What happens when you don’t let women preach. 

I’ve been pondering for a while how best to address my “allies” on the topic of women preaching, when the issue is inevitably personal, for me at least! And can therefore be ‘sensitive’. 

By “allies” I mean those other Evangelicals who believe that the male leadership of a church can sanction a woman to preach to a mixed congregation under their authority. I name this group in particular because I too am in Evangelical circles who believe in male leadership of the local church, and many of those in our circles view the public ministry of women as a threat to that authority. I don’t, but this isn’t actually the topic of this post (and if it’s not the position you hold, that’s fine, but I’m not going to discuss that here, and maybe this whole post will therefore either be irrevlant or annoying to you, so, feel free to stop reading now).

What I want to do is talk to those men in power who believe this also (that it’s ok for women to preach to mixed congregations under the authority of the local male leadership), but are doing very little about it. I want to raise my specific concerns about this inactivity, of course with the hope that some will change their actions, but frankly not with much optimism about that. 

In order to do this, and to “de-personalise” the conversation as much as possible, I’m going to talk about a meeting I was in almost 10 years ago, where my concerns and objections were on the public record (so to speak) and therefore have not been a matter of discord in a current personal relationship for some time (I think I’m still friends with the former Rector of Barneys, and I’m pretty sure that after this I still will be!). 

St Barnabas’ Anglican Church, Broadway, had  sanctioned the preaching of women to mixed congregations, but on the particular occasion I’m recalling, there was a congregational meeting of the evening service held because some concerns were raised on the topic. For you see, even though as a church we “endorsed” women preaching, it happened so infrequently that at a church with a high turnover at least in its student population, people could be a ‘member’ of Barneys for some time before such an atrocity took place in the pulpit, thus leading, almost every time, to people walking out during the sermon, or at least some concern afterwards and intense conversations with staff. I was sick of this response, and so attended the meeting to hear what the staff had to say and to speak to the issue. 

Barneys had several habits at that time, which I think created some really negative impressions in a place that was supposed to support women preaching. Barneys was by no means alone in these habits among those who think it’s ok for women to preach, I’ve seen them over and over again. Each of these habits were raised and discussed, little resolution or change was found however. The story is different at Barneys now, and I’d love the same elsewhere. 

Habit 1 – infrequency. As I’ve said, women took the pulpit so infrequently, it raised controversy every time. Most men in ministry I’ve spoken to who think it’s ok for women to preach to mixed congregations say they don’t push it cos they don’t want to cause controversy. Well, more on that in a moment, but, certainly, infrequency doesn’t help with this problem. It just makes it a constant controversy every time. 

Habit 2 – “avoiding” controversy. “Our focus is the gospel!” We say, “this is a secondary issue! And I don’t want to cause unnecessary controversy and distract from the gospel.” I broadly agree with this, which is why I remain in fellowship with those who baptise children for example, despite my having strong theological objections to it, but it doesn’t mean I never discuss the issue altogether. More important though, this habit makes me think, “what other topics are you avoiding? Do you not want to talk about money or sexuality because they’re controversial? Hmmm, nope, most of you seem quite happy to address those topics. Liturgy, baptism, politics, all these and more make it habitually into the actions and topics addressed at church. All are controversial. Are you so worried about the discomfort of some that you’re happy to lay aside a entire sphere of women’s ministry?” Furthermore, I often see this habit resting entirely on assumption rather than discussion, an assumption that those who would be disgruntled are a) a significant proportion and b) would leave because of it. Rarely though, in my experience, has anyone actually spoken to these supposed injured parties. At Barneys, these injured parties often made themselves identifiable, so, it was raised, what should our leaderships response to their distress be? What would our response be if they were offended by the style of music, content of prayers, type of preaching? “Simply” avoiding controversy isn’t a good reason to me to avoid acting on principle. 

Habit 3 – only preaching to the “special” congregations. You don’t want women in your main pulpit (cos you mostly want it?) but you think it’s ok for woman to preach, so they can! To the international student congregation, or the young adult group, or the “special friends” congregation. This is so problematic to me. What are you saying, “so long as they’re not white people, or are disabled, it’s fine”?! I’m glad that such congregations often get a greater variety and richness in their preaching program, but it does stick in my gullet a bit. Doesn’t it in yours?

