here). This woman had been ceremonially unclean for years. Jesus shouldn’t have gone near her let alone engage with her. What Jesus’ simple action does is remove the barriers of clean and unclean for women – women became liberated to be disciples in whatever physiological and biological state they were in at the time. By his actions, Jesus affirmed functional difference in a variety of settings, he freed them to follow him.**

So we are to men what God was to the Israelites. We are ontologically equal and functionally given a specific and different role as ally, but without which men cannot succeed. And Jesus up-ended any ceremonial barriers – while recognising biological difference, we are freed to be disciples and engage in religious and faith matters.

So lets turn to Paul’s letters which have caused much controversy and pain over the years. Firstly, he talks about women submitting to their husbands. This is uncomfortable and feels wrong. But again, we forget the context:

“Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.” (Ephesians 5:21-28)

There is whole books written on this subject (and rightly so) but here’s some takeaways:

  • Submission is mutual – we submit to each other. The emphasis is not on the woman alone.
  • Submission is voluntary – we submit to God willingly and voluntarily. Submission cannot be forced or coerced in any way. If it is, it is NOT submission and husbands cannot expect or demand it. God does not expect or demand it. Husbands must be the kind of person to whom submission is willing and voluntary.
  •  Submission is a response – The onus is actually on the husband. He must love his wife as he loves his own body and as Christ loved the church (Christ died for the church). Our submission to God is a response to this great truth. So it must be for women. Our submission can be faked to break an impasse, but the onus is not on us to forever be submitting to make things right. It should be a response to the love and sacrifice of the husband.

But sadly culture has not used this passage that way. It have been taken out of context and used by people who will use whatever tool will get them what they want, or feel they deserve. This is a gross misuse of scriptural truth.

We see this particularly in 1 Corinthians 7 – another passage that has become misused and even weaponized.

“The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.” (1 Corinthians 7:3-5)

Firstly, what is this “marital duty”? It sounds old fashioned, like we’re supposed to “lie back and think of England”. The original Greek that “duty” is translated from is opheilo. This word is usually used to translate a commercial debt and the only place it is used in a non-monetary sense is in Romans 13:8:

“Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.”

This “duty” is love! The husband owes a debt of love to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. This is different to how we imagine it to be – and how it has unfortunately been used in the past.

What about bodily autonomy? In the women’s movement this has been such a key issue. As physically weaker (generally speaking) and culturally subordinated, there has been centuries of our bodies being used and abused without our consent or permission. Culture in fact, has perpetuated it. In Australia, marital rape was not made illegal until 1981 (and not in all States and Territories until 1992). As recently as 2018 in the UK, a study found that “more than a third of over-65s” do not consider forced marital sex rape, along with 16% of people aged 16 to 24. Overall, one in four Britons believed that non-consensual sex within marriage did not constitute rape.”***

In 1 Corinthians 7, it looks as though the Bible is saying that our husbands have authority over our bodies in just this kind of fashion. Except it doesn’t say that. Look again:

“The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife.”

Neither person has authority over their own body but choose to yield it to each other in an act of mutual giving. It doesn’t say that the woman doesn’t have authority but her husband does. No. It says she doesn’t but yields it. So who does have authority? If we don’t, and the husband doesn’t – who does?

Just prior to our passage, in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, Paul says “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.”

God has authority over our bodies.

This obviously will be hard teaching for some, especially because bodily autonomy is such a key pillar of the women’s movement. And I understand why. Issues of permission and consent are so profoundly significant for anyone, particularly women who, culturally, have been subordinated for so long. But Christianity has always been counter cultural and the comfort that I (or rather the Bible) gives, is that God deserves this authority because we were created as His image bearers, and He cares so deeply for us (body and soul) that He sacrificed His only son for us. What is also important – and so central to the reason for the fight for bodily autonomy – is the man/husband doesn’t have authority over it. And if they claim it, this is also a gross misuse of scripture.

