Tag Archives: #life

Why I regret my early sex life

For as long as I can remember, all I could think about was having a boyfriend. My teen and young adult years stretched through the 1980s and 90s. There was Madonna, Rick Astley, Fresh Prince of Bel Air, shoulder pads, shaggy perms, bright make up – it was a great time to be alive.

I grew up atheist and everyone I knew were atheist. So everything I understood about the world came from TV and people I knew at school. When we hit 14 and 15 years old, my friends paired up. They had grown up relationships with older boys. They were cool. They had a hint of swagger. They’d done things. They knew things.

As I grew older, it seemed everyone had boyfriends except me. Everyone was having sex except me. I was missing out. Nobody wanted me. Two terrible truths to grow up with – a yearning to belong and a yearning to be wanted.

Getting a boyfriend was what underpinned everything I did. In the atmosphere I grew up in, that meant having sex. At the time, sex was everywhere. If you didn’t have it, you were a sad lonely single. If you didn’t want to have it, you were frigid. Sex was what you did to have a good time. It was a trophy. Sex was how you got boyfriends. And it’s how you kept boyfriends.

I know what you’re thinking – that’s just not true. I know. That’s why I regret it.

Now, as a Christian, I look back on those years and wonder why I didn’t have more self-respect. This might sound offensive to some – many people in the world think sexual freedom is a way of people expressing themselves. I get that. There may be people reading this who just want to have sex. It’s not an angry thought, it’s not crazy, it’s not a yen to be having sex with everything that moves. It’s just a deep yearning to be like everyone else. To have those doors opened. To see what it’s like. To experience that deep intimate connection.

One of the reasons I regret my early sex life is because it was never like that. I confused sex with romance. I thought it would be like it is in the movies. I thought it would be graceful, beautiful, with soft lighting, everything airbrushed. It’s not. It’s fumbly and clumsy and and there’s embarrassing noises and squelchy bits and it’s just….well…real.

The other reason I regret it is because it wasn’t sex in and of itself that I wanted. It was what it represented. It represented me having joined the world. It represented me being like everyone else. It represented me being wanted and found desirable. Those are all the wrong reasons to pursue sex. It was about my self-esteem. And if that’s what feeds the self-esteem, then you get into a cycle of always seeking someone to show they find you desirable.

Now, as a Christian, I read about what I wish I had been. Proverbs 31:25 describes the woman of noble character as being “clothed with strength and dignity.” That is what I wish I’d known – that my validation came from God, not from someone wanting to have sex with me. I have dignity because I am God’s image bearer and he loves me so much that he did not even spare his own son to bring me to him. That is a staggering truth.

I wish I had known that sooner. But I praise him that I know it now.

But if you are reading this and wanting to belong and are wanting to open that door, please know that I’ve been where you’re going. I know it must seem restrictive – this whole no-sex-outside-of-marriage thing. But having been there, I understand completely why God designed relationships the way he did.

Doing what I did leads to brokenness and regret. It’s a way of lacking self-control. It’s a way of giving in to temptation. Obedience to God doesn’t make us perfect, and it’s not easy, but it clothes us in dignity. Its a quiet confidence that our value comes from him and not what the world can hold so cheaply. I am worth more than that.

There are heaps of good books on Christian perspectives on sex. I recommend you read them. I just want to say I get it. I was there. I was you. And I chose wrong.

Sex is great but it can be awful. It needs thoughtfulness and intentionality. It needs to be for the right reasons. I was an atheist. I had no framework for understanding the world through the lens of Jesus Christ so I had no idea that I could carry myself with confidence. I had no idea that I could wait for the one who would connect with my soul as well as with my body. I had no idea I could be different from the world, and that different is good. I was so busy looking at myself through the lens of the world, I didn’t even think there could be another way. And having been where some of you may want to be, I look back and wish I had known.

Don’t be swayed by the world. Know that you are so valuable. You are so loved. You are clothed in strength and dignity. Listen to God. Follow Christ and be different.

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.

 

Why Christians are not immune to loneliness

As Christians, I often feel like we should be immune to loneliness. We have Jesus, right? But this is one of those areas where an inspirational Christian meme doesn’t really cut it. “Only God is enough to satisfy our loneliness” I read. And “You are never left alone when you are alone with God”. These are true, obviously, but not really helpful when you’re feeling the raw reality of loneliness.

If you google “bible passages for the lonely” you find lots of gems. “Surely I am with you always, till the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). Also true. But this is part of Jesus’ great commission to his disciples, not a consolation to a person crumbling under the weight of loneliness.

