If the world is right, am I wrong?

There’s been a big bru-ha-ha this week about Rugby player Israel Folau’s social media posts. Folau’s posts were an old-skool “The end of the world is nigh” style post which warned that all manner of people are going to hell unless they repent. His post was stark and made without context. He has been pilloried on social media and Rugby Australia is going to end his contract.

Is Folau right? Is social media and Rugby Australia right? And where does that leave us? This is important because when things like this unfold, good Christian people feel unsure and lose confidence. If he’s right, why does his message make me feel so queasy? If he’s right, why does it feel like the world is right to argue against him? Am I wrong? This becomes a stumbling block to us. It stops us engaging with the world because we feel like what we have to say is not valid. It makes us question what we believe.

Let’s pick it apart because in one sense its complicated and in another, its very simple – He’s not exactly wrong but without context and nuance, he is misleading and his methods were not right or helpful.

Folau’s list of the condemned is taken from Galatians 5:19-21:

Now the works of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, moral impurity, promiscuity, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, strife, jealousy,outbursts of anger, selfish ambitions, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and anything similar. I tell you about these things in advance—as I told you before—that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”

So on the face of it, one might say Folau is merely taking his words directly from the Bible. But what his post (without context) effectively says is that “All these groups of people are going to hell unless they accept Jesus.” This is problematic.

  1. These sin-groups are not “those other people” who need to come to Jesus, its all of us. Paul, in writing to the Galatians, is not saying this to non-believers. He’s saying it to early Christians. They’re not great Christians (hence the letter correcting them), but they are believers who already have Jesus. Folau, in sending his message out to “all you other people” (which is what his post read as), created division and hierarchy – it implied that believers are OK and better, while you other people need to get with the program;
  2. Nobody was ever converted through anger, hate or fear-mongering. Jesus said repent and believe the good news (Mark 1:5) – not repent because you are damned so you better.
  3. We are commanded to spread the good news (Matthew 28:16-20) but the greatest evangelist of all – Paul – was very clear on how the message is protected and communicated. In 1 Corinthians 9:20 Paul explains that he changes his communication style so as to remove barriers to his audience. Then we see his doing this in Acts 17 as Paul goes to the areopagus in Athens to argue the facts of the gospel in a native forum. Furthermore, Paul throughout his letters, repeats that Christians should treat “outsiders” with grace (Col. 4:5-6) and that the conduct of Christians themselves should be beyond reproach and full of respect so as not to bring the gospel into disrepute (1 Peter 2:12).

Let’s go back to the message itself because those are God-breathed words of scripture. What Folau did that is quite annoying is quote scripture out of context. I noted above that Paul’s words were directed to people who already had Jesus, so lets look at the whole context of the passage.

Paul is writing to the Galatians who, as very baby Christians were being led astray by people preaching a false gospel. In addition, they were not living as Christians ought – with love and obedience and grace. At the beginning of Chapter 5 of Galatians, Paul explains that we have been given freedom in Christ – but not freedom to do whatever we want and to live as they did before. And then he says:

“I say then, walk by the Spirit and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is against the Spirit, and the Spirit desires what is against the flesh; these are opposed to each other, so that you don’t do what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

Now the works of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, moral impurity, promiscuity, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, strife, jealousy,outbursts of anger, selfish ambitions, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and anything similar. I tell you about these things in advance—as I told you before—that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness,goodness, faith gentleness, self-control. Against such things there is no law. Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, we must also follow the Spirit. We must not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.” (Galatians 5:16-26).

Now, there’s an awful lot more that could be said about this, but for the sake of brevity, let’s keep it simple. What he is essentially saying is, don’t live by your rules and do whatever you want because that’s not what God wants for us. If you walk by the spirit, all those other things, by necessity will fall away. The more we live by Christ, the less we will live for ourselves. He describes this by contrasting spirit and flesh. Signs of living by the flesh are obvious, he says. It’s all those things that Folau has listed. We want to not do that, and do do the things of the spirit.

So part of the context of the passage is contrasting the behavior we want to avoid, with the behavior we want to cultivate as Christians.

It does say in this passage that people that practice those things will not inherit the kingdom of God – they won’t go to heaven. But lets be clear. The people who do these things are not going to hell just because they are doing those things. These things are a signal of whether you are in Christ and growing in Christ-likeness. They are a sign of where your heart is.

