Tag Archives: #life

I am the most unlikely Christian. But aren’t we all? Mark 8:22-26)

I became a Christian 12 years ago. I was completely fine at the time. By that I mean I had no need of religion. I had a great life and a great job with lots of prospects. I had no real responsibilities, I didn’t have to worry too much what the price tags said, I could go on holiday whenever I wanted and spent most weekends out for brunch, lunch and dinner.

When I met Jesus though, it was like someone had switched a light on and I didn’t realise until that moment that I’d been stumbling about in the dark.

For me, it was a two-stage conversion. A friend of mine who had a similar experience says that she was “a Christian before she became a Christian”. I became a Christian in my head first and about a year later, in my heart as well.

I became a believer because the more I learned, the more I realised it was more probably true than not. When I learned the evidence around the resurrection of Jesus Christ, I became a Christian. The evidence was too compelling for it to not be true. And if that was true, well….the only thing you can do is give your life to Jesus.

About a year later, I was at a large conference and with hundreds of women’s voices raised in song, I suddenly got it. What had happened in my head the year before, suddenly happened in my heart too. I got it. I suddenly understood the very depth of my sin and therefore the extent of gratitude I owed to God.

Both stages were life changing. Both stages felt like a progressive healing of what had been complete blindness.

There is a man in Mark 8:22-26 who’s experience resonates deeply with me. It’s a short story, but profound.

They came to Bethsaida, and some people brought a blind man and begged Jesus to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village. When he had spit on the man’s eyes and put his hands on him, Jesus asked, “Do you see anything?”

He looked up and said, “I see people; they look like trees walking around.”

Once more Jesus put his hands on the man’s eyes. Then his eyes were opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. Jesus sent him home, saying, “Don’t even go into the village.”

In the first stage, he begins to see – there’s light and colour and shape but it’s still indistinct. With the second stage, he sees clearly. And his life is changed.

But there is more to be said here that resonates with me. I am blessed with full sight, but I can imagine that someone with impaired vision would need to trust someone deeply to allow them to lead them, especially as far away as somewhere outside the village. Jesus was someone to be trusted. And he must have proved his trustworthiness in how he led the man – gently but sure footed, reaching their destination safely.

This is something I remember. Becoming a Christian and not knowing what on earth I was supposed to do, but just trusting Jesus and allowing him to lead me as though I was a child. And that sense of seeing, but seeing things indistinctly until things started coming into focus.

I look back now and wonder that I ever became a Christian. I had no history with the church. I didn’t grow up knowing anyone who went to church. And like I said, as a grown up, life was peachy. I was the most unlikely person to become a Christian.

But really, aren’t we all? Only an encounter with Jesus brings us to the truth. Without him none of us would be Christians.

And look how far we’ve come. I look back sometimes and my only regret is that I didn’t become a Christian sooner. But just like the blind man, the stage was set for an encounter with Jesus and it happened when it was supposed to happen. So the timing cannot be regretted.

Look back at your own story. We have so much further to go – growing in Christlikeness is a life long pursuit for us. And even if you think you’re not “nailing it” right now and that your life is messy, that’s ok. Because life is always messy. But look back and see how far you’ve come. And look forward with a renewed sense of hope because we will make more progress in the months and years to come.

Just remember that we were blind, but now we see. And Jesus leads us tenderly, gently. He changed our lives. He has changed our eternity. And while we are still here on earth, we will grow in him. Because all of us are unlikely Christians, and none of us are able to do this without him.

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: Studies in the Gospel of Mark

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

I tinkered with lots of clever and pithy titles for this blog, but in the end, I decided to go with the basic rule of advertising – “It does exactly what it says on the tin”. It’s obvious, but it’s clear. The reason for that is that this is something we don’t talk about much except in high profile cases. When it comes to sexual coercion in marriage, it’s something we don’t really talk about it at all. I wanted the title to be clear so people could engage with it straight away. Because sexual coercion is real, it happens in marriage all the time and it’s horrifically damaging. Which means we have work to do.

But here’s the thing. We have work to do together – men and women together. Sexual coercion is generally an issue that is visited upon women, but women can not solve this problem alone. This is not a women’s issue. This is an everybody issue. So please, let’s engage in this together.