And yet, there is acknowledgement in scripture that loneliness is real, but not necessarily in the emotional way we might think of it. For example, in Psalm 25:16 “Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted.” The Hebrew word translated as “lonely” denotes more a physical state of being solitary – like a friendless wanderer or exile. Of course there is a psychological state associated potentially with that, but that’s not what the language denotes. Loneliness described and discussed as a psychological state is a relatively recent phenomena. That doesn’t mean it was any less real prior to the last hundred years, just that it wasn’t talked about the same way. In history, to be friendless or cut off from community was a social state and was the epitome of a fate worse than death.

We talk now about loneliness as a psychological and emotional state. It might include feeling cut off from community, but includes fear, despair, hopelessness – and as Christians we are not immune. Even though we have the truth of our salvation in Christ and an eternal relationship with the living God, we will still from time to time feel the awful chill of loneliness.

Loneliness can happen to anyone. Whether you are single or in a relationship, whether you are in a large family or none. It’s not the same as being alone. Personally, I’m quite content on my own. I am an introvert by nature and I enjoy reading, writing, knitting (badly) and so on. But being alone in this way is a choice. Feeling lonely is when we are alone in a way that we don’t feel is our choice – when we want to be with someone, or with family, or with community – and we can’t.

That’s when secondary emotions kick in. Disappointment that things aren’t different, anger at feeling powerless to change things, despair that things will always be this way, fear of a future that is uncertain.

Loneliness can feel cold and brittle. There is a stillness that you feel in the cavernous hollow of a dark mountain cave. You are the only living and breathing thing. There is a silence. There is nobody else and there is the thick rock cave wall between you and the rest of the world. If you screamed in this sound-deadened cavity, nobody would hear, and the only sound would be the echo of your own scream coming back to you. You are the only person who hears your pain.

That’s what loneliness feels like.

Loneliness is both our modern emotional understanding and the historical social understanding. You feel cut off from people. Even though our modern world is less constructed according to familial ties and community, we feel separated. And you feel the associated ragged emotional cuts of isolation physically and psychologically.

What is interesting is that even though the meaning behind the language has changed over time, scripture still acknowledges that anguish.

Psalm 142 gives us important teaching without ever using the word “loneliness”. It is attributed to David when he was hiding in the cave from his enemies. Verse 4 says:

Look and see, there is no one at my right hand; no one is concerned for me. I have no refuge; no one cares for my life.

This seems to be a perfect description of loneliness. And what does this psalm tell us?

I cry aloud to the Lord; I lift up my voice to the Lord for mercy.

I pour out before him my complaint; before him I tell my trouble.

Sorry to sound obvious but prayer is the first step when we are feeling pain. What is interesting here is that David says he tells a God of his complaint before he tells him his trouble. For David this might be his complaint about his physical situation (I’m trapped and alone) and then his “trouble” is then his emotional state – which he lays out in the following verses.

When my spirit grows faint within me, it is you who watch over my way. In the path where I walk people have hidden a snare for me.

4 Look and see, there is no one at my right hand; no one is concerned for me. I have no refuge; no one cares for my life.

His spirit grows faint – he is feeling overwhelmed. People have hidden a snare – he is surrounded by enemies. Nobody cares for him. These are all things that resonate with us.

I cry to you, Lord; I say, “You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living.”

Listen to my cry, for I am in desperate need; rescue me from those who pursue me, for they are too strong for me.

This whole psalm is a prayer – it is a conversation with God. David has told God his complaint (“I am alone”) and he’s laid out his trouble (“I feel so lonely and overwhelmed and frightened and this is too big for me…”). He continues this conversation, talking to God in real and raw emotional need. There is no prayer-formula here. There is no massaging of words to sound right, he just lets it pour out.

But what comes next is fascinating:

Set me free from my prison, that I may praise your name. Then the righteous will gather about me because of your goodness to me.

David doesn’t end with a hope that the loneliness will end at some point. He calls on God to deliver him so that he might praise his name. Then the righteous will gather around David – his loneliness and uncertainty will end. Not because of David, but because of God’s visible goodness.

This might feel confronting to us. Our prayers are requests but largely asking for God to empower us to feel better – as though God is a self help guru. What David does is directly and boldly ask God to change his situation (the circumstances of his complaint) and through God’s action, his trouble will be alleviated.

Sometimes, in our lack of confidence, we minimise God and our knowledge of what he is able to do. David, in the midst of his despair, asks God to essentially perform a powerful work so that in his responding praise, people will see evidence of God’s goodness and gather to him.

These are David’s words to God, but they are laid down as God-breathed scripture, which means they are words that God has given us to acknowledge our pain and provide a means and a language for us to reach him in those times. We must use them.

So, if you are like me and from time to time struggle with loneliness, we can use this approach to God. We can take the burden of self help off our already aching shoulders and ask God for help. We can not just speak words of complaint and trouble, but let them pour out of us. We can ask for deliverance. We can be bold because we are approaching our God who is bigger than any circumstance we have.