Of course, Paul in various texts talks in ways that seems to diminish women. I’m not going to explain that away or pretend it doesn’t mean what we think it means. In various places, we are told to wear head coverings (1 Corinthians 11:2-6), we are told to be silent in church (1 Corinthians 14:34) and should be silent and not teach (1 Timothy 2:12). This is not the place to exegete all these passages, but what I will say is that these letters are responses to pastoral issues. These letters are the pastoral outworking of Jesus’ teaching in the context of what is. This teaching is descriptive, not prescriptive. That doesn’t mean that we should disregard it as being only relevant to Paul’s time, there are still biblical truths to abide by. So no, we don’t cover our hair, but there is still teaching on humility that is relevant.

Where does this leave us?

Well, there is an awful lot to unpack in here, but I hope this is a neat summary of some of the issues I think have been misused by our culture over centuries. The Bible places equal dignity and importance on men and women. It also shows that we have some key differences, and crucially a functional difference. But that functional difference does not diminish us. The Trinity shows the ontological equality of the godhead, and yet they can have functional differences that in no way makes one superior or inferior to the other.

Further, I hope we, as women, can have confidence in our standing before God. When scripture has, or is, used against women (and sadly even weaponized against women sometimes) it is a gross misuse. There is a reason for it (pride, greed, arrogance) but no excuse.

Culture has twisted what is God’s good creation. In a broken world, women have been treated as “equal” (in a theoretical sense) and inferior (in the practical sense). This is not what I see in scripture. What I see is a massive gap between what God intended for us, and what we have made. That will always be the case with everything until the last day. Until then, know that scripture, when stripped of culture and its use for personal gain, is pure and clear and beautiful. Until then, embrace that we have a God-made functional difference with a specific purpose – we are to men, what God is to the Israelites.

But because of our cultural advance, so many cultural icons and views are embedded to such a degree that there is still a subconscious bias, sometimes even a conscious decision, to view women as inferior. It’s not just the views on marital rape. Until the 1980s in Australia, a woman couldn’t get a passport without her husbands permission. In the last 40 years, a woman was still sacked if she got married and/or got pregnant – and it was an expectation. To fight it as unfairness got you a soft smack on the butt and a wink at best. In 1997 in the UK, new Labour leader Tony Blair presided over a new government that included over 100 female politicians. They were called for a group photo and the headline was “Blair’s Babes”. If that wasn’t patronizing enough, in 2014, new Conservative leader David Cameron was photographed with his 80 female politicians and they were tagged “Cameron’s cuties”. And that’s just in first world countries. Our culture is so far behind treating women as equal.

Of course, in response, we can run the risk of swinging the pendulum too far the other way. This is understandable from a group of people who feel they have been silenced for hundreds of years. We must be guided by scripture though – not what our gut says. Our gut will send us into freeze, flight or fight. We need to train our instincts to send us to God’s word.

So, until the last day, know that God did not create you to be, nor does he see you as “someone’s babe”. Until then, know that if you see a misuse of scripture, or an injustice in the name of scripture, have confidence to use your voice. Speak to your pastor. Speak to a Christian friend. Speak up. Don’t be guided by hurt, be guided by scripture. If we hold fast to that, we will avoid pushing the pendulum too far the other way in reaction and will hopefully, under God, find the truth again expressed in our culture.

The gospel is not the issue. Sadly, as with everything, people are. Let us equip ourselves with the truth and build our confidence and our identity in that.

 

* John McKinley, “Necessary Allies: God as Ezer, Woman as Ezer,” lecture, HIlton Atlanta, November 17, 2015, mp3 download, 38:35, http://www.wordmp3.com/details.aspx?id=20759 quoted in Aimee Byrd, No Little Women, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2016, p25-26

** Ben Witherington III, Women in the Ministry of Jesus, Cambridge University Press, 1998, p117

***https://www.theweek.co.uk/98330/when-did-marital-rape-become-a-crime

 

 

 

Towards a better understanding of sexual coercion in marriage and how Christians can respond

A week or so ago, I wrote an initial piece on sexual coercion in marriage, looking at what it is, whether it is actually a problem and how we should deal with it as Christians. You can read it here:

Sexual coercion: what is it, does it happen in marriage, is it justifiable and what do we do with this information?

Since then, I have also taken part in a live Facebook question-and-answer session. We ran over time because there were so many questions but hopefully we helped start a conversation.