There are a few things to say about this. First, there is not special categories of sin that get special degrees of condemnation. My mate is not going to be kept out of heaven because he’s gay, he’s going to be kept out because he doesn’t believe in Jesus. I don’t try and witness to him about stopping being gay. He was born that way. I witness to him about Jesus. That’s my part in God’s plan. When and if he finds Jesus, the rest gets worked out between him and God as he grows in his faith journey. I would walk along side him as best I can but his sexuality is not my primary concern and I’m not going to judge him for it – his relationship with Christ is my interest. And I try and witness with patience and grace and love, sometimes through words and most of the time through loving behavior. Not with Bible bashing and brow beating and scare-mongering.

Second, there are sins on this list that we all have in our past, and some that we all still struggle with. To imply that anyone who does these things ever is going to hell is disingenuous and is contrary to God’s revealed plan and character. There are plenty of sober alcoholics who still struggle. There are many same sex attracted Christians who have chosen celibacy. I, as a single person, choose celibacy over bonking with impunity. None of these choices are easy. On top of that, we are all liars. We are all idolaters. But we, like the Galatians, have Christ.

This list of people who will not inherit the kingdom reminds us how powerless we are to get over ourselves. It reminds us how desperately we need Jesus to build the bridge from our sin to God’s presence.

Third, we should not read into Galatians – or Folau’s post – that the instant we do any of those things, we lose our salvation. If you, as a believer, go out and get drunk this weekend, you aren’t going to hell. Paul knew better than any that we are prone to sin. Again, that’s why we need Jesus. The point is that we don’t intend to go and do those things (if you do, then there’s a convo that needs to be had with some close Christian friends). Having done something though, whatever the sin is (and they will be many and frequent), we repent quickly and honestly. But we don’t lose our salvation when the sin happens and get it back when we repent. We always have our salvation. The quickness of our repentance is a sign of how we are maturing in Christ. And hopefully (although brokenly), the gap between particular sins gets longer and longer as we grow in Christ-likeness.

So yes, in it’s starkest form, sinners will not inherit – that’s the whole basis of the gospel. They will not inherit, but that’s why Jesus came, so we could.

And yes, in it’s starkest form, without accepting Jesus, then we are rejecting the means to inherit the kingdom.

BUT we should not present that message in a manner designed to scare people into action. Fear (reverent awe) of the Lord is good, but terrifying someone to compel them to act is ultimately flawed (and mean). Conversions made by fear (if any!) will quickly disappear once the fear fades. Only conversions made in a genuine choice of love and gratitude last.

BUT just because we are going to heaven, does not mean that we get to judge people (that’s God’s job, not ours) or be a sanctimonious ass.

So if anyone asks you what you think about the Israel Folau issue, tell them that what he wrote was true in the sense that everyone needs Jesus to get into heaven. But what he wrote shouldn’t suggest that we all aren’t sinners, or that we don’t still struggle with these things. Tell them that we are instructed to communicate with love and respect  – and if you don’t feel that’s how Folau communicated, its OK to say that. Folau is not a bad man, his communication just lacked context and grace. Draw the focus from Folau back to the gospel, which is good news.

 

Israel Folau

 

Use my label to reach me, not to judge me

Church is a place of labels. Some are logistically useful – we wear name tags so we can engage with others in fellowship. Some are purely organizational, categorizing us into ministries so we can be pastored more easily. But some labels are signs above our heads for all to see. These labels are burdensome to the bearer and scary or embarrassing to the reader – unless you know what to do with them. Then these labels become a signal as to how you can love and care for that person. It becomes a bridge into their life where you can sit with them.

“Single mum” is just such a label. Of course, there are “single dads” as well – but I can’t speak for them, I can only speak to my own experience. But I’m assuming a lot of what I say here will resonate with them too.

The best first step in ministering to single mums is to recognise (and therefore help them not to feel) that they are a rare thing: that its just “them”. Sadly, in Australia, 22% of families are single parent families, and of that 22%, 87% of them are lone mother families.[1] It is unknown how many single mums currently make up our church congregations. It is likely that it is lower than the general population average, given that the number of divorced/separated people outside of church is 48% and 12% within the church. This is a big gap, but not so big that a single parent should feel alone. If your congregation is 100 people, there could be up to 12 people who are struggling with this reality and this label.