We are Christian and we have a relationship with the living God. But we are not immune to loneliness. God knows this and gave us real words to bring to him in our pain. Formula prayers and inspirational memes won’t cut it. In the Psalms he gave us these beautiful words that express how we feel – but he doesn’t leave us there. He gives us the means to move forward.

We need to give ourselves permission to be raw with God, be bold in asking him to take over our circumstances and deliver us from our loneliness.

There is nothing you can do to start – or stop – God’s plan (Mark 2:18-28)

When I’ve had super high anxiety in times of deep distress, I developed some tendencies that bordered on OCD. I don’t say this lightly. At one point, I became so panicked about money and how I was going to make ends meet, I developed a “thing” about how I made the boys sandwiches for lunch. When I noticed it, I tried making the sandwiches a different way – make the honey sandwich first and then the vegemite sandwich. And I couldn’t. And I froze. It’s very hard to explain but the mere thought of doing it out of order made me panic and burst into tears.

Of course it had nothing to do with sandwiches or even the boys. It had to do with control and creating order in a situation I felt I didn’t have any control over. Thankfully I have an excellent psychologist who helps me work through these issues. Because if left un-checked, suddenly you have a “system” for dealing with everything you have no control over – and a deep anxiety about then not doing it that way, otherwise the thing you are trying to control won’t happen/will happen.

This could be money, relationships, work, the home and even our faith. We saw last week that the Pharisees had turned legalism into an art form. I’m not saying they were OCD but the effect was much the same. We must meet all these rules and regs or God won’t come – to the point where they fail to see that God has, in fact, come.

In our passage this week, we see this on steroids and the Pharisees see two of their most sacred cows (and yes, I’m aware of the irony) come under threat.

Fasting and the sabbath are two things which the Pharisees believed would actually hasten the coming of the Messiah. To not observe them was not just an insult to God, it would inhibit his coming.

What we see in Jesus’ handling of these issues however, is that the kingdom, which is centred on God, is therefore centred on Jesus himself. This starts to illuminate for us who Jesus is and, that if the kingdom is centred on Jesus, it does not cease to be centred on God – far from it.

So in 2:18 we see that the Pharisees and the disciples of John the Baptist are fasting but Jesus and his disciples are not. This makes me wonder. The Pharisees fasting is obvious. Jesus actually is the Messiah and so he and his disciples don’t need to fast. We are not sure at this point if his disciples understand that, but they follow what he does. But John’s disciples? Surely they knew the Messiah was coming? So why are they still fasting? I wonder if John’s disciples only part-understood. John has come to prepare the way with his baptism of repentance. Given that that’s only part of the story though, his disciples understanding may have been stunted – especially as John has been imprisoned by this point (cf. 1:14) and so wasn’t around to explain it to them. But maybe they were doing it because it was habit – because that is how it had always been done – and not doing it…..well, maybe that was a step too far. There’s no real rhyme or reason. It’s just the way it always has been.

Anyway, enough of my musings. Jesus explains clearly that they have no need to fast because the “bridegroom” (ie the Messiah”) is already there – there is no need to fast anymore. In fact, to do so would be an insult to him, because it denies that the Messiah has come, but also it gives the people a demeanour of mourning when they should be rejoicing.

Now the Old Testament has many references to God as the bridegroom. It denotes a consummation of a covenant between two parties that cannot get any closer. It is a time of trust and relationship and festivities. So in saying he is the bridegroom, Jesus is saying two things – first, he’s saying he is God, and second, he is saying that new age has come.

Look for example at Joel 1:8 where the prophet says “Mourn like a virgin in sackcloth grieving for the betrothed of her youth.” meaning that Israel grieves for God with whom they had a covenant (and which they have broken with their disobedience). Then in Joel 2:12 he says “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.” And in 2:19, after the people have rent their hearts (ie repented) God says “I am sending you grain, new wine and olive oil, enough to satisfy you fully.” What is described at the end of Joel is a wedding feast, a celebration with the two parties reunited in a new covenant.

The Pharisees are stuck in Joel 2:12. Jesus knows they are at the wedding feast.

After giving a portent of his impending death, Jesus doubles down to explain more. He describes “new cloth” and “new wine”. In parable-speak, we see Jesus’ relationship to the old establishment. Let’s unpick this, because it’s significant. In Matthew 5:17 Jesus said that he didn’t come to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfil them. And yet here he says that he is a new wine, not poured into the old wine skins but needing to be poured into new. Can both be right? If he came to fulfil the old, isn’t that him (new wine) being poured into old wine skins (the law)? This is more nuanced. He is the new but he is not new in and of himself. He is not a single final piece of a jigsaw puzzle. He isn’t a final piece that just finishes off the old. He brings a new age, a new era. And the old itself needs to become new with him. The new era brings with it a new framework that is linked to the old, that is a culmination of the old but which supersedes it.