We talked through 1 Corinthians 7:1-7 and what some critical terms mean – like “marital duty” and “authority over the body” mean. These can be particularly difficult terms for us to wrangle with and have been the source of much damage and distress in the past.

We explain what sexual coercion is with far more depth and nuance – including things like context, intentions versus reception, whether it is a repeated pattern of behaviour and so on.

We tackle tricky questions like “Is it all abuse?” and “Should we submit anyway?”

We talk about how it is damaging to women and to men and to marriages and in what ways.

We start to look how we can continue a collaborative conversation about this – seeking a positive and godly way forward that is biblical and supportive of our bodies, mental health, motions and ability to give joyfully and voluntarily (spoiler alert – its not an easy fix, but its possible if we have a language, have courage to communicate and have humility under He who gave us the picture of what marital intimacy should look like).

I hope you can engage, ask questions, take the conversation to your churches and ministers.

The Q&A session can be accessed here from the Facebook page:

Sexual Coercion in Marriage with GuruNow with Ruth Baker

If you have any questions, thoughts, comments, concerns please feel free to contact me. the work on this will continue so the more input the better. Send me your stories, your observations – anything!

If you feel you are in need of help, please speak to a trusted friend, pastor or professional.

GuruNow is the platform by the way – check them out on Facebook because the cover all manner of subjects from worry and anxiety, to bullying in the church, to Christian leadership and beyond.

 

In the mess of the world, how can I feel clean (Mark 7:1-23)

Sometimes this world can feel so dirty and so grubby that it’s impossible to feel clean. It’s not just the shady politics and the media corruption. It’s the hypocrisy in the people around us, the anger, the envy, the shallowness, the greed, the shameless self-promotion, the arrogance, the lack of empathy, the selfishness. It’s all around us, it invades us, it takes up real estate in our brains. It infects us, it sticks to us and it’s so pervasive that it’s impossible to see or feel anything pure.

This is not a new phenomena. Would you be surprised to know that Jesus raised against this very thing? In today’s passage (Mark 7:1-23) the Pharisees yet again accuse Jesus of blasphemous behaviour. This time it’s allowing his disciples to eat with unclean hands. We’ve covered this ground before in a previous blog (you can read it here when we looked at nor Jesus didn’t come for the super-religious). But this time it’s different.

This time Jesus hits back in the most personal way possible. He quotes the very scriptures they use to inflate themselves. “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites,” Jesus says. Isaiah. The great prophet. The mouthpiece of God, Jesus said prophesied about these Pharisees (and people like them). He prophesied their faithlessness. Their failure was so insidious, it was foretold.

These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.”

This is Jesus quoting Isaiah 29:13. What does Isaiah say after this? Verse 14 says “Therefore once more I will astound these people with wonder upon wonder; the wisdom of the wise will perish, the intelligence of the intelligent will vanish.”

This is quite a signal to the Pharisees, and when Jesus was speaking these words, those hearing him would have known exactly what he meant when he quoted these scriptures. Jesus explains further though. He gives an example of how inherently arrogant and hypocritical they have become.

You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God) – then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down.

Corban? Corban is from the Hebrew qorban and relates to setting aside a portion of ones possessions for God. In real terms this meant that in the surface one could be “obedient” in giving (or at least virtue signalling the intention to give). Then, having annexed that money, you could keep it away from the parents, and potentially keep it away from the temple and just keep it for yourself.

This is the epitome of hypocrisy and arrogance and selfishness. It’s using God’s own laws to work the system in favour of avarice and greed and breaking God’s laws.

This is where the world has come to. It’s dirty, grubby and grimy – down to the very core of society. It’s a dirt that won’t wash away.

When Jesus then focuses on food and cleanliness in his parables, he gets to the heart of the issueit’s the heart.

Eating without ritually washed hands does not make them unclean. What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly.”

Focus on the outside and the heart suffers. Focus on the heart and everything on the outside improves – starting with ourselves.

The rest of the world will still be dirty and grubby. But we will be improved.

As prophesied in Isaiah, God has astounded us with wonder upon wonder. Jesus. His own son. God in the flesh. Perfect. Pure. Clean. The only place we can feel cleansed and purified is at the feet of Jesus.