Before we get into it, it’s important for us to be on the level. I know that sexual coercion happens. I have spoken to so many women who struggle with this. Most think it’s something they just have to put up with. Others know it’s wrong, but don’t feel they can do anything about it. Some don’t even know it’s wrong and have suffered for years without realising it was not OK.

How can this be? Well, for starters here’s a conundrum. I’ve heard Christian sexologist Patricia Weerakoon speaking once about how women are like slow cookers – you turn them on and they need to warm up. Men are like toasters – generally you turn them on and they pop up almost immediately. This being the case, if a woman isn’t “in the mood” when her husband is, does that mean we are heading for sexual coercion? Not at all, or at least not necessarily. Getting in the mood is part of the intimate experience. How people do that is very individual. The problem arises when “encouragement” becomes coercion.

I think some men may not realise that they’re doing it. And that’s a problem of awareness and communication.

Some men may realise they are adding pressure, but may not realise it’s wrong. This is a problem of awareness and accountability.

Some men, at the more extreme end, know it’s wrong but feel justified, and that’s just a problem.

But because this isn’t talked about, neither men nor women are equipped to communicate about it – with each other, or with other trusted Christians and pastors. Women can’t raise awareness that the behaviour is not OK, which means they can’t communicate how they feel to their husbands. Men can’t keep each other accountable, or talk honestly about what is appropriate behaviour in marriage, and where the line is.

It’s time to address that. So let’s start with being clear about what sexual coercion is.

What is it?

The U.S. Office on Women’s Health says sexual coercion is unwanted sexual activity that happens after being pressured in nonphysical ways that include:

  • Being worn down by someone who repeatedly asks for sex
  • Being lied to or being promised things that weren’t true to trick you into having sex
  • Having someone threaten to end a relationship or spread rumors about you if you don’t have sex with them
  • Having an authority figure, like a boss, property manager, loan officer, or professor, use their influence or authority to pressure you into having sex.*

The Australian national group 1800Respect includes sexual coercion under sexual assault and violence and describes it as “when someone pressures or tricks you into doing sexual things when you don’t want to. It involves behaviour that may not always be criminal, but is usually abusive in some way. Sexual coercion can include someone:

  • Saying they’ll leave you or have sex with someone else if you don’t have sex with them
  • Trying to get you to drink more than you want to so you’ll agree to sex
  • Making you feel guilty for not having sex when they want
  • Telling you it’s your duty to have sex with them
  • Saying that you owe them
  • Making you feel scared to refuse because of what they might do. This might be a fear of physical violence, but can also include fears of them saying bad things about you to others, sharing private or damaging information about you on the internet, or taking away support, money, children or pets.
  • Saying they will get you out of debt, provide you with drugs, let you stay at their house, or help you with a problem if you have sex with them
  • Holding you down, yelling at you or trying to scare you into having sex**

Some of these seem more overtly “abusive” than others and so the less apparently “abusive” behaviours could be down played.

They shouldn’t be.

Firstly, because individually these behaviours are wrong. Secondly, when taken over many occurrences over weeks, months or even years, the damage this causes to a woman cannot be overstated.

The damage to the relationship can be irrevocable. There is loss of trust and loss of love that can erode a marriage or make it implode.

The damage to the woman can last a lifetime. Once is bad enough. The real problem is if there is a pattern and especially if this becomes the “normal” approach to intimacy in a relationship.

There is trauma. And with trauma comes nightmares, flashbacks, anxiety, fear, hyper-vigilance, panic attacks, a deadening of any interest in intimacy (which can then exacerbate the issue), a problem being touched at all….it is akin to having a major car smash where every bone in the body is broken and which then requires intense medical intervention, healing, time and rehabilitation. Untreated, the woman is just such a car smash victim but has never had any medical intervention or healing and the injuries continue to be inflicted. She exists. Broken.

Perhaps this is part of the issue facing men and women. Given that men and women treat and experience sexual intimacy differently (generally speaking, of course), it is next to impossible for a man to understand the effect of broken sexual intimacy on a woman. Again this is highly individual, but there is enough research to show the effect on women as being highly damaging emotionally and psychologically and traumatic.

It hurts women. It breaks women.

I realise there are impacts to men too. Facing unwillingness to engage in intimacy can feel like rejection. It can feel hurtful. It can be disappointing, frustrating, and, given the right emotional environment, can feel damaging to a man too. And I am not talking here about withholding sex as a deliberate leverage of power over a man which is totally wrong on so many levels. That can be deeply damaging to a man.