What does this mean? Well, in the next episode, we see that the old is cherished for what God intended, but Jesus gives a new interpretation. I saw this with a hint of a smirk because his interpretation is not new – he’s actually reminding the Pharisees of what the sabbath is supposed to be about, but that in all their legalism, they have forgotten.

In trying to obey God to a tee, the priests had long before tried to set a list of dos and dont’s for the sabbath. This included things like not walking further than 1km from ones own house. And deliberate sabbath breaking was punishable by death – that’s how seriously it was taken. Breaking the sabbath was an obstacle to God’s deliverance of his people.

In a cornfield, Jesus’ disciples pick some ears of corn to eat. This breaks the sabbath. Jesus relays a story of David when the High Priest of the tabernacle gives David and his men consecrated bread from the altar because there is nothing else to eat, on condition they we ritually clean (which they probably weren’t). So Jesus shows that the local Pharisees are stricter than the high priest of the actual tabernacle was on King David. That’s how far their legalism had got.

He reminds them that the sabbath was made for man and not man for the sabbath. If man was created for the sabbath, that would place the sabbath above God – and this is how the Pharisees were treating the sabbath. They had idolised it. The sabbath was created for man by God for them to rest and remember him. That’s the point of the sabbath. By the way, if you’re interested in some history of the sabbath, you can read here one of my previous blogs.

So, where does this leave us? Jesus gradual revelation of himself is beautiful and simple. He is the bridegroom. He is the Messiah. This is not a time for fasting but for rejoicing. But he is also bringing in a new era. The obvious corollary is that the law and the Pharisees are old, fulfilled – superseded. This is dangerous. We can see why the Pharisees would be so determined ultimately to dispose of Jesus.

Jesus’ final words in this passage are “So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:28). He is the Messiah – and he is God. The sabbath was made for man. So if Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath, he is also Lord of all man. This seemingly innocuous statement has such depth, and such significance that’s its earth shattering.

Don’t forget, they are on the other side of the cross and even though God is standing literally right in front of them, they are still waiting for him to appear. In addition, they are doing everything they possibly can to hasten his coming – fasting, observing every rule, squeezing the most out of every regulation so they can (supposedly) get closer to God.

But nothing they do, or could ever do, could bring God to them. Nothing that they did, or that we can do, can push “go” on God’s plan for salvation. By the same token, nothing we can do can stop it either. Jesus came. The plan has already happened – it happened at the cross. Nothing we do can possibly change the fact that God’s single act of salvation is already done.

We are in Jesus’ new era. We’re already in it. What we do now, is based on love and gratitude. We are obedient. We seek to grow in Christ likeness. We nurture our discipleship. We depend on God for everything, in humility. This is a work in our hearts that affects what we do, because our salvation is already done. The Pharisees wanted what they did to affect their salvation.

But it’s already done. And frankly, thank God. Because if I, in my anxiety, can’t make sandwiches a different way when my finances are out of control, I have got no chance of getting into heaven on my own efforts.

The new era has already come and it is in our hearts and in our relationship with God. That doesn’t mean we do nothing. He did it all, but we still progress in our growth to christlikeness. There is a work happening in us. Our sanctification is ongoing but our salvation is fixed. Once we have accepted Jesus as our Lord and saviour, there is nothing we can do but follow.

Note: This is a stand alone blog that doesn’t depend on any other piece. But it runs as part of an online Bible study in Mark and throughout there are links to previous observations. You can dip in and out or start at the beginning if you like. If not, that’s also fine – you don’t need to have started at the beginning to be able to get into this blog.

If you want to start at the beginning though, it starts in Mark 1 and you can follow along from here.

Why “Meet Me Where I Am”?

Some of the best pastoral care I’ve had over the years has been within my church small group. I love everything about small groups – a group of women, meeting weekly, digging into the Bible together, praying for each other, eating an inordinate amount of snacks together, crying, laughing, learning and growing. Within a group of women like this, we truly do life together. We get each other. We can sympathise and minister to each other with all the raw honesty that is needed and without any “Sunday church politeness”.

The most troubling pastoral care I’ve had is when people have tried to meet me where they are, not meet me where I am. What do I mean by this? When someone comes to us with a pastoral issue, we can sometimes instinctively do any of the following:

  • Try and solve the problem without listening to the full extent of the issue;
  • Question the viewpoint (Did that really happen? Isn’t that over-reacting? I wouldn’t have taken it like that. That doesn’t seem to me to be that big of a deal. I know the other party and they probably didn’t mean it. Is the problem that your husband is away for work? Is the real problem that you’ve forgotten to take your antidepressants? Aren’t you being overly emotional?);
  • Jump straight to a Bible passage to try and make the person feel better.