Because of him, our hearts can be changed. Because of him we can change our world for the better, starting with us. And if world around us still stinks, we can go back to him to feel that sense of cleanness. We can re-calibrate and rest in his purity.

This is a stand alone blog but is also part of a series working through the Gospel of Mark. You can dip into any you have missed here.

Inspirational memes I hate: “God won’t give you anything you can’t handle”

Memes can be helpful – quick bites and pick me ups as we scroll through social media, reminders of biblical truths particularly can point us to where our attention should be as we rush though the day.

Some memes sound helpful, but are most definitely not.

One of the inspirational memes I hate is this one:

You may even have seen it like this, as though God himself were speaking to you.

It sounds great doesn’t it? So comforting. So loving. We lean on this when times are tough. When we need to believe we’re going to be OK. When we are desperate to know that things are going to get better.

Except God didn’t say this. This is a paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 10:12-14:

So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.

What this doesn’t say is that God will not give us anything that we cannot handle. What it does say is that God is present in our temptation. The context of the passage is warnings from the Israelites history and their fall into idolatry, sexual immorality and revelry (ie drunken partying). This is not a passage about God generally making life OK.

So this is the first reason I hate this meme – because it says something that the Bible doesn’t say. It gives us a false Bible knowledge. It’s certainly the kind of thing that God might say. God our Father is all-loving and all-merciful. But he didn’t actually say this. If this is something God didn’t say, we can’t extrapolate (poorly) from things he did say.

Throwing this meme around is well-meaning, but it promises things God didn’t promise. It implies God will make everything alright. It implies God will raise us out of our problems. It implies he will never let us break.

And that is demonstrably not true.

So this leads to the second reason I hate this meme. It implies things that aren’t true. Recently, American church pastor and mental health advocate Jarrid Wilson took his own life. This article by Ed Stetzer is beautiful and well worth a read. Jarrid Wilson broke. We all know other people who break. It is tragic and terrible – and true.

Our world breaks people. Things happen to people that they cannot handle. If on one hand we are telling each other that God will never give us things we can’t handle and then see people breaking, what does that say about God? Does it say he wasn’t there? Does it say people’s weakness is stronger than God’s power? Does it say God left them?

What does that do to our confidence in him? If our faith is informed by these memes, then our faith is also eroded by these memes. We need to be more discerning than that. Our faith needs to be in the right thing.

This then leads to the third thing I hate. Because if our faith is informed by these memes, and yet we see people breaking, we must believe less of those people – because we cannot think less of God! People around us are dying inside. People we know are crumbling. We cannot be a people who thinks they just aren’t coping like it’s some kind of weakness. If we believe God doesn’t give people anything they can’t handle, and then people aren’t coping, surely it must be their fault. They aren’t strong enough. They don’t have enough faith. There must be something wrong with them.

And that’s how we end up in little huddles in church talking in hushed tones about people.

So then here is the last thing I hate about this meme. We begin to believe these things about ourselves. We believe we must be not strong enough. We believe that our faith is not big enough. We believe that God must have left us. We believe that God is trying to help us but we just aren’t doing things right. We shouldn’t be bending. We shouldn’t be breaking. We shouldn’t be in the jagged pieces that we are.

Here is something that is true – People bend. People break.

In 2 Corinthians 1:8 Paul says “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters,  about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself.

Paul was crumbling. He nearly broke. And yes, he relied on God, which makes it sound easy, like a self-help moment. But we cannot forget before he got to that, he despaired of life itself. And despair doesn’t just disappear. Even when we resolve to (weakly and brokenly) rely on God, there is healing, there is loneliness, there is fear, there is even trauma to overcome.

In Psalm 34:18 it says God stays close to the broken-hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. This is a promise we can hold in our brokenness. He doesn’t promise to un-break our hearts. He promises to stay close. And he promises save us when we are crushed in spirit. Save us – not make all the bad things disappear, not take away the anxiety or depression or the trauma. He doesn’t even promise to take away the suicidal thoughts or change the abusive husband, or stop the redundancy. He promises he will be with us, and save us.