I think the difference we need to focus on though is this:

Men don’t need sex. It might feel like they do, but not having is not going to kill them, like the removal of air or food and water will. Yet the importance placed on it can be disproportionate. However, there are deeply felt and real emotional needs and these need to be brought into the light and taken seriously. But there is an opportunity to communicate about these, and that’s as it should be.

Women, when having sex without wanting to, feel violated. That is not a feeling that goes away. Ever.

Is it really a problem?

Unfortunately, yes.

A recent study of 122,000 women found that over a third had been in abusive relationships. But of those 65% of remaining women who said they hadn’t been in an abusive relationship, almost two thirds had experienced problematic, harsh and potentially abusive treatment from a partner.***

A study as far back as 1997 found that over a third of married women had been sexually coerced by their husbands.****

A survey undertaken in 2018 revealed some scary results including:

  • Almost 20 per cent are not aware that non-consensual sex in marriage is illegal (just in case there is any doubt – it is!)
  • 1 in 7 believe non-consensual sex is justified if the woman initiates intimacy (so if a woman tries to get in the mood so her husband can have sex, but then cannot go through with it, 1 in 7 people believe the man would be justified in forcing her to go through it it)
  • 1 in 5 Australians believe domestic violence is a normal reaction to stress, and that sometimes a woman can make a man so angry he hits her without meaning to
  • 1 in 8 believe that if a woman is raped while she is drunk or affected by drugs she is at least partly responsible.*****

What this shows is an alarming number of people who do not see or understand that sexual coercion is wrong, damaging and traumatic. This being the case, it is easy for a husband not to know where the line is if culture largely remains silent on this. Equally, it is easy for women to never know they are being abused even though they feel all the feelings and responses of an abused person.

Let me be clear here. I’m not advocating for creating abuse where there is none. What I’m saying is that the abuse is happening already, we just don’t know to speak into it. Just because the abuse is not understood, does not make it not abusive behaviour. It’s still not OK.

A woman can feel traumatised and damaged, experience panic attacks and irrational fears – and think that it’s her own fault. If we speak into this issue, we can free women from this added burden and actually be clearer about what is appropriate behaviour.

We can equip both men and women.

So what do we do?

First, let’s approach this issue together. Remember, this is not a women’s issue, this is an everybody issue.

Second, we need to bring this issue into the light. There is a lot of fear and anger on all sides, anticipating blame and confrontation. So there can be a tendency to want to ignore the issue because perhaps women have just decided to raise it now. We need to be clear that women have never been OK with this, and it has never been acceptable behaviour – we just haven’t been able to talk about it before. It can also be driven by an assumption (coming from a place of hurt) that the woman is withholding, not because she is feeling damaged, but because she is making a power play. These kinds of assumptions are especially dangerous. So all assumptions need to be put to one side.

At the same time, this should not be an excuse for man-bashing. The only way to deal with this is to tackle it together. Many men have no idea that this is not OK and we need to equip men to understand the effect of certain behaviours. In fact, we need men desperately in this endeavour. We need men to be talking about it with each other, exploring it, even weeping over it. We need them to feel empowered to grow in gentleness. Biblically speaking, such gentleness is having enormous power, but using it for the care and protection of others. We need our men to grow in this Christ-likeness. To explore and mature in biblical gentleness is critical to this.

We also need to recognise and acknowledge that this is not a blanket issue. Not being in the mood can most of the time, become being in the mood, as part of the honest, trusting and loving intimate experience. What we are talking about here is the genuine cross over into coercion where one party (usually the woman) has sex without wanting to because they feel pressured into it – once, or as a repeated pattern.

So, men and women, start with reading the definitions of sexual coercion. Understand what it is, and what it isn’t.

Recognise and accept that it is what it is, and there is a chance that you could be experiencing it, or perpetrating it.

Here is where we need our God, and our Christian brothers and sisters. We need humility to recognise there may be some things to repent of. We need the courage to speak with our trusted Christian friends. We need to call each other out, gently and lovingly if we see behaviour or hear words that raise red flags. We need to be able to talk about this issue in the light – understand it, change it.

And we need to support and enable husbands and wives to talk to each other about this. Do a temperature check in your relationship. This may not be an issue for most of you, but talking about it cannot be a bad thing – it is a deeply intimate but profound issue of trust to be discussed. It may help you as a couple to support another couple for whom it might be an issue.