The next step is to understand a little of what a single mum might be feeling (again, I can only speak for women here):

  • There is terror. This is real. A single mum faces financial, social and logistical challenges that place her in danger of poverty, unemployment and homelessness, and this is not just in the poorer areas we imagine. At one point in my post-separated journey, I had no job, no money, no prospects and came closer than I realized to losing my house. I live in a pretty cozy middle-class area. I was absolutely terrified. The worries crowd in, one on top of the other and there seems no end or solution in sight.
  • There is loneliness. We can be surrounded by beautiful Christian community. But at some point, they go home to their families and you are left alone. You wonder who your family will be.
  • There is exhaustion. The logistics of taking care of kids can be easy and it can be hard, especially when you are working full time which most single mums have to, to make ends meet. The physical tiredness can’t be pushed aside. What is important to get a picture of though, is the emotional exhaustion. Doing all the parenting – the discipline, the counselling, the loving, the teaching, the cheerleading, the supporting, the bed times, the dinner times, the school drop off, the pickup, the bath times, the bed times – and there’s no back up. It’s exhausting emotionally and it’s intense and sustained.
  • There is love. When it’s just you and the kids, the kids become everything and, speaking for my own, my heart pumps for their kindness and joy and humor.

So, all that said, how can our churches better minister to single parents? Perhaps even encourage more single parents to come to church for the eternal perfection of a relationship with Jesus and, in the meantime, find a new community of family.

I am incredibly blessed to say that many of my pointers here are not because this is what I realized I needed, but my community of sisters (and brothers) who just appeared with these supports to me during my time, and still do. These are people who are living out the biblical principles of kingdom community:

“How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity! For there the Lord has commanded the blessing, life forevermore” Psalm 133:1, 3

  • Sometimes we need your material support: Before I got another job (and sometimes after) and I was in need, every so often I would come home to an envelope or bag of groceries on my doorstep. Another friend from time to time tells me she’s bringing dinner over. She doesn’t ask me if I need it, she just brings it and drops it off with a smile and a hug. Trust me when I say Centrelink does not stretch far so these gifts got us through many a week.
  • Open your home and your family: Every second Friday is a hard one for me. I come home to an empty house. I have beautiful friends though who bring me into their home. Its not a dinner party, I just join their family at their table. It’s inclusive, it’s normal, it’s joyful.
  • Give us a reason to put our bras on: Some days it can be easy to sink your head down and let the depression take over. A friend of mine one Saturday asked me if I’d like to join her and her friend for coffee. I didn’t feel like it, but I went. We started meeting frequently after that. It gives me a reason to get up, get dressed and get out into the world.
  • Cut us some slack on the “hallmark” days at church: A lot of churches do things for Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and even Valentines Day. These are hard times for us. We probably won’t come to church those days.
  • Don’t assume we can’t or don’t want to serve: OK, it’s going to be hard, but there are things we can do. Some might not want to but helping us to find a serving niche supports us in the church, it keeps us connected (because it is very easy to become isolated). It also tells us that you value us and that our “label” doesn’t also say “Failure – not to serve”.
  • Sometimes we need “dad jobs” done: I have learned how to do a lot of things that I never knew how to do before. But sometimes there are things that just stump me – putting new door handles on, replacing a kitchen cabinet door, replacing windscreen wipers. Sometimes we just need a Christian brother or sister to help us with practical around-the-house things.
  • Don’t assume we are looking for new husbands: The first line of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice could have been written for the modern church – here it is amended for people like me: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single [woman] in possession of [children] must be in want of a [husband].” I personally decided very early that I would not be in another relationship, partially for theological reasons and partially for personal reasons. Others may decide differently. Single mums don’t come to church (on the whole) like it’s a weird singles bar. We come to be with Jesus. Help us to do that. Because ultimately, in our time of need, he is what we need.
  • Help us to live in our singleness for the gospel: Whatever people decide to do, there is a period of time when they exist in singleness. Singleness in the church can be difficult whether you are a never-married, a single-again or a widow(er). We need help to discover the potential and purpose in our singleness so that we can grow as disciples and live for Christ.

Jesus says his community of believers is his family (Matthew 12:49-50) and in the book of Acts, we see the community of first believers living with strong bonds of unity. I have this family of believers around me. They saw the sign above my head and used it as a bridge to come into my life and treat me with grace and gentleness and understanding.

The thing that unites and bonds us though, is Jesus – the most gracious and gentle person of all. Help us to stay in church. Help us to stay connected. Everything I have mentioned here helps women like me to survive and get stronger. It helps us to not become isolated from church. It may help to build strong bonds to church because it shows how the church can reach out to people where they are without judgement or recrimination. Ultimately, it helps us to keep our eyes fixed Jesus. The kindness of his community, shows us a present and real picture of God’s love in action.