Habit 4 – they have to be excellent, over qualified and perfect every time. You’ve let student ministers take the main pulpit, and deliver sermons of questionable quality and orthodoxy, but it’s ok, cos they’re learning. I agree! But why let them take the pulpit, but not a trained, qualified female? Furthermore, why hold her to a higher standard? Every time I preach as a woman, I feel like my entire sex and our future qualification to preach is on trial. No pressure anyone!

Habit 5 – if he’s a guy, he can preach. You’re in a congregation of people who you think will only allow men to preach to them because the local authority of the church should be men, and therefore they should exercise that authority by being the ones in the pulpit. So, why do you have male guest speakers? Doesn’t this reinforce the idea that it’s maleness rather than local authority that divinely sanctions a man to preach? We had more male guest speakers in our pulpit than our own female staff. What’s their qualification? Their gender? Or that they’re sanctioned by the leadership? And if they’re sanctioned by the leadership, why is it not ok to sanction the women? Your congreagation will happily sit under the teaching of a male who’s a stranger to them because you’ve said it’s ok, would it not be a double standard if you said, “I’ve given this woman permission to preach today”, whether a guest or congregant, and the same people objected? 

These habits altogether, and our avoidance of putting our principles into practise are what keep reinforcing the idea that all true Evangelicals think women should NEVER preach to mixed congregation, a perception held by thousands, unaware that there is reasonable Biblical and theological justification for allowing women to do so. And they rarely see it happen, so why should they ever question that belief? 

I’m a woman. I can preach (ability, and I think also gift), I believe I can preach to mixed congregations (and lots of you do to), and yet I find myself very very rarely preaching, even to single sex congregations. Even a lot of the preaching done at youth specific camps is done by men, when supposedly almost all Evangelicals believe it’s ok for women to teach children! 
What I’d love is to see men in power who also think it’s ok for women to preach to actually make it happen! 

Otherwise, because of the terrible impressions given by the above habits, I’d be happier to not be allowed to at all. To be forced to neglect the gift I’ve been given, than to continue to give the impression that it’s something so borderline wrong it should only be done rarely, behind closed doors, or to “special” groups of people. 

To use a somewhat crude but typically Australian expression, I’d prefer for you either to poo or to get off the pot. 

These concerns and more were raised at that Barneys meeting. The conversation remained civil, and Barneys continued to be a place which supported women preaching (though infrequent at that time). Nowadays at Barneys, when they advertise for female staff, they have to be able to preach, and share the pulpit as frequently as the other assistant ministers. Some people might not come to Barneys because of it, but at least we don’t give the impression we think it’s dirty. Furthermore, I think it aids us in spreading the gospel in a culture which has perhaps recognised God’s perception of the equality of men and women more than His church has. 

You will of course all do what you think is right. And because I share the desire to build up the kingdom, I’m happy to sit under leaders who think it’s not ok for me to preach and will never invite me to. I can’t help however my frustration with those who think it’s ok but never make it happen. I’ll happily sit under your leadership too, I do. But I’m the one who bears the personal brunt of your actions. I’m the one they’re talking about when they say “some selfish women want the authority for themselves” and compare women preaching to gay marriage as “things that are totally wrong”. I’m the one who has to comfort myself with the knowledge that other people do agree with me, they just don’t want anyone else to know that. I’m the one who has to watch student ministers, guest preachers, laymen and everyone but a woman like me take the pulpit. I’m the one, who, when I’m finally asked, finds myself preaching to the  “other” congregation, plugging a desperate hole, or preaching to the holiday congregation of four people and one baby. That’s why it’s hard for me to cope with these habits among my “allies” and why I therefore continue to make myself odious to many by mentioning the subject at all. 

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So let’s talk about the motherhood thing… 

My Facebook friends saw me having a bit of a rant about motherhood this week because of some remarks made by a Christian sister on a television show. Her remark was along the lines of “being a mother is the Biblical vision for women” and I wanted to call that out as an erroneous and yet widely held belief. 

Not that being a mother is a bad thing, children are a wonderful blessing, I am one, that’s how I know. But is giving birth and being a mother God’s purpose for my life? 

No one has time for me to give a history of God’s peoples varying stances on the nature and purpose of women over time, but that’s ok, cos this isn’t just a historical issue, it’s an exegetical and theological one. What does the Bible say about the nature and purpose of women? Well it’s actually a pretty quick summary and I hope will demonstrate that the Biblical vision of womanhood is not restricted to motherhood. 

In the beginning… What do we learn from Genesis about the feminine?