All of these, as well meaning or as accidental as they can be, actually meet the person where we are. What do I think about this situation? If I would react in X way, but the person is responding in a Y way, I’m going to pastor as though you should be responding in X way, because that’s the way I understand the correctness of this situation.

This is problematic. And it can contribute to a feeling that churches are disconnected from reality. Great theology, but lacking in understanding and grace. Meeting people where you are inhibits trust (and actively promotes distrust). It makes people feel misunderstood and at worst, not cared for. It can build a picture that there is a disconnect between the pulpit and the pew – which is a sad assumption that the general populace have of the church anyway, without us accidentally contributing to it.

It can also become self-perpetuating. This kind of pastoring creates barriers. It stops open communication. It makes people feel they can’t be honest in revealing themselves. So they hide. They hide behind their polite-Sunday-face. And the issue gets hidden. Down deep. Where it festers and spreads like a cancer in the soul. And all the while, growing a resentment towards the church because you feel like they don’t get you and don’t hear you.

Women need to feel heard. And they need to feel valued. Good pastoral care is not reactive when a crisis has happened. Good pastoral care is walking through life with them on the good days, and sitting with them in the darkness on the bad days.

Great pastoral care is knowing people enough to know what to pray for them – on the good days and the bad.

Jesus didn’t meet people where he was – and if anyone had the right to do that, it was him. Jesus met people where they were. In Mark 5, Jesus went to find the demon possessed man. He didn’t judge the mans situation and how he got there and he didn’t question if things were really that bad. He met him where he was.

When, in Matthew 9, the woman who had been bleeding for years approached him secretly for healing, he didn’t judge her condition even though, in Jewish culture, it should have been personally distasteful to him. He met her where she was.

When in Luke 7 a woman come and washes Jesus’ feet with her tears, Jesus does not judge her or question her or solve her problem with a vague scriptural platitude. He meets her where she is.

The reason I called this blog “Meet Me Where I Am” is because that’s my plea. And it’s my prayer for every woman. Real women have real problems. We have mental health issues. We struggle with our faith. We struggle with our confidence. Sometimes we snort when we laugh. Many of us have kids and now avoid jumping up and down. We struggle with our weight. We can’t wait to take our bras off at the end of the night. We love Jesus. We love the Bible. Sometimes we cry in the shower for no reason. We want to feel valued. We want to have a voice.

We love our churches. We have wonderful ministers and pastors and Christian sisters. But we want to be met where we are. We don’t want our pain to be questioned or a quick solution presented. We need pastoral care to be as important as the pulpit. We need theology and humanity.

And let’s not forget – women make up over half of our churches. If we support and nourish our women, we support and nourish the whole family. On top of that, women are seed sowers. We talk to everyone. We connect with people far beyond our immediate landscape. If we make our women feel valued, they will feel confident. If they feel confident, who knows how many seeds they will sow?

I have had the benefit of being around some wonderful ministers and I’ve been around some others with a few blind spots – nobody’s perfect. This is a general plea and prayer for all though. Meet me where I am. Meet all of us where we are. Let your growth in Christ-likeness include putting the self to one side when pastoring a woman. Resist the urge to solve or question. Just let us be heard. Be real with us. And let us be our real selves with you. The church will be enormously enriched by it.

A biblical story of a rubbish life with a beautiful legacy

There are a bunch of women in the Bible who had relatively naff lives before they came good. Rahab was a prostitute and a foreigner, but she picked the right side, had faith and ended up in the line of Jesus. Tamar was rejected multiple times and prostituted herself to her father in law before being restored and honoured. Ruth was a foreigner who endured loss and penury before marrying Boaz.

But there’s a woman in the Old Testament who had a pretty rubbish time of things and there’s no happy ending. In the midst of it though, there a moment of pure wonder.

Hagar was a servant girl to Sarai, bought in Egypt by Abram. When Sarai does not conceive a child, she gives Hagar to Abram (Genesis 16:1-2 and note they had not yet had their names changed by God to Sarah and Abraham). Abram agrees, sleeps with her and gets her pregnant, upon which, Hagar starts to despise Sarai. Understandable don’t you think? Her body had been given to Abram for his use as a surrogate mother, through no choice of her own. She had no power and no control over her own body or her fate. And it was at Sarai’s instigation. I think I’d have some deep emotional cuts too. Pain, injustice, despair, hopelessness, anger, betrayal…..

Sarai mistreats Hagar and Hagar flees. But in the desert, she meets an angel of God (Gen. 16:7-14). The angel prophesies over her and convinces her to return to her masters, which she does. The child she bears is Ishmael.