[1] http://www.hisheartministrytraining.com.au/one-together/

It’s not a guilty pleasure, it’s bear baiting

Bear-baiting was a blood thirsty spectator sport in England that existed from the Middle Ages to the 19th century. In a deep pit, a bear would be pitted against trained fighting dogs. You can imagine the results. Vicious animals tearing flesh from each other as a shouting crowd – their blood up – howl their approval. Thank goodness we have moved beyond this.

Or have we?

I like voting-out-shows. You know the ones – Masterchef, Survivor and The Great British Bake-off are my popular go-tos. When there’s no Masterchef, I’ll get hooked on My Kitchen Rules, but I like it less because of the high ratio of bitching and fighting to actual cooking. But it’s my “guilty pleasure”. We use this term to describe something we know we shouldn’t have/watch/eat/do, but we do anyway. It’s how we justify things we know are either bad for us, or may result in some kind of judgement on our behaviour. With TV it’s usually the fear of being judged for really low-brow telly shows. Yeah. Like we all only watch documentaries and the news.

But the recent series of Married at First Sight (MAFS) is changing my opinion of “guilty pleasures”. This is the show where a group of wannabe D-list celebrity nobodys marry someone without meeting them first. Then we watch to see if true love unfolds. Except it’s not an interesting social experiment. It’s bear baiting.

It could be any of these kinds of shows (Love Island, and increasingly The Batchelor and The Bachelorette, the list is long these days). But this season of MAFS has been a zenith for verbal abuse from both men and women, lying, cheating, dodging, and basic unpleasantness from everyone. It is the worst kind of behaviour you can imagine, probably edited for additional drama and shock factor.

And what does that say? The producers and editors are editing this garbage into a package of slop they think we want to shovel down with the rest of the trash that’s out there. Do we love it because that’s what they feed us or is this what we feed us because this is what we love? At the end of the day it makes no difference. We are no different to a Medieval mob baying for blood.

At some point we have to decide what we’re willing to accept. At the moment, what we’re willing to accept is this festering pile of detritus.

The only way things change is for a lot of people to act individually. It’s when we all make better choices. Just don’t watch this bilge. Why? Apart from the fact that it’s a smouldering pit of animal sediment, it’s a sign of how socially numb we’ve become.

When everyone is doing it, it’s easy to go along. But Proverbs 4:23 says “above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” Jesus, in the gospel of Luke explains that “a good man brings good things out of the good stored up i his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” (Luke 6:45).

Now this is not a rebuke or a call to ban shows, burn books or get crazy. I’m saying that our choices are not morally or spiritually neutral. I’m saying that our hearts, unguarded, become blind or numb or both. And from that numbness, comes what we think is appropriate behaviour.

We’re better than that. And frankly we should be bloody outraged – not just because this show speaks to spirit of nastiness and viciousness that our society applauds, and not just because TV executives think so little of our intellect that they produce these vats of toilet sweepings by the truck load. But because this is not what we were made for.

We are better than this. We were made for more. Don’t waste it with this offal. Be awake. There’s plenty of other (less harmful) trash to watch instead. Choose wisely.

“The wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.” (James 3:17). Our wisdom is a gift. God guides us in our discipleship and growing discernment. Use it. Choose thoughtfully. Choose wisely.

The fear of people realising you’re a fake

You’d think now that we’re all grown up that we’d know what we were doing, right? Not so much. “Impostor syndrome” is the feeling like you’ve managed to fool everyone into thinking that you’ve got it all together, but inside you feel like a total loser. So you feel like a fake. And that’s bad.

But it gets worse. There’s also the fear that at some point, everyone will find out that you’re not all that. Deep down, many of us feel like anything we have managed to do or achieve or overcome, was somehow by luck. So now we’ve got to where we are, we don’t really deserve to be there, and we’ve hoodwinked the people around us into thinking we are better than we are.

This is because there is a difference between how others see you, and how we see ourselves.

If this is you, here’s some things to think about:

  • What do I believe? For instance: I’m a fake. Everything I’ve achieved is by accident.
  • What do I know to be true? For instance: I can adapt to changing circumstances. I can problem solve when I need to.

This can help us to see more starkly the negative things we think about ourselves and put them side by side with things that are real observations. One is about feelings, the other is about observation. They are both important, but the former needs to be put into perspective by the latter. Writing it down helps – it takes it out of your brain somehow. It helps you to not stew on it at 3 in the morning when you’ve woken up needing a wee and then can’t get back to sleep because you start worrying and replaying things in your mind……(may or may not be based on a real person).

Here’s the kicker though. We are Christian. We have knowledge that is objectively true.

  • How do I see myself? I’m a loser.
  • How does God see me? He sees me as fearfully and wonderfully made. He sees me as carrying the treasure of the gospel. He sees me as an integral part of his plans. He sees me as his.