What we must also notice in this is that God knows when we are broken and crushed. There’s no holy huddle and talk in hushed tones. He knows and he proclaims his promises to us in a voice loud enough for us to hear. This is where we anchor our faith.

We should all pray for wisdom and discernment. Our faith is impacted by these memes so we need to exercise our discernment to know when they are true and helpful and when they are poor paraphrases, when they are not true.

We all know people who are breaking. If we have God’s wisdom, we will have God’s heart for them. We can be a people of true love and compassion, upholding people who are bent so far their backs are breaking. We can hold people’s hands even when they are shattering into jagged pieces. We can walk with them when they are too weak to walk by themselves. We can pray for deliverance and pray for healing and pray for miracles. And we should pray earnestly, hungrily, expectantly. God can do anything. Anything is possible for him. But we don’t know that bit of the plan. All we know is the surety if he promised. That he is there and will save us.

And if you are reading this and you feel you are breaking, hear God’s true promises. He is with you and he will save you. He is with you in the darkness. Don’t believe what the meme tells you. He knows what you are going through and he knows you cannot handle what is happening to you. What is happening to you is real. It is so real it could break you. But he is with you. And he is just as real as the things you are facing. But he is mightier and louder so even though you might not feel like it, he is there.

He is with us. And we must rely on him. Because when we have nothing else, not even our own confidence or mental strength or emotional clarity, he is the only thing we have. When we can’t see anything of hope, when we believe we have no support, when we think we are completely alone, when we can almost feel our spirit cracking under the pressure of our burdens, he is there.

Hear his promises and never let him go.

What will the “kingdom of God” be like? (Mark 4:21-34)

I like to think about what heaven will look like. Partially that’s because my kids ask me, and partially it’s because when I’m really tired – like, really tired – I like to imagine what it will be like when there is perfect rest and peace. I’ve written about this before (you can read “Praying for peace when you can’t even finish this sentence” here). This is a very human approach though – I’m tired, what will heaven be like? That is not really the question that Jesus answers though.

Jesus, in this passage, gives four parables that specifically describe the kingdom of God. And they don’t answer the question I have. Jesus however, does provide answers.

The first parable is the Parable of the Lamp: “Do you bring in a lamp to put it under a bowl or a bed? Instead, don’t you put it on its stand? For whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open.” (Mark 4:21-22)

A lamp is to bring light. The kingdom, the gospel, is not meant to be hidden. In addition, there is an ambiguity in the Greek grammar and what has been translated “whatever is concealed” is more correctly “whatever was concealed”. If this is the case, what this parable describes is the kingdom (in Jesus) is now being brought into the open in these parables.

The second is the analogy of the Measure: “Consider carefully what you hear,” he continued. “With the measure you use, it will be measured to you—and even more. Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.” (vv 24-25)

The easy way of saying this is that you reap what you sow. If you listen openly and eagerly, Jesus’ teaching will provide enormous insight. For those who listen with hardened hearts, they will hear but not understand. To this we’ll return.

The third is the parable of the Growing Seed: “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.” (vv 26-29)

Just because every day seems the same, doesn’t mean the kingdom isn’t growing. But if they are complacent, the harvest when it comes will be a surprise. We must know that the kingdom is growing – and that at some point judgement will come. We must be aware and ready and help others be ready too.

The fourth is the parable of the Mustard Seed: “It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.” (vv 31-32)

This final of the four images shows us the kingdom growing disproportionately to its small beginnings. In this, we see God’s sovereignty clearly at work.

So when we wonder “what is the kingdom of God like?”, the answer is, from this passage:

  • It is a light, meant to illuminate;
  • It is to be revealed, and so we need to listen expectantly and responsively;
  • Once sown, it keeps growing, slowly but surely – and there will be a last day of harvest/judgement;
  • The kingdom will be enormous and disproportionate to its small beginnings.

On the face of it, this could seem disappointing. I want to know whether the kingdom looks like its in a nice rural setting or by the sea, and if everyone I know will be there. But I don’t need to know that. I need to know what Jesus is telling me. I need to know that the kingdom is the light by which the rest of the world can be seen. I need to know that I need to listen in great measure, because great measure will be given to me. I need to remember that there will be a last day, even though every day seems the same and I need to look to explosive and inexorable growth of this kingdom to remind me of God’s unstoppable power.