We need to not dismiss each other’s feelings or experience. This is an area that is extremely difficult and what will make it worse is being confrontational. We need to approach this as far as is possible in the most collaborative and positive way possible.

That said, if this is an issue in your marriage, and it is in any way repetitive, seemingly justified or escalating, please seek help. Immediately. It is not OK and you must be safe. At least seek the guidance of a professional and trusted Christian pastor or friend.

Most importantly, we must lean on God. This is where we need him most. Intimacy can be so broken. Experiencing it is traumatic. Recognising it can be equally traumatic. Seeking to rectify it can be challenging. It is us humans at our most vulnerable.

We need Him. Through and in Him we can seek the best – which is a bringing this issue into the light, talking about it openly and honestly, facing our issues humbly, supporting each other and keeping each other accountable.

Dealing with brokenness. Together. In Him.

* https://www.womenshealth.gov/relationships-and-safety/other-types/sexual-coercion#7

** https://www.1800respect.org.au/violence-and-abuse/sexual-assault-and-violence/

*** https://www.businessinsider.com.au/two-thirds-of-women-dont-realise-they-experience-abusive-behaviour-2018-5?r=US&IR=T

**** https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/m/pubmed/12477095/ and https://truthout.org/articles/its-time-to-confront-sexual-harassment-within-marriage/

***** https://www.abc.net.au/triplej/programs/hack/violence-against-women-survey-shows-concerning-attitudes/10568638?smid=Page:%20ABC%20News-Facebook_Organic&WT.tsrc=Facebook_Organic&sf203239950=1

Loved, saved, freed and given a voice (Mark 7:31-37)

One of the things I have struggled with in the past is feeling that I have no voice. In an era where there are so many platforms and outlets to speak your piece and express your opinion, I have felt that my voice was actually stifled and ignored. It’s a horrible feeling when that happens. It means your views, opinions, concerns, fears and emotions become nothing.

And maybe that’s been you too. Maybe you’re in a job where your boss or colleague dismisses your opinion constantly, making you feel invisible. Maybe you’re in a relationship where, if you express your emotions you’re met with an eye roll and a shake of the head and a turned back. Maybe you’re in a friendship group where you fear expressing yourself honestly in case the others turn on you.

Or maybe in your church there are things you want to talk about, or ask questions about, but you worry you are a lone voice and everyone will think you’re crazy.

Or maybe you have things you need to talk about because things are damaging you – and you don’t feel that you can, or don’t feel like you will be cared for or believed, or that there might be repercussions that you just can’t face.

And so that leaves us heart sore, feeling the physical pain of not being able to be honest, not being able to speak the truth. Feeling the frustration, the sadness, the loneliness.

It’s amazing how much of our identity is bound up with our ability to express ourselves – our ability to be heard.

Jesus talks about this a lot. He says several times that hearing is as much a spiritual thing as it is a physical thing (see Mark 4:9 and 4:23). We want to be heard because it is a mark of our personal expression. Jesus wants to be heard because it is a matter of salvation.

But in today’s passage, the two needs are met in one.

Then Jesus left the vicinity of Tyre and went through Sidon, down to the Sea of Galilee and into the region of the Decapolis. There some people brought to him a man who was deaf and could hardly talk, and they begged Jesus to place his hand on him.

After he took him aside, away from the crowd, Jesus put his fingers into the man’s ears. Then he spit and touched the man’s tongue. He looked up to heaven and with a deep sigh said to him, “Ephphatha!” (which means “Be opened!”). At this, the man’s ears were opened, his tongue was loosened and he began to speak plainly.

Jesus commanded them not to tell anyone. But the more he did so, the more they kept talking about it. People were overwhelmed with amazement. “He has done everything well,” they said. “He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.” Mark 7:31-37

For such a short passage, there’s a lot in here. The man was deaf and so lived in silence. He couldn’t hear his friends or loved ones. He couldn’t hear the sound of lazy insects buzzing on a summer day, or the sound of a baby’s first laugh, or hear the water lapping on the shores, or singing or music. And without hearing, his voice was impaired. Whatever he wanted to say, couldn’t be said. What he felt couldn’t be adequately communicated. And he was stuck like that. Forever. Never hearing, never having a voice. Never being able to express himself. Never being heard.