1. Equal in status to men as image bearers of God (Gen 1:27). 

2. Women are jointly given with men the mandate to “multiply” (yes, that’s right, God knows how babies are made!), fill the earth and rule over it (Gen 1:28). So, parenthood is given as a joint responsibility. Also, for how long and for what purpose? Well, it’s easy to argue that as the command is “to fill the earth and subdue it” this mandate finishes when we’ve filled the earth, right? And population/environmental/resource scientists of many kinds say we’ve kicked that goal. So, are we done with that one now? Certainly something to ponder…! 

3. Because of the Fall, motherhood is gonna be painful. Now, of course, that provides temptation to avoid it, doesn’t it, cos we don’t really like to be in pain. But at this point, it’s just information about what motherhood involves. Pain. And yet also, salvation. Not for the specific mother herself (thank God! I’ve been saved from childlessness), but for humanity itself, when the offspring of a woman crushes the head of the serpent (Gen 3:15). So that’s good news, motherhood will eventually save humanity! Yay! But does that make it the entirety of the Biblical vision of womanhood? 

Well, here’s where we move on from Genesis to see women as nation leader/prophetess (Exodus 15), spy assistants (Joshua 2), nationleader/prophetess (Judges 4), saviour of Israel (Judges 4), model of righteousness (Ruth), queen (Esther) etc etc etc. Yes, many many women basically get the role of “mother of blah blah” but they’re still involved in multiples ways in the carrying out of God’s plans, particularly to save and preserve Israel. The roles of woman are diverse. God uses them for more than giving birth. 

Furthermore, I think it’s important to note though that some of the famous mothers, those whose main role was motherhood, Ruth, Elizabeth and Mary for eg, are noted as much for their character and faithfulness as much as, “and they also gave birth”. And this is noted for the women who basically get any other lines than “mother of”. As ever, God’s plan for His people is their faithfulness and holiness, not the size of their family (Psalm 51, Isaiah 57, Micah 6:8). 

So we can see from the Old Testament that the scope of women’s roles in salvation is more than just giving birth, and that God’s purpose for both men and women, for His people, is their holiness and righteousness. 

What does the New Testament have to contribute to the issue? Well, one of the significant things is that God’s people are given a new mandate, by our King, Jesus. “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28: 19-20). 

Granted, one way of making disciples is baby-making them. But I think it’s quite reasonable to see that the instruction involves a little more than that! If you’re church growth/kingdom growth strategy is simply “having lots of babies”, you’re not actually following through with the whole deal. For eg, you’re leaving out the “all nations” bit. 

And again, the New Testament continues the Old Testament theme of God’s purpose for His people to be holy and righteous, over and above anything else. Even Jesus sumamrises the Old Testament law as “love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind, and love your neighbour as yourself” (Mark 12:29-31). 

So what’s God’s purpose for women? To be part of His salvation plan for the whole universe and to bring honour and glory to Jesus as their King. 

What is the nature of women? Leaders, wives, mothers, manageresses (see Proverbs 31, that woman is busy! Running her household and other businesses (sorry to super conservative Evangelicals who don’t believe women should balance the chequebooks in the family, it’s practically a Biblical command), as wide in scope as that of men. 

The Bible doesn’t open and finish with “women should give birth, that’s what they’re here for”, and our idolatry of motherhood is incorrect and therefore evil. A woman is not ripping God off if she fails to give birth. She’s not disappointing or frustrating His purpose for her life. She’s not cursed. 

You probably know some childless women. Some who are child-free. You may be one yourself, married to one, related to one, dating one. What does God primarily have to say about their situation? The same thing He has to say to any person, no matter their marital, economic or social circumstances, “what I mean brothers and sisters is that the time is short. From now on, those who have wives should live as though they do not; those who mourn as if they did not; those who are happy as if they were not; those who buy something as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of this world as if not engrossed in them. For the world in its present form is passing away (1 Corinthians 7:29-31). Having children is not the sole purpose of human life; male or female, so don’t make your decisions based on the idea that it is. Your purpose is to build up the kingdom of God, in numbers and strength, and we have a lot of freedom in how we go about that. 

Get that in our heads, understand that that is our first priority, and we’ll understand that the primary purpose and call of women is not to be baby factories. “Seek His kingdom and these things will be given to you as well”. It’s surprising how many blog posts I have to end with that quote (Luke 12:31).  

And look, here’s me with a child as proof that I don’t hate them! (Slightly old photo though, but both the child and I are still alive and have had more, undocumented snuggles, since this incident.