There is no hint of arrogance to know and believe these things. He has told us himself.

It may be hard for you to believe this, but we need to write it down and know that its true, even if right now you don’t feel it.

Re-visit what you have written. Keep going back to it. Know it in your heart and in your mind. It’s not something we are trying to live up to, its something we already are. And the pressure is off because we aren’t this because of something we did or can do – it’s because of what he did.

We are not fakes or frauds. We are as God made us. He shapes us and grows us and we are these cracked and broken jars or clay so he can use us for his purposes.

And that, my friends, is a wonderful thing and there is nothing fake about it.

Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.” Psalm 139:13

“So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” Romans 6:11

“For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Ephesians 2:10

 

Masculinity is good and not all men are toxic

“Masculinity” just means qualities that are characteristic of a man. But these days it has become a bit of a dirty word. This is partially understandable:

  • Most women have been at the arse-end of what has commonly been called “toxic masculinity” for an awful long time – that is everything from arrogance and casual sexism to misogyny and abuse.
  • The women’s movement is still relatively new (I talked about it a few weeks ago. You can read it here if you want to suss it out) and so we still have a lot of pretty poor attitudes, assumptions and behaviors towards women that have been institutionalised in our culture. For the longest time, we have been culturally numb to these, thinking its OK or doesn’t matter. But now, people are calling it out louder than before.
  • What erupts on social media is a reaction to hundreds of years of things that are not OK. Its a reaction to the feeling of not having had a voice before, or not being heard before, or just not plain being listened to before.

What happens then is that we have swung the pendulum towards all masculinity being bad and all men being jerks. This is just not the case.

What I want to see being part of the conversation is what real men look like, and what good masculinity looks like.

We might fall into the trap of thinking that all masculinity should be eradicated. But I don’t think this is what most women – or our culture – wants. We want our men to be grown ups. We want out men to be real men. But what does a real man look like?

Our culture actually celebrates what a real man should look like. The Marvel Universe movies have been some of the biggest and most popular movies in our generation. And what is aspirational in these movies is the men of character. In these movies we celebrate Captain America as the quintessential man. He is strong and powerful – but he is gentle and uses his power and strength in the service of others. He is humble, protective, principled, he has integrity, self-control, passion and a sincere sense of responsibility with no hint of complaint or resentment.

What we might not realise is that we have plenty of examples of just this kind of man in our day-to-day lives already – they just might not look like Captain America, and they might not be able to keep up that superhero character 24/7. But they try, and they self-reflect and they grow.

We should celebrate this. We should celebrate them.

Because that, in my opinion, is what a real man looks like. He is strong and he is powerful but he uses it for the good of others, in the service of others – not for his own glory or pride.

Does this sound familiar? It should. As Christians we have the picture of manhood: Jesus was the most powerful man ever to have lived. Yes, he is fully God, but he is also fully man. And as a man he, as the most powerful, did not relinquish or give up his power. He used his power for the salvation of the world.

When I say “power” here, I don’t mean like his superpower. I mean, on the cross, as a man, he used his power to die.

Just pause there and think about that.

God created man. And it was good. But after the fall, we all suffer from, and struggle with, sinful behavior. We will never be perfect until we get to finally relax in heaven. Until then, there will be good men and there will be bad men. There will be good women and there will be bad women. It is incumbent on us, with the help of the Spirit, to be active participants in our discipleship and growth in Christ-likeness.

Women – a discipleship journey does not preclude us from calling out crap behavior. But it means we should do it with love and grace.

Men – that means not being a jerk (you can read more about that here too). There is such a thing as toxic masculinity. But we have good men in our midst who should be celebrated for it. And we can help them use their power in the service of others. I know great men who you might call “feminist” in that, they choose to use their power and strength in the service of women – lifting them up, calling out crap behavior when its directed at them, respecting them, protecting them, working shoulder to shoulder with them, being aware (or actively learning) what women face, working to change institutional and cultural numbness to the plight of women, listening to them.

These are great men and we should not tar them with a “all masculinity is toxic” brush. Men are good. Masculinity is good. But like all things, good things can be made bad when mishandled or subject to pride and arrogance.

I want to celebrate our good men. I want them to be men. I want them to be masculine. Because I want us to be in conversation. This is a long game. If we are to change the kind of culture that results in terrible behavior towards women, we need men on our side. This is not a game to be played in opposition – nor should it be. We are co-workers in this life. We were created to be co-workers and it’s where we can be at our best, or our worst. I would like it be be at our best.