Jesus takes the man to one side. The privacy makes the moment more intimate. Jesus is not a performing monkey. This is a moment of intense power and compassion between just two people. The compassion we see in Jesus’ physical touch – especially for this man who cannot hear what Jesus is saying.

Why the spit? It’s not like Jesus needs anything to perform his miracles. Spit was often seen in the ancient world as having magical or medicinal powers apparently. In Roman writings we see people relating that the spit of a famous or important person had special powers. I’m not sure that is what Jesus is communicating, but I think it sends a message that it’s something that he did. Jesus didn’t have to do anything but then would people have believed it was him? At least this way, as with other actions we have seen when he healed others, the people see Jesus definitely did something and there was a definite result – the mans’ hearing is returned and his voice is restored.

The words that Mark uses here are reminiscent of Isaiah and there is a deliberate reference to Isaiah 35:5-6 “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy.” The new age has come. Jesus is God’s own son, come to usher in God’s kingdom. We had been told this in Mark 1:15 “the time has come, the kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!

This encounter with the living God, is a sign that God’s kingdom is truly here. For the man though, it is an encounter that changed his whole life. Jesus had compassion and healed him, loved him, saved him – restored him before God – and gave him a voice.

Our voice is one of the most significant things we possess. With it, we can proclaim the good news and praise God. We can build people up – and we can tear each other down. Our God is a speaking God, so it should be no surprise that our voices can be disproportionately powerful.

It also means that without our voice, we are diminished disproportionately also. And we feel it. We feel small and irrelevant.

God gave us ears to hear and gave us our voices, just as he did the man in today’s passage. We must use them. And we must allow and empower others to use theirs.

We must never be afraid to speak God’s truth. We must not be afraid to explore how God’s truth is applied in our lives and in our world. That means we listen, we explore, we respect. We must never make others feel as though their voice has no place or no value. In all our interactions, we should be caring and respectful.

And if you are reading this and feel like you are in a position where your voice is stifled or taken from you – know this: God gave you ears to hear and a voice to speak. Please seek out people in God’s community. Seek outlets and platforms that will allow you to express yourself and ask questions and speak and continue to learn and grow in him.

Even if some people around you would rather have a diminished form of you, God wants all of you. Do not see yourself as those people see you. See yourself as God sees you – beautiful, whole, loved.

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.

Ever felt like a nobody? (Mark 7:24-30)

I have. I’ve felt like a nobody. Have you? Many people have, I think. Life is really hard. You work away and you carry this enormous load and your emotions are stretched like a taut piece of elastic – any tiny hit is jarring. You run on fumes. It feels like it’s just you. Only you to carry these terrible burdens. And you run out. You just run out. You’ve got nothing left. Nothing. No capacity to take any more knocks, even small ones. No resilience left.

Nothing.

At those times in my life I have despaired. I feel like I have nothing left. I have felt like I am nothing. I’m nobody. The world goes on and I just slog away alone. And there’s no end in sight. No solutions. No end. Just me.

In Mark 7:24-30 we see a woman who is at the end of her tether. How do we know that? Because of what she does and what she says.

Jesus has headed up to the area of Tyre and Sidon. These areas were synonymous with pagan worship. In fact the notorious Jezebel was a princess of Sidon and daughter of the king of Tyre. She was married to King Ahab (check out 1 Kings 16) and introduced pagan worship to the Israelites and wanted to have the prophet Elijah killed.

Now we have a woman from the same area, but approaching Jesus in faith. Like Rahab in Joshua 2 being the only one who has faith, so the SyroPhoenician woman comes in faith. Her act of faith is driven by desperation. Her daughter in possessed by an unclean spirit. I have two little boys and I would do anything to keep them safe and well. I would endure any punishment and humiliation I had to, to save them.

This woman tracks Jesus down, who has gone there wanting it to be kept secret. But this woman finds him and essentially breaks in to approach him. And she, a Gentile, throws herself at his feet and begs. Desperate, humiliated, hopeful.

And Jesus says something odd. “First let the children eat all they want, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” (Mark 7:27)

The gospel (the bread) is for the Israelites (the children), not for Gentiles (the dogs).

Children in Jewish culture are the rightful heirs. They are honoured. Dogs are dirty. In fact in Matthew 6:7, Jesus says not to give to dogs what is holy. Jesus is calling this woman a dog? Not so much. This is a teaching moment.