 

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Internet Dating: my opinion from so three years ago. 

This was originally published as a piece for Eternity Newspaper. 

‘Fat Boy’, 24, was the last in a long line of totally unsuitable matches sent to me because of our “deep compatibility”. In answer to the form question, “I typically spend my leisure time [fill in the blank]”, Fat Boy said, “I love to have sex! I am freaky a lot and i am VERY romantic. I also like trying out new positions too … I love music and money. I’m even thinking about making my own clothing line. I’m very stylish and love a girl who looks good 24/7.”

The problem is glaringly obvious: he didn’t make the ‘i’ a capital letter, and his punctuation is all over the place.

But seriously, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to figure out if this profile was a joke, experiment or honest portrayal of a Christian guy. But it’s profiles like this that reveal the truth: online dating isn’t all about beautiful people in soft focus planning their wedding. Just like dating IRL (in real life), it can be brutal.

The problem is that you sign on with wide-eyed hope. Sure, you’ve not had much success IRL before—those three guys you had a crush on in your early 20s are all married with kids now, and the pool is getting smaller and smaller—but this is the internet! There are boundless possibilities of matches from all over the world! Surely there’ll be someone out there for you. And maybe it’ll be a little easier because you’ll be matched with people who suit ‘the real you’. That ‘you’ all those guys in your life have obviously not been seeing up till now. Cos y’know, if they had seen the real you, they would have fallen adoringly at your feet. This is your chance: millions of members. Rack ‘em up, let’s get going.

But then the matches arrive. There’s the alarmingly large proportion of men who want to live and die for the glory of the US of A (and want you to as well). It seems that apparently every guy in the world likes to keep fit and typically spends their leisure time playing Frisbee. Everyone is most passionate about Jesus, which is great right, until it becomes such a pat answer you want to stab your own eyes out. Are you passionate about anything else? Suddenly the guy that announces his light-saber skills becomes fascinating because at least it sounds like he has a personality! And hey, he’s willing to teach his future spouse nunchuck skills—sign me up!

But most depressing of all is that actually, online dating can simply massage discontent into bitterness. That world of possible matches starts turning into a longer and longer list of people who don’t want a relationship with you. Boy is that great for the self-esteem! I find it hard enough to remember that I’m valuable in God’s eyes without the ever more consistent reminder that in the world’s eyes, I’m a risible failure because nobody loves me.

Even worse, in the sheer inanity and superficiality of it all, it’s horribly easy to become more and more judgemental. Deleting him: he mentioned weight-lifting. Deleting him: he said he doesn’t read. Deleting him: he CANNOT spell. Deleting, deleting, deleting. It doesn’t matter what criteria you’re sifting and evaluating by, the smorgasbord system makes it so easy to make a more and more specific and yet impossible list that ceases to reflect the godly desires you started out with (that he loves Jesus and honours him as Lord), and becomes about marginal partialities you wouldn’t notice immediately in person.

No wonder discontent can grow and grow. Your search becomes more and more about finding someone who fulfils your desires and preferences instead of someone you can serve, encourage, exhort and minister to. And it can become a bigger and bigger part of your life, eating up precious time with daily emails, profile checking, photo uploading and wondering and wondering instead of rejoicing in the people God has already put in your life and in the many blessings you have in Christ.

I know people have varied experiences of online dating (and dating in general). My Bible study leader’s brother is about to marry the second girl he was matched with—hooray! And it’s not as though devoting time to finding a marriage partner is sinful.

But for me, for the second time I’m deleting my account and stepping away from the whole palaver. I want to focus single-mindedly on God, knowing that he will provide all I need.

Returning to a cliché of my teenage years, it’s probably a good idea to ask, WWJD—what would Jesus do? If Jesus could date online and sort out his whole 33 and living with his mother problem, would he do it? I think his clearest answer is in Matthew 6:33:

“Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need.”

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In praise of wardens.

We all have them in our church, different denominations call them different things, wardens, deacons, whatever, they’re the people who help balance the books, manage the material resources of the conregation, and generally help the entire community by getting organised behind the scenes so we don’t have to. 

And in my denomination, the Anglican Church, we get together once a year for our Vestry Meeting/AGM and interrogate them. Hopefully thank them too. 