When Sarah and Abraham’s child Isaac is weaning, Sarah gets Abraham (because they have now been re-named) to expel Hagar and Ishmael. They head out into the desert and soon run out of water. Hagar can’t bear to see her son die and so walks away from him and just weeps. God sends another angel who encourages her and saves their lives with a well.

They settle around the Arabian desert and Ishmael has 12 sons and, in line with the angels’ prophecy, they become a great nation. However, they are not a great nation of the Bible or in the line of Jesus. The Jewish historian Josephus says that the dynasty was anchored in Nabatea which encompasses parts of modern Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia among others, including the Sinai peninsula. Sounds pretty amazing, but Nabatea was conquered by the Romans and so the descendants of Hagar and her Ishmael only now exist in history books.

So when you pull the focus back to the longest view, Hagar has an imprint on history and Ishmael does pretty well for himself and his family. But in the narrative arc of the Bible, the Hagar’s story seems fairly incidental. In fact Paul, in the book of Galatians, uses her as an example of that which is old and superseded in comparison to what is new and ultimately God’s plan.

“For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. His son by the slave woman was born according to the flesh, but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a divine promise.

These things are being taken figuratively: The women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar.” (Galatians 4:22-26)

What a legacy! Poor Hagar. I really feel for her. But…..but….let’s go back to that time when, in despair and pain, she fled to the desert.

In Genesis 16:11 the angel of the Lord says to her “You are now with child and you will have a son. You shall name him Ishmael, for the Lord has heard of your misery.”

Hagar gives God the name El Roi “the God who sees me” because, she says “I have now seen the One who sees me.” (Genesis 16:13).

As a woman, this resonates deeply with me. For me, Hagar’s legacy is not a dynasty in the Arabian desert, or a sign of the old covenant of slaves to the law. Hagar’s legacy is a meeting in the desert with God. The angel of God had told her to name her child Ishmael, which means “God hears”. Then, she doesn’t focus on who she has met, her focus is on the fact that he sees her.

For a lot of women, this is what we yearn for. To be seen. To be heard. To be understood.

Hagar was alone. She was in the wilderness. She had been used and mistreated. Her past was marked with suffering. Her future was uncertain.

There are many of us who could empathise with this. Most of us have lives that wax and wane between pretty ordinary, to quite good, to relatively rubbish and back to OK again. Many of us have pasts that have been marked by unspeakable pain. Many of us are facing a future that fills us with fear. But what marks us, as it marked Hagar, is an interaction with the God who sees us.

He hears us. He sees us. He has a future for us. He has a part for us to play in his plan. If this is all I can say for my life – that I have seen the One who sees me – then the rest of my life pales in comparison. My life will play out as God wills it. Who knows what will happen? Maybe my boys will have a million kids who end up founding a dynasty somewhere. Maybe I’ll end up being an example of something old and superseded. But if my life carries the same legacy as Hagar, then I am happy. I have seen the Bod who sees me. Who sees me.

Not all of us will be a Tamar or a Ruth or a Rahab. Most of us are a Hagar. Living ordinary lives. But we have met the God who see us.

He sees us. He hears us. He gets us. It is a wondrous and beautiful thing to be seen and known by him that made everything and holds everything.

Take the time to feel the feelings

I’m English and we are commonly associated with the phrase “to keep a stiff upper lip”. This describes an implacable resolve, a refusal to show emotion and a stoic perseverance in times of trouble. We almost have a fondness for the phrase because it seems something so quintessentially English, especially with shows like Downton Abbey (because, you know, Maggie Smith = life goals).

The approach was drawn from Greek philosophy (Stoicism not surprisingly) and the phrase itself was first used in the early 1800s. It was the overriding philosophy in Victorian private schools and came to exemplify what was considered right and proper in a persons character.

In the west generally, there is an approach to emotions that is very private. We grieve privately. Our funerals are about individual closure. We read self-help books at home and see counsellors on sick days or in our spare time. And we soldier on with our stiff upper lip – whether we are English or not. A few years ago, another English classic from World War II was imported around the world:

That’s right. Keep Calm and Carry On was an inspirational poster from 1939 at the outset of the war. These days you see it on mugs and T-shirts and phone cases. The fact that this got such amazing up-take shows how this stoicism still infiltrates our culture, telling us how we should (or think we should) behave.

Our approach to emotions is also about efficiency. We seek to speedily move from feeling bad to feeling good again. Our goal is to process bad events as quickly as possible so we can return to normal functionality.

Partially this is a natural reaction. When we are hurting we want to take the pain away as fast as we can. When we are physically hurt, we put band aids on and we take pain killers. But we need to remember that those things only ease the situation – healing still has to happen.