The Israelites have always been God’s chosen people. They are his children. But Jesus had said “first”. Israel first, others later. This continues the trajectory of the narrative arc of the whole Bible that shows that all the nations are God’s plan. Right from the first promises to Abraham when God had said that “All nations will be blessed through you” (Gen. 22:18), to Rahab being the brought into the chosen people, to Ruth the Moabite who is honoured in the line of David and Jesus, to the prophecies of Isaiah where the suffering servant will be “a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth,” (Isaiah 49:6)

This is that moment.

Jesus is also not as harsh as it might first sound also. The word for “dog” he uses is kunarion which is a pup, or a little dog, or a house dog. Not a wild dog but a more affectionately termed animal. A dog that is around the house, that is familiar.

The woman seizes on the imagery and the hope contained in that word “first”. She says “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” (Verse 28).

She addresses him as Lord. She identifies herself as the dog. And she asks only for crumbs. She has faith and humility. And Jesus grants her request.

That woman must have felt like a nobody. She throws herself at the feet of the one person left in the world who may be able to help her. She literally begs on her knees. I’m a dog, she says. I’m nothing.

No, says Jesus. There’s a plan. Salvation for all. God’s grace extends to all. And there’s an order. But Jesus himself is the turning point. While later Paul’s mission is to the Gentiles, the promise has been there from the beginning and it is Jesus himself who begins the inclusion of the non-Israelites. We see him with Legion in the Gentile region of the Gerasenes of Mark 5, he heals the Roman centurions servant in Luke 7:1-10, he saves the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4. And because of the response of this woman, he casts the demon out of her daughter.

Salvation for all. Mercy for all. We are not nobodys. We are somebody. We are somebody to God. We were outsiders. Just like these other people were. But we are not outsiders any more. That was promised right from Abraham – the very first promise included all of us. And if we are not outsiders, we are now his children.

His children. We are not nobody’s. We are his. Even though life is so hard, and we can feel so alone and burdens can feel impossible. We are his. Hold onto that one truth. We are his.

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.

I admit it. I want to be led. But not by anyone (Mark 6:30-56)

I am a pretty modern woman with some old fashioned edges. On one hand I have a full time job, I’m a single parent, I manage a house, I deal with the problems, I keep calm and carry on. On the other hand, I like manners. I like good customer service, I like men to hold doors and are creative with romance, just to please her.

This is of course all superficial stuff. What it boils down to is being comfortable with my personal abilities, at the same time as being comfortable to be lead by another.

But not just anyone. Someone who believes in me. Someone who supports me, even though they lead me. Someone who will never let me down.

Today’s passage shows us Jesus as the man who leads us – and how he does it. Not with inappropriate power or harshness, but with complete gentleness. In Mark 6:30-44, we see the feeding of the 5,000 and Jesus as shepherd. In Mark 6:45-56 we see Jesus walking on water. This second story shows Jesus has the power to be as harsh as he wants. And yet in the first story we see he uses his power to love and support with tenderness and compassion.

Jesus, before the death of John the Baptist, had sent out his disciples to preach in his name. Now the apostles return to Jesus and recount everything they’ve done (Mark 6:30). They go to a remote place but people follow them there and Jesus had compassion on them because “they were like sheep without a shepherd”. What does he do in response? He begins to teach them. This is their need, and it’s the need he provides. They may have come for healing miracles, but it does not say this (and it usually specifies that’s why the crowd is there). He expresses his compassion for them through his teaching.

As sheep without a shepherd, it’s not that they are confused. As a popular Old Testament reference, sheep without a shepherd are scattered and vulnerable to attack by wild animals (Ezekiel 34:5). Spiritually, the people are lost and vulnerable. They need a shepherd. And this is what Jesus is. He teaches them. He guides them.

Later in the day, Jesus has compassion on them again, this time in the face of their immediate physical needs. They are hungry. Jesus gets the people to recline in small dining groups as though it were a banquet. Then the five loaves and two fish become enough to feed 5,000 men (and an unknown number of women and children) to a level where all are satisfied and there is enough leftover to fill 12 baskets.

This points us backwards and forwards. It points backwards to God feeding the Israelites in the wilderness. The people are in a remote place, much like the wilderness. In addition, it is God’s miracle and Moses is his hands and feet, just as here it is Jesus’ miracle and the disciples are his hands and feet.