Because that’s what I love about my church wardens. They shoulder a huge responsibility in caring for the budget and buildings, they have endless meetings, heaps of banking and admin to do, basically all the life admin stuff I hate, and they do it voluntarily so that we can all get on with all the other service we have to do. They make their decisions openly, we can talk to them about what’s going on, they’re happy to be questioned, but they do so much that goes unnoticed and unthanked. These people are champions! No wonder one of the first ones ever was stoned to death!

Stephen, the first martyr of the church, was one of the seven deacons appointed to sort out the issue of feeding the widows of the church. Classic admin job. He happened to perform a few miracles on the side, and made the longest speech in the book of Acts, in the Sanhedrin court, which is no surprise really because the qualification for his job was being known to be full of the spirit and wisdom. He could explain and defend his faith, as well as organise a fair system for distribution of resources. 


Stephen is the gold star standard for wardens because he was faithful to Jesus and to His word, as well as executing his duties in organising the meal roster. His character and faith shaped his service, he wasn’t just useful at admin. 

I’m so thankful to God that my church wardens are like that as well. I don’t want them to be martyred, they make so many sacrifices already to serve our church and therefore our community in this way! But I’m thankful that not only are they great at their voluntary roles, but they’re people of great character and faith as well. 

I really want to make sure I thank them more and pray for them more often. I’d encourage you to do the same. 

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I just don’t feel like it. 

A few of my posts recently have circled around the tricky space between emotions and will, and a conversation at Bible study yesterday prompted me to address this head on. 

What do you do when you feel emotionally and spiritually dry, and you know the sacrifice God desires is a contrite heart? That He wants our heart’s attitude to be shaped for Him, and that He hates hypocrisy? Do you keep going to church even though “your heart’s not in it”? Or would that be an insult to God and others, and/or make things worse? 

There’s so much that could be said about this but to give us a smaller arena for discussion, I’m gonna focus on Isaiah 1, which was our passage at Bible study yesterday and prompts my thoughts on this issue. 

In Isaiah 1, God is criticising His people for their empty religious practices. 
““The multitude of your sacrifices— what are they to me?” says the Lord. “I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations— I cannot bear your worthless assemblies. Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals I hate with all my being. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands in prayer, I hide my eyes from you; even when you offer many prayers, I am not listening. Your hands are full of blood!”

‭‭Isaiah‬ ‭1:11-15‬ ‭NIV‬‬

At this point, it’s important to notice that the sacrifices etc were required by God’s law. The problem (here at least!) is not that they’re sacrificing to idols or something like that. God is saying that He is sick of their sacrifices and prayers. Why? Well, the explanation begins in the final phrase of the above verses, “your hands a full of blood”, which God then tells them to wash off themselves. 

“Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.”

‭‭Isaiah‬ ‭1:16-17‬ ‭NIV‬‬

So, we do see a problem of hypocrisy; they’re doing the right religious ceremonies, but they leave it at ceremony, instead of letting God’s will direct everything else about their relationships, individually and as a society. They’re not obeying God’s will in all things. So, they’re hypocrites. Unjust ones. 

But we don’t actually see a hypocrisy of emotion. It’s not that they’re prayers don’t feel genuine to God, or that their sacrifices don’t have a ring of emotional sincerity. The hypocrisy is the gap between their religious ceremonies and the rest of their lives. God isn’t concerned with their emotions at all in this passage, but their actions, and the way their actions reflect their understanding of and attitude towards themselves and God. 

So does that make it irrelevant to the issue I’m trying to address, of when there’s a gap between how we feel and the way we follow Jesus? Shouldn’t I pick a passage that talks about emotions?!! 

Well, yes, but also, a huge part of that problem is simply us, our society and culture. The culture of the Bible is aware of emotions, most emphatically, they’re not ignored or discounted, but they’re not given the high place our culture gives them. So the hypocrisy we feel regarding emotions and actions isn’t necessarily directly addressed. 

For a few different reasons, we’ve ended up with a culture where emotions (which are notoriously changeable and unreliable) are the main measure of genuineness. How we feel about a decision is how we should make it, our preference or mood should dictate our actions. “What do you feel like for dinner?” Is a normal question to us.  Dinner is no longer about nutrition, price and community, but, emotion…? 

This obsession with emotion and genuineness is particularly emphasised by the idea that spontaneity = authenticity. If two people fall in love “instantly” it must be genuine, and if it takes longer or even much longer than that, we question it. This has an interesting side effect in church, is a prepared prayer still genuine? What if someone else wrote it and we’re all saying it at the same time? Are these really “my” words? 