The trouble is, we are emotional beings. It takes a lot of work to have a stiff upper lip. It takes an awful lot of effort to keep calm and carry on. In fact it does a lot of damage. We move too quickly from the pain before it has healed or, even worse, we suppress them for the sake of moving on quickly which means there was no healing at all. What would happen if we had a deep physical wound that we allowed only to partially heal, or not to heal at all?

In other cultures and in other times, processing negative emotions has been more communal. Mourning was public. Roman funerals could be quite elaborate and include up to five elements (a procession, a cremation and burial, the eulogy, a feast and commemoration).

Similarly in ancient Jewish culture. One of the best gifts we have for helping us to process emotional pain is the Psalms. This is God’s gift to us to have words to express how we feel, even when in anguish and despair – even when we want to shout and scream and protest and question God. Given our cultural discomfort with negative emotions, we tend to mainly focus on the happy Psalms. They’re good for inspirational posters and giving comfort to those in pain when we don’t know what to say. But that’s the beauty of Psalms. God did give us words to say when we’re in pain so we don’t need to jump straight to the happy Psalms to make things better. God taught us a different way.

Nearly half of the Psalms are lament psalms. These Psalms acknowledge the deepest pain and despair, confusion, grief and loss. They give us a journey to process our emotional pain. They allow us to acknowledge the pain and what fears we have. They name fears specifically for us – fear of attack, fear of loss, fear that God will not answer and so on. They acknowledge the feelings – confusion, emotional exhaustion, despair, longing and deep yearning.

Then, and only then, when the psalmist has brought our pain into the light and we have stayed in it a little while, does then the poetry move us to a more hopeful conclusion. This conclusion can only happen after the pain has been processed.

Have a look at Psalm 13 to see some of the things I note above:

Psalm 13

For the director of music. A psalm of David.

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?

    How long will you hide your face from me?

How long must I wrestle with my thoughts

    and day after day have sorrow in my heart?

    How long will my enemy triumph over me?

Look on me and answer, Lord my God.

    Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,

and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”

    and my foes will rejoice when I fall.

But I trust in your unfailing love;

    my heart rejoices in your salvation.

I will sing the Lord’s praise,

    for he has been good to me.

What we can also remember is that many of these Psalms are good for individual lament and healing. But many are also communal Psalms of lament.

Our pain doesn’t need to be private and it doesn’t need to be processed quickly. Now obviously there is a line. If we swing the pendulum too far we’ll be parading our pain and could end up celebrating it. In addition, if we allow ourselves to stay in the feelings too long, we can end up wallowing and living there.

The Psalms give us a shape and a tempo to processing though. It acknowledges us and gives validation to our feelings. It allows us to stay in them for the purposes of healing. But then the words move us very definitely on to the next stage. And there are over 60 of these types of Psalms! Which means there are Psalms for a whole range of painful emotions, and for repeated use of them – because it’s not as though we just read one psalm and then we’re good to go. We would always have repeated counselling sessions, or GP visits. So we should stay in these Psalms for as long as we need to, allowing God to give us the words to speak and urging us to seek him when we are at our darkest points.

The Psalms give us so much more than just celebration and praise. The next time you are seeking to comfort someone, read lament Psalms with them. Sit with them in their pain. Help them to access the tempo of processing our hurt provided to us by God himself.

And the next time you are seeking comfort for yourself, go to these Psalms. Know that God sees your pain and knows your most negative emotions. He wants you to acknowledge him in the darkness and speak your pain into the light, but he doesn’t want you to stay there. He wants you to trust and move forward, even an inch at a time and for as long as it takes.

You are his and he will never leave you in the dark. Give yourself permission to feel the feelings and let God lead your healing.

I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation.

I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me.

Why aren’t there more divorced people in our churches?

Here’s an interesting thing – based on the 2016 census, there is 12% of our population who are separated or divorced. Based on the 2016 National Church Life Survey (NCLS), 6% of our church population is separated or divorced. Half! Does this mean that churches are amazing at supporting marriages? Or does it mean that people feel that our churches are not welcoming to divorced and separated people?

Is there a stigma attached to divorce? And if there is, does that come from the church congregation, or from the church leadership and culture?

My personal experience is to have felt as though I was morally tainted in some contexts, and welcomed and supported in others. In the former, I think this was brought into sharper relief by my own feeling of failure. A divorced person is highly sensitized to any sense of rejection, moral failing and stigma. It’s hard to walk into a church as a single-again. If it’s your own church, then it’s a very public declaration that you are now on your own. Everybody knows (or at least can see the evidence of) your business.

If its a new church you’re going to, one of the first questions is always about your family situation. What do you say? Will they judge me? You become acutely aware of being a lone parent checking your kids in at kids church. You become super paranoid that people can see the paler band of skin on your finger where your wedding ring used to be.