It also points forward to the end of times banquet, when we will be in his presence as foretold in Isaiah: “On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine – the best of meats and the finest of wines.” (Is. 25:6-9).

After this, Jesus sends his disciples away in a boat while he goes to pray. The boat is stuck in a storm and Jesus goes to meet them, walking on the water. Despite having seen the feeding of the crowds, the disciples see Jesus and think he’s a ghost. But Jesus doesn’t berate them. He merely says “Have courage. Don’t be afraid. It is I”

Compassion expressed in teaching. Power expressed through gentleness. Jesus is God. He could do anything. He could smite everyone if he wanted. But he doesn’t. He shepherds them. Even when their hearts are hardened, even when the disciples are being dull and thoughtless, he shepherds them with gentle compassion.

Here’s the thing. We are so modern. We like to be independent and powerful. And yet one of our greatest cultural icons is Captain America – someone who has super strength and amazing powers. But he exercises these powers with complete gentleness. Culturally, this is something we seem to be craving.

And here is Jesus, the most powerful person in the universe, the one who could do anything. And he expresses his power through compassion and gentleness.

Yes, this is the one I want to lead me and I am not ashamed to admit it. He is there when I am hungry and lost, he is there when I am dull and hard hearted. He is powerful when I am weak. And always, gentleness and compassion.

He is my leader. He is my shepherd. I know his voice, and I follow him.

This blog is a stand alone piece but 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 to each individual week can be found here, in Bible studies in Mark.

Bible studies in Mark

Each Monday, we have been working out way through the gospel of Mark. You can follow along each week or jump in and out. You can read it like a devotional or work through it with me. You can post any comments you like and ask questions – this study allows us to create an online community!

Each blog is a stand alone piece but you can also follow the whole series. If you miss any, here’s where you can find all the studies to date (just click the week number and it will take you straight there!):

  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)
  9. Week 9: What will the kingdom of God be like? (Mark 4:21-34)
  10. Week 10: Jesus goes out of his way to specifically find you (Mark 4:35-5:20)
  11. Week 11: The only person who could save her was him (Mark 5:21-43)
  12. Week 12: Misunderstood, disrespected, unloved, written off (Mark 6:1-13)
  13. Week 13: How can something be a tragedy and a triumph (Mark 6:14-29)
  14. Week 14: I admit it, I want to be led, but not by anyone (Mark 6:30-56)
  15. Week 15: In the mess of the world, how can I feel clean (Mark 7:1-23)
  16. Week 16: Ever felt like a nobody? (Mark 7:24-30)
  17. Week 17: Loved, freed and given a voice (Mark 7:31-37)
  18. Week 18It’s not the the ends of the banner that are important – it’s what it says in between (Mark 8:1-13)
  19. Week 19: Sometimes the disciples remind me of my kids when they’re being really annoying (Mark 8:14-21)
  20. Week 20: I am the most unlikely Christian. But aren’t we all? (Mark 8:22-26)
  21. Week 21: The choice that affects your life here and your eternity. I know what I choose (Mark 8:27-9:1)
  22. Week 22: If God is real, why hasn’t he shown himself? (Mark 9:1-13)

How can something be a tragedy and a triumph? (Mark 6:14-29)

There’s a lot of women in the Bible who we can admire. Strong women. Smart women. Gentle women. Brave women. There are women who triumph when everyone else crumbles. There are women who save the day. There are women who believe when all hope appears to be gone.

There are other women who are the exact opposite. There are of course plenty of men in the Bible who lead the people into idolatry and death. Here though, we meet one of the women who’s inappropriate authority over her husband, leads them all into wickedness and evil.

Today’s passage deals with the death of John the Baptist.

The story is that Salome, the step daughter of Herod, dances for him and he is so enchanted that he says she can have anything she wishes. Salome, in consultation with her mother Herodias (Herod’s wife) asks for the head of John the Baptist.

There’s a mix of history and theology here that turns this Hollywood-style thriller into a tragedy and triumph at the same time.

Herod Antipas was the ruler of Galilee and Perea as a Roman client state. He was the ruler of the Jews and was also raised as a Jew. He was married to the daughter of the king of Nabatea – and he divorced her to marry Herodias, who had been married to Herod’s half-brother. It’s not clear whether she walked out on the half-brother and married Herod anyway, or divorced him before marrying Herod.

Confused yet? It’s like a plot line from The Bold and the Beautiful isn’t it?