How we feel about something has become the only measure for truth. We leave jobs, relationships, houses and countries all because we’re not “feeling it” any more. We seek new jobs, relationships, houses, countries and other experiences so that we’ll feel something. 

Whereas, if we pause for a second and ask, “hands up who feels better about things after a good sleep?” Our collective hands would be raised, in acknowledgement that our emotions can change, simply through physical processes! “Hands up if you’ve felt sad at 11pm and ok again by morning? Or if you’ve been grumpy and then eaten a good snack and everything has improved?” For heaven’s sake, we’ve even got advertising based around that fact!  “Hands up if you feel better after a good cry?” And bam, you’ve got a whole field of psychology. 

We do actually know that emotions change a lot, over time, for heaps of different reasons, including medication, but our culture tells us that how we feel should be key in decision making and general actions. But is this what the Bible says? And what do we do about that? Does God want me to “genuinely feel” some particular way about Him and His people and the thing we’re doing for me to do it? What should we do when we’re not “feeling it”? Take a spiritual snack? Have a spiritual nap? Is the old, “break from church” the solution??* 

Well, if we return to Isaiah for a moment we can see that God’s solution to their hypocrisy was not simply to have an emotional response and a change of emotions, but actually is a call to fresh action. “Seek justice, learn to do right, defend the oppressed.” They’re not going to fix the problem of their hypocrisy simply by emoting about it; mourning, regretting, etc. All of those would be appropriate emotional reactions, but, more than that, God is calling them to act. He wants what they do to represent what they say they know and believe. Elsewhere, He will talk about mourning and sighing over their sins (for eg) but He wants action, that aligns with that they say they believe. 

Our culture says, “let your emotional state govern your actions”, the Bible says, “let God’s will govern your actions”. We might not feel anything in particular about God and His people. Or we might be angry, disappointed, sad, etc etc etc. But what do we say we believe? That God is the divine ruler of the world and deserves all honour, power and glory? That means we could take at least a tiny slice of our week to be devoted to a sacrifice of praise to Him? Do we believe that we should not giving up meeting together, as instructed in Hebrews, because each of us has a part to play in the body of Christ (1 Corinthians)?

I am a person of interesting emotional states. I have depression, which means often my emotional state is “die or hibernate under quilt forever.” Or the great, yawning gulf of “meh” which some of my fellow depressives are familiar with. “Cute cat”, meh. “Mum died”, meh. “Won lotto”, meh. And, some of my days are a constant battle against the conviction that everyone would be better off if I was dead. In fact, if there was a way we could erase my exitsence altogether, that would be better, let’s make it as if I had never been born. Is that an emotional state? Mm, kinda Mostly. Should I act on it? No. Why not? Cos it’s not true. It doesn’t define me and shouldn’t be allowed to make my decisions for me. 

Yes, sometimes stuff like going to a church service is hard or just boring. Or prayer feels like it’s not happening cos it’s not an emotionally rich experience. Yes, I look forward to the day when I will feel how I’d like to feel about these things, but for now, the gap between my feelings and my actions is not hypocrisy, it’s hope. Hope that how I’m feeling now will change. Hope that putting into practise what I believe will be better for me and for everybody around me. And better for them too, if they do it too. 

*I’m not actually gonna say it never is, sometimes a break is just necessary for sanity, especially in tough circumstances. Talk to someone whose emotions about church are mixed because they’ve been molested in a church, or whose congregation is constantly at war over trivial matters, or whose minister is a discouraging hate monger and you’ll be talking to some people who find church emotionally tough. Talk to someone whose mental illness makes it difficult to leave the house, or whose chronic pain makes sitting upright in a pew excruciating, and you’ll be talking to someone who finds church mento all tough and might need a break from going to services.           

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You too can make grown women cry! 

So, I’ve got this friend Graham and he’s magical. For lots of different reasons, but especially including his incredible talent for making women cry. 

Now, I recognise that that’s not something everyone wants to do, so, maybe that’s not the magical part… 

Maybe the magical part is that the women almost always feel better afterwards. Feel… Reassured, welcomed, listened to, cared for. It’s pretty special. So many of us have to pay someone for that. A counsellor, a psychologist, a psychotherapist. Graham does it for free. And it’s an effective and beautiful gift. 

What does he do that brings women to tears? Apart from being the friendliest, smiliest man ever? (There was this one time when he was sick on a group trip, and not smiling, and like, the whole dynamic of the group changed. It’s like the bottom fell out of everything. Graham unhappy. So weird!) 