But lets talk about having ears to hear. Jesus repeats this in Mark 4:9 and again in 4:23 saying “let them hear”. And yet, he had also said in Mark 4:11-12 (quoting Isaiah 6):

The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that, “‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’”

Why speak in parables? Doesn’t Jesus want people to be able to immediately understand the gospel?

As Mark L. Strauss says in his commentary, the clauses and grammar in the Greek “makes this passage one of the most difficult in the NT, since Jesus appears to be saying that he teaches in parables in order to blind the eyes of the listeners.” (Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Mark, 2014, p184). In exploring the many possible interpretations, Strauss settles on a negative function. In Isaiah chapters 5 and 6, God uses the unbelief of the Israelites to accomplish his judgement. Through an allegory of a vineyard, Isaiah relays God’s warning of pending judgement and describes that the prophesy will fall on deaf ears – because his judgement is set. In this way, says Strauss “He will use their rejection to accomplish his sovereign purpose.” just as he did with Moses’ Pharoah and others throughout scripture. So Jesus’ quotation of Isaiah specifically links what he is saying to a time when God was visiting judgement on his people.

What that means here is that on one hand, parables are easy to remember for those with ears to hear. For others, their hardened hearts are the very thing that God will use against them for their judgement. This is hard teaching. It shows us that Jesus’ arrival, while a sign that the new age has come, is also an instrument of judgement – those who will hear and believe, and those who will reject him. The wheat and the chaff. As Jesus is quoted in Matthew 7:13-14 “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

BUT we don’t know who is chosen. We don’t know who is predestined. We don’t know what soil people are. We don’t know which road and which gate they will go through. So we can only be faithful and obedient. We follow Jesus. We grow in our discipleship. We remember what Jesus tells us about the kingdom – not what we want to know. Because the kingdom will be enormous, and provide us all with a place to rest and nest in the shade.

I feel comforted just hearing that.

The other stuff? That makes me feel queasy. The whole hardened hearts as an instrument of people’s judgement thing. But I think that sense of unease is a prompt to act. Because if we don’t know people’s destination, but we know it is one of two places, it gives us a sense of urgency in our interactions with others. It compels us, in obedience, and knowing there will be a harvest, to live authentically to our beliefs. This should show in our words and our behaviours as our hearts and minds are shaped by Jesus’ teaching. I find these passages hard. But they give me a boost to avoid being complacent as a Christian.

We cannot be sleepy in our faith.

This blog is a stand alone piece but it is also part of a weekly online bible study. If you have missed any or would like to reference back to the beginning, the links are below:

  1. Week 1: “Who do you say I am”. Introduction to the gospel
  2. Week 2: The Beginning. Mark 1:1-20
  3. Week 3: The Who, the what and the why. Mark 1:21-45
  4. Week 4: Jesus didn’t come for the super-religious. He came for you. Mark 2:1-17
  5. Week 5: There is nothing you can do to start – or stop – God’s plan. Mark 2:18-28
  6. Week 6: Jesus wasn’t the man they wanted him to be. Mark 3:1-12
  7. Week 7: Jesus made us a new family – does church really feel like that? Mark 3:13-35
  8. Week 8: Is fruitfulness something we do or something we are to be? (Mark 4:1-20)

Why I don’t know what to think this week

A while back I wrote a blog about how the world throws up big issues and there are generally two extreme camps and the rest of us in the middle. In these situations, the extremes throw rocks at each other for a while and social media makes the entrenchment of each position more stark and vitriolic. The rest of us sit in the middle looking at each side and wondering how to make sense of it.

This week is no exception.

Big things have been happening in New South Wales this week. On 8th August, the Reproductive Healthcare Reform bill passed the lower house with 59 votes to 31. This bill makes abortion legal upon request up to 22 weeks. Past this point, the consent of two doctors is required but abortion is available up to birth. If you want to read the bill itself, I highly recommend it – it’s far better to read the original rather than summaries on Facebook. You can access it here. It still has to make it through the upper house but this is as it stands at the moment with a few minor amendments.