John the Baptist had preached against Herod and Herodias’ marriage, which was against Old Testament law (although it was not against Roman law so they must have snuck it in under that). This is all attested by Jewish historian Josephus who was writing at the time of the events.*

Herod appears to have had a conflicted relationship with John. In Mark 16:19-20, Herodias wants to kill John but can’t because Herod feared him. The original Greek here implies more a reverential fear – which fits with the passage saying “Herod would listen to John” and he would be greatly perplexed but he would like it. Herod knows he is a holy and righteous man and likes listening to him, even though he doesn’t really understand.

Herod had imprisoned John because of what he was saying (6:17). But he also protected him from Herodias who wanted to kill him (6:19).

Josephus says John was imprisoned in the fortress of Machaerus where John appears to have been for a while because in the other gospels, John receives visits from his disciples and from Jesus’ disciples (Matthew 11 and Luke 7). It must have been bleak and seeing the fortress reminds us we are dealing with real people and real events.

Source: https://archaeologynewsnetwork.blogspot.com/2019/03/jordans-biblical-fortress-of-machaerus.html#OsuYcE2RGpuk130K.97

We are also dealing with a narrative arc of the Bible. Herodias’ murderous hatred of John points us back to Jezebel in the Old Testament and her hatred of Elijah. In 1 Kings 18 Elijah had defeated the prophets of Baal. In 1 Kings 19, Jezebel swears to kill Elijah too and he flees.

This echo of Jezebel is deliberate – not because Herodias is equally as wicked (although she is), but because of the association with Elijah. Since the beginning there has been association of John with Elijah and the prophet who prepares the way for the Messiah.

Herod is a weak fool. Herodias and Salome defeat him with their wits. They manipulate him and he walks right into it. Herod doesn’t want to kill John, he knows he is innocent. He is perplexing and maybe a threat to his authority but he’s done nothing wrong. And here we see a foreshadowing of Jesus with Pilate. Pilate sees Jesus as a possible threat but knows he has broken no laws.

When John is executed, John’s disciples come and take the body and lay it in a tomb – as Jesus’ disciples would soon do. Another foreshadowing.

Until this point, John has been the main landmark on Herod’s horizon. After John’s death, Jesus’ ministry really rises to the fore. When Herod hears about Jesus fears that John has been raised from the dead. Some people are even saying this. This is telling on a few fronts. Firstly, that the association between John and Jesus is evident. While people have yet to clearly distinguish them, it shows that at the time, they were not two distinct movements but seen as one a progression of the other. This is certainly what John himself had understood as he prepared the way for Jesus, and that he must become less and Jesus becomes more.

It also shows Herod’s guilt and shame. His fear almost feels as though he thinks he is being haunted by the ghost of this innocent man he has murdered.

It also points forward again the Jesus – who was raised from the dead. It’s interesting there was a rumour that John was raised from the dead, but it never went anywhere because he wasn’t. He demonstrably wasn’t. He didn’t appear anywhere and nobody saw him. When the rumour erupts of Jesus’ resurrection, he is seen in many places by many people. There’s no denying that that really happened. Here, however, it is just a rumour because of the similarity between John’s preaching of baptism and repentance, and Jesus’ preaching of repentance and faith. John baptised with water, but Jesus baptised with the Holy Spirit.

So John’s death was tragic. But it was also a triumph. It pointed us back to Jezebel to re-affirm John as the Elijah figure who prepares the way. It also points forward to what will happen with Jesus – the ultimate triumph.

I find it staggering that God provides these sign posts for us to help us understand and interpret what happened in the past, what is happening at the time and what is to come. Without John, the events around jesus’ ministry and sacrifice would be harder for us to interpret. With these events, God gives us a deeper and profound picture of what is happening and why.

God is gracious in his revelation to us. What he communicates is like a set of keys to unlock scripture. Nothing is in code. It’s not secret knowledge. It’s all there for us to read, understand, think about and look back to him in awe and reverence.

* Josephus Book 18, chapter 5. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/josephus/ant-18.html

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)
  9. Week 9: What will the kingdom of God be like? (Mark 4:21-34)
  10. Week 10: Jesus goes out of his way to specifically find you (Mark 4:35-5:20)
  11. Week 11: The only person who could save her was him (Mark 5:21-43)
  12. Week 12: Misunderstood, disrespected, unloved, written off (Mark 6:1-13)