What he does, is that he sits down with you, looks at you and says, “how are you.” 

Yup. That’s it. The question we all hear a bunch of times a day really. So why is it different when he asks? 

It’s partly that he manages to communicate that he’s actually asking and actually wants to hear the answer. Think about it, when was the last time someone said “how are you” as more than just phat speech? The fill in speech we all say. The type of thing you can easily say at the same time and just laugh it off, cos it matters but doesn’t matter. Phat speech. When you accidentally say, “hihowareyou” at the same time. 

It’s rare to be asked “how are you” and know the person wants the answer, whatever it is. Graham manages to convey to you that he does want the answer. AND, he’s happy to hear the answer however long it takes. 

Graham is used to me, and probably used to people like me, which means he knows we’re used to being asked “how are you” but not used to having the answer welcomed or listened too. We’re hesitant at first when he asks us because it feels like actually the answer to that question could never end. And we know people don’t have time for that. They don’t actually have time to bother. We feel like we’ll be a hassle, so we don’t answer. 

Or, we feel like the person asking won’t understand. Yes, we could tell them that bit and that bit, but not all the bits. We’re constantly self-editing. We have to. There are very few people who give us the time and safety to say how we actually are doing. 

Which is why Graham is magic cos he manages to inspire the confidence so quickly, you believe him when he asks and you can tell from his body language and tone and everything that he’s not gonna push you, but he’s hearing. It really is pretty incredible. So many times, my heart has been lifted because Graham has said, “hey! How are you?!” 

Now, with Graham, I know there’s more to it than that. Like I said, there’s the smilingness. And he gives great hugs. And he’s big and comfy and friendly, he’s the perfect, non-threatening listening post. Not all of us have those qualities. And not all of us do have have time all the time to ask all the people this. And that’s ok! But it’s certainly interesting to observe Graham’s magic in action and figure out what the rest of us can replicate. 

I think the key thing is that it starts in the same place Graham starts, which is asking. And making it clear you’re asking seriously, and have the time to hear the answer and want to hear it. 

I am so blessed to have Graham as a friend. He has lifted my heart many many times in many ways, but including lightening my load by asking “how are you”. I’m also even more lavishly blessed to have quite a few people in my life who, if they ask this question, I know that, like Graham, they want to know. But so many people don’t have that. For lots of reasons, they can be hesitant to actually tel someone. But also, for many of them, too few people actually ask. 

How about we all try to use the magic of “how are you”? You might be amazed, surprised, dismayed, enlightened or amused by the response. But whatever the content, it’s a wonderful gift to someone. 

Now just wait til I blog about Graham’s incredible wife Sarah!!
*disclaimer – I’m sure this has a pretty similar effect when Graham asks his many guy friends how they are as well , just maybe not the crying part? IDK. They might do that behind closed doors. 

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Sometimes I’m good at welcoming*

*and by welcoming I’m mostly talking about at church, but also in my people based ministry job.  But I actually apply these things all the time, at people’s parties, funerals, sudden shared public experiences. I like to think I’d be useful in a plane crash. 

So, I’m an introvert, and I don’t like new things, and I don’t like people (OK, well sometimes I do) and yet most people think I’m an extrovert who loves meeting people. Is this an evil deception on my part? Poor ability on behalf of others to understand people? An accident? 

Well, I hope it’s not an evil deception, and it’s true that some people aren’t great at looking below the surface, but it’s certainly not an accident. 

Instead, it’s an intentional practise on my part, for quite specific reasons, in most social circumstances, to be more than my natural self in order to love others.

1. Intentional. If left to my own devices, I would possibly never leave the house. Well, maybe occasionally, but only if people promised to be interesting and skip the small talk. If I’m ever gonna be welcoming, it has to be on purpose. 

2. Specific reasons. This is connected to the final point, but I don’t just do this cos I feel like it’s what people should do. I love manners, I think they’re a sign of a gracious society  of respect, but I try to be welcoming because it’s a measureably, provably good way of helping people become part of a community. So, the big reason is love, the specific reasons are; welcoming is a form of hospitality, it helps new people integrate into a community, it encourages others to think outside themselves too. 

3. In most social circumstances. As stated above, I’m particularly thinking about the process of welcoming people at church (you know how the people up the front keep bugging you to be welcoming? I’m talking about that) but I do usually try to be welcoming wherever I am. It’s a service you can provide for others who might feel shy, sad, uncomfortable or uncertain. Plus, when you meet people, you never know what could happen through those a new connections, so it’s good to keep that in mind too. 