Here’s why I don’t know what to think.

I am hugely grateful that I have never had to go through the kind of decision making process required to choose to have an abortion. I cannot imagine what it must be like. It would be easy for me to think “Oh, I would never do that.” But I have never been raped and fallen pregnant. I have never discovered that my unborn child has such extreme medical issues that they would face death imminently after birth, or have no quality of life (no physical or brain function). I have never been diagnosed with a medical issue that would mean going to full term pregnancy would be a serious threat to my life.

I have never been alone in a foreign country and placed under pressure to terminate. I have never been in the kind of violently abusive relationship that places some women in fear of their lives if their medical condition were revealed.

At the same time, I have never faced an unplanned pregnancy. I have never had to look to abortion as a way that could solve the problems a pregnancy presents to me.

People often go to the extremes to prove the “norm”. But what is the norm when it comes to abortion? Some portray the scenario as women choosing abortion frivolously. Some portray the scenario as choosing abortion because they are women facing death.

Of course the answer is that there is no norm. People’s reason for abortion is far too diverse and nuanced.

Me personally? I wish that nobody had to have an abortion. I wish that people didn’t even have to make that choice. In that sense, as a Christian, as a woman, as a humanitarian, I am pro-baby. But I also recognise that people do and will make this choice – for whatever reason – and so having access to safe health care is a must. To not have access to safe healthcare would take us back to the horrific days of the backstreet abortionist. Thousands of women sought terminations in this way in the UK before eventual de-criminalisation in 1967, and far too many were rendered infertile or died because of the effects. So in this sense, I am pro-woman.

(I do not want to use the terms “pro-life” and “pro-choice” because they are such heavily loaded terms and I don’t think they are helpful. I think the baggage they bring weighs down the debate and takes us to extremes when we need to think and talk lovingly about this deeply personal issue.)

What troubles me most about the recent debates around the Reproductive Healthcare Reform bill is our apparent ability to sustain antinomy. An antinomy is a paradox – holding two things that are entirely contradictory in perfect balance as though they are both true.

Here’s the issue:

Society talks about abortion being a part of women’s rights. But these rights only extend to the mother, and not the girl-child – how can both be right? Before now, we (the west) have rallied against developing countries for the “heinous crime” and “social evil” of female infanticide and feticide and sex-selective abortion (as an example, see this piece from last year from Save the Children India).

In fact, one of the amendments proposed by Tanya Davies MP for the Reproductive Healthcare Reform bill was that “if a live child is born, the child must be given the same neonatal care as would be given to any other child born at the same stage of pregnancy and in the same medical condition.” (Hansard, NSW Legislative Assembly Thursday 8th August p21).

We should be clear here. Currently there is an obligation on medical professionals to render care to a live-born foetus so this amendment would not change Current practice. However, I think a lot of us would have been way more comfortable if this had been enshrined in this reform bill.

This amendment was rejected though because it was one of four sub-parts of an amendment that sought to limit the places where an abortion could occur (in a hospital with a neonatal intensive care unit) and would limit the access to late term abortion unless on the grounds of necessity to save the life of the mother or the baby.

The other sub-part of that amendment would have meant that if the foetus was compatible with life, that the same neonatal care be provided as any other child at the same stage of life. I think (although I am a Bear of Little Brain) that means that the child would necessarily be delivered by natural birth or by C-section (as any other child at that stage would) rather than a termination procedure. I don’t know enough about the differences in procedures to comment but what makes me nervous here is that one is treated as a child and the other is not – and not because one is more medically viable than the other.

Tanya Davies also proposed an amendment that “Termination not to be used for gender selection. Despite anything else in this Act or any other law, a medical practitioner may not perform a termination on a person – (a) for the purpose of gender selection, or (b) if the medical practitioner reasonably believes the termination is being performed for the purpose of gender selection.” (Ibid, p87)

This amendment was also rejected.

So the very “heinous crime” Save the Children is trying to stop in India (and UNICEF and hundreds of other charitable organisations) will be permissible under law in Australia.