In addition, churches are largely set up for families. 65% of the church population is married (NCLS) compared to 48% in the general population. So what is “normal” in the world, is “abnormal” in the church. You stick out.

So, if people are even remotely cold or seeming to lack in grace, the separated person will go running for the hills.

In some ways, its understandable. Throughout all cultural changes and world movements, the church has remained steadfast. With no-fault divorce and the explosion of divorce rates subsequently, the church remained focused on the centrality of the family and marriage as the bedrock of a Christian community. That’s a good thing. Our churches cannot move with the times just “because”. We have to stay true to what we believe.

But one of the things we believe is grace.

If churches are havens of the broken, why are there not more single-agains in them? Churches should feel like a safe space for the lost. And yet they are not – or at least, not seen as being so.

There is a biblical phrase that has been bandied around very unhelpfully. “God hates divorce.”  This comes from Malachi 2:16 which is translated either as ““The man who hates and divorces his wife,” says the Lord, the God of Israel, “does violence to the one he should protect,”” or as ““I hate divorce,” says the Lord, the God of Israel, “because the man who divorces his wife covers his garment with violence”” The context of this passage is covenant breaking on the part of the priests that Malachi is rebuking. Notwithstanding, it provides a clear indication of what God appears to think of divorce.

But here’s a thing everyone should know – all divorced people understand completely why God hates divorce. Because its terrible. It’s painful and torturous. It hurts whole families. It is horrible for the children. It tears up families, friends and can even split communities. We know intricately and agonisingly why God hates divorce. We know better than anyone.

When Jesus is asked about marriage and divorce, he relates his answer to Genesis and comments “So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, man must not separate” (Matthew 19:6). When asked about this unequivocal stance when Moses allowed divorce, he says “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because of the hardness of your hearts. But it was not like that from the beginning.” (Matthew 19:8) Divorce was never the plan. Perfect harmonious relationships are the plan – but we are human. So divorce is not a gift, but it is a gracious provision in the face of our human rubbish-ness.

Now that doesn’t mean we should be like the world and dash about marrying and divorcing with impunity. It does mean that we need to treat each other with grace because we are imperfect.

Unfortunately, church history and tradition have over-layed the “God hates divorce” thing. For the Romans, divorce was terribly functional. Like the dissolving of a business partnership that no longer worked, divorce had no moral taint attached to it. In the early church, there was a speedy move to the indissolubility of marriage except in certain circumstances (on the basis of Jesus’ teaching), but they didn’t really get involved unless one of the parties wanted to re-marry. As the church gradually took over jurisdiction of marriage, by the early Middle Ages, divorce became far more regulated and commented on. Divorce was even deemed to be criminal. That attitude pervaded until at least the 19th century and we still have hangovers of it today.

Divorce is a very public “sin”. If you are divorced, you must have done something wrong. There is a presumption of sin and sinful behavior. Even if it wasn’t your fault, you let it happen. You failed.

Here’s what Kevin deYoung said of divorce: “Is every divorce the product of sin?  Yes.  Is every divorce therefore sinful?  No.”

Its a helpful reminder. We can never assume what the story is. Undoubtedly there has been sin somewhere but we do not know what and by who. We cannot and ought not, to assume guilt. Assuming guilt throws shame on the broken. If there is sin, then surely we must walk with people to help them repent? People don’t repent because they’ve been judged by other humans. They repent because their hearts have been moved by God. If there is no sin, then we must envelope them with the love and warmth of Christ.

Above all, we must help people to know that they have a place in our church, that they are welcome there, that they belong.

I would gently challenge churches to consider how a single-again would feel if they turned up to your church for the first time. What is the culture? Would they feel welcomed as though they had a place there? What about if one of your parishioners marriages imploded? What support mechanisms are there? Would they feel they can talk freely and honestly?

The main thing here is to be aware of how over-sensitive single-agains can feel, and that perception may be out-weighing the reality. In which case you may have to over-compensate to change pervading attitudes and assumptions as to what the church thinks.

Also, lets think about how the world sees us. We know that we are havens for the broken. But the world often sees us as oases of homogeneity. We are either nice white middle class community centers for families with small kids, or we are stern ivory towers of judgement on anyone who doesn’t fit the mold. That’s how we are seen. How do we change the perception, so that at the worst possible time in someones life, they know they can turn to the church for support and love?

I don’t have all the answers, but it seems to me that we need to think about this if we are to help the lost to feel as though church is a safe space for them to come and find belonging in the arms of Jesus and find his love in action in his community.


NOTE: Many churches are starting to offer Divorce Care. This is an excellent course and you can find a group here or even find more information on how to set up a group in your church.