4. In order to love others. When I’m at church, and there’s new people, or new-ish people, and I’m thinking about me, I could be thinking any or all of the following:

 – I am fat and ugly, no one would want to talk to me. 

 – I am tired and want to go home. 

 – I am sick of being the one to do this, why can’t someone else talk to that new person?!

 – I’d really love to be nourished this morning, instead of having to give, I give all week. Being nourished does not include awkward small talk. Ugh. I just really wanna talk to just my friends. 

 You will have your own versions of this. It could include things like:

 – I am here to flirt. I only have one chance to see that girl this week, I’m gonna make a beeline for her and start leering. 

 – I have no idea what to say to people. This would be awful and full of awkward silences and they would never want to come back and may instead prefer to move to another state rather than have to talk to me again. 

 – I feel awkward talking to that weird looking older man, for I am but a 19 year old girl. I can tell from here that he’s weird. 

Most of these things, when focussed on me instead of the other, would prevent me from ever bothering. 

But here’s some things the new people are thinking:

 – gaaaaaaaah!!! This is so awkward!!! I hate meeting strangers, and here I am, surrounded by strangers! And I don’t know what I’m doing, cos this is a new church and they do things weird here. 

 – ohmigosh, that weird old guy is going to come over and talk to me, and I am but a 19 year old girl. I can tell from here that he’s weird. Oh! He’s the minister… Awkward!!! 

 – I am trying to be brave today, but everyone is just talking to everyone else, and I don’t feel confident enough to break into someone’s  conversation. Maybe I’ll just really quickly finish my awkward cup of tea and go and find another church where people are nice. 

 – I am fat and ugly and no one wants to talk to me (unfortunately, I’ve had people, real life people tell me that at this point they’re thinking, “it’s cos I”m Asian/black/gender-ambiguous isn’t it” (for eg) which is sad enough that people have so many reasons to feel that and terrible when/if that’s actually what’s going on!!!).

Imagine feeling all that stuff! And being surrounded by people who are so busy thinking of themselves they can’t be bothered talking to you! 

If you want to love and welcome other people, you’re gonna have to get over yourself. Yes, you might be fat and ugly, you might hate meeting new people, but this is not about you. It’s about them. 

So, if you’re like me, what do you do to be better at this? Once you’ve fixed the attitude that is. 

1. I try to take care of myself. What a place to start, right? But seriously, I tend to feel most depressed and self-conscious when (I stop taking my medicine) I don’t get enough sleep, or spend some time doing things I enjoy, or having fun with people I love. So, I try to make sure I do that stuff so I’m as energised and fresh for the (for me) harder task of meeting new people. 

2. You can actually learn small talk and practise makes perfect. “Hi, I don’t think we’ve met before. Is this your first time here? Oh, and what brought you along today? What do you do during the week? How did you find the service today? Would you prefer to eat poo flavoured icecream or icecream flavoured poo?” There are various questions that work across lots of different demographics, and the key thing is to listen because then you might have a follow up question. “Oh, so you’ve moved to the area, how did the move go? What brought you here?” Etc etc etc. Before you know it, you’re having a conversation. YES it’s not the most riveting conversation ever had, but it’s better than leaving them standing there alone, and you can introduce them to someone else too. Then they know TWO people! 

3. Recruit other people. Maybe you are a 19 year old girl and don’t want to approach older men (for eg), then, get to know some of the guys in your church and, when you notice the new guy, drag one of the guys you already know with you to make it less awkward. 
ALSO, sometimes you do just need a week on the bench. The week has been really draining and you do just need to catch up with a friend. Your anxiety level is high today and the fact that you left your house is energy enough. That’s great! You do that! Let someone else do this occasionally. If we’re all welcoming, everyone can have their necessary time off. Sometimes it’s your friend who’s had the crazy weekend they just need to debrief with you. Again, that’s great, you’ve encouraged all the other people at church to be welcoming, so you don’t have to carry the whole load by yourself. Hooray! 

And that’s it actually, that’s all I’ve done/all I do, and I’ve convinced literally hundreds of people that I’m confident and happy to meet them! Slash, and more importantly, I’ve helped hundreds of people survive their first week at a new church and showed them some of the love of God. 

You do not have to be a glamorous, extroverted, confident person to welcome people into your church and church family, cos even I can do it! You don’t need a personality change; you just have to care. 

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