I know many will argue that “Australia is not the same”. I know. There is nuance and there is hundreds of years of cultural differences that culminate in a very different set of circumstances. BUT I genuinely don’t understand how an amendment to enshrine life giving care to a live baby, and to prevent abortions on the basis of gender selection could be rejected. Pro-woman access to safe healthcare is one thing. These amendments have nothing to do with that. And I am just lost for words as to why we, as a society and our parliament on our behalf, would think this is OK?

Which leads to the second antinomy.

On 9th August – the very morning after the parliamentary debates on abortion – an article appeared that described the new mission to reduce stillbirth rates. Obviously this is very different to abortion (but no less personal). But the rates of stillbirth are still so alarming that the medical professional in the piece notes that “Its time to act.” And this the very day after the Reproductive Healthcare Reform bill rejects amendments that would potentially save more babies.

Similarly, the Crimes Amendment (Zoe’s Law) Bill 2017 was introduced in March 2017 after a woman (Brodie Donegan) was hit by a car while 32 weeks pregnant, after which the pre-born baby died. The long title of the Bill was “An Act to amend the Crimes Act 1900 to prohibit conduct that causes serious harm to or the destruction of a child in utero; and for other purposes.” and it included a clause that the Bill not apply to any harm done during a medical procedure (ie an abortion). (You can read the Bill here and the Second Reading speech here). This bill never made it to law.

What makes me very queasy in all this is that what has become apparent is that a child does not have intrinsic value in and of themselves. Their value lies in whether they are wanted or not. A child killed in utero in a hit and run is horrific and wrong. A child lost to miscarriage or stillbirth is agonising and tragic. A child aborted by gender selection and a child dying after being aborted alive……

The only difference is whether the child was wanted or not. And having that as the moral line that distinguishes our political decisions, our cultural bias and our law making makes me want to cry and vomit at the same time.

I am not talking about the access to safe healthcare. I am not talking about the woman who is being forced into it by a violent partner. I am not talking about the parents who have to make the agonising decision after being told their baby cannot live.

For me, this debate has not come down to the provision of abortion, it has come down to what we, as a society, accepts as morally right. Its about what has been exposed in the rejection of amendments that I would have thought would be a no-brainer. Its about our moral pendulum swinging where it is convenient for us.

And its about how we no longer seem to look at alternatives.

I feel odd about abortion up to 22 weeks (the amendments wanted to cap this at 20 weeks) but I can understand why medical practitioners have pushed for it. The kinds of serious medical issues that might show up, are often only picked up at the second scan had at 18 or 19 weeks. This means that if they are placed in that decision-making position, the parents would potentially have to make that choice in the space of a week. That is an extreme mental and emotional load to place on a shocked and probably grieving couple. There is not enough time to think through the implications. There is not enough time to think through the possibilities and the opportunities. There isn’t enough time to explore all the options. There isn’t enough time to access an unplanned pregnancy support centre.

For me, these centres, such a Diamond Women’s Support, help the mother look at all those options. They support and counsel. They help to remove roadblocks and barriers to having the child and, if the mother decides to go ahead with an abortion, they support her for a full year afterwards with counselling, because they know that an abortion is a trauma that needs to be processed and the woman herself needs to feel loved, valued, supported, listened to and understood. They are wonderfully pro-woman and pro-baby.

And this for me, is the middle ground. I see the nuance. I see that this is deeply profound for all of us (not just women). I see the medical needs. I also see that it is possible to become myopic in our views. It troubles me that “more time” could mean “More time to decide to have an abortion” as though its the only viable option and is a foregone conclusion – because this is where our cultural bias ultimately leads us. “More time” doesn’t necessarily mean “More time to evaluate all the options and seek support”. And this is where I feel like we need to pull the pendulum back.

As godly people, I want to support women and support babies. I also want to glorify my God and support the church. Which means entering the debate with love and respect and grace. It means knowing its OK to air how I feel about this and encouraging my sisters and brothers to know their feelings and views are valid and valued. It means supporting centres like Diamond Women’s Support so they can go on supporting women who are in this position.

But I believe that children, men, women – all humans – have intrinsic value. All are worthy of love and grace. If we believe that, then we should act accordingly. That’s the only thing I think, and know, this week with any clarity.