The Puppet Message

Meet Holly.  She’s a close friend of mine.  We first met in about 2002, when she joined our ministry team for our Avenues Church.  From the first moment I met Holly, her personality was evident. She’s strong-minded, feisty, feminist and opinionated.  We got Holly on board as a creative way of introducing things that sometimes needed words and explanation.  She fitted with our All-Age Worship and added to the visual atmosphere.  What we didn’t anticipate was the way that she’d be received.  Right from the start she was a winning addition to our team.  And the enthusiasm surprisingly, was not just from the children.  She added a bit of humour and colour and energy to our worship.  She also, through her stark honesty, curiosity and contradictory nature, helped us to focus our thinking and ask more questions in a setting where interaction was encouraged.  People interacted with her.  They argued with her and asked her questions.  They laughed with her and told her jokes and stories.  She provoked reaction.  And she was never short of something to say.

Of course, despite the arguments that Holly and I frequently have, Holly is always on message.  The message I want to convey.  While she might challenge what I say at times, she always comes around to agreeing with the point that I want to raise.  This is hardly surprising.  Even though Holly has her own personality, she’s a part of me.  Holly is a puppet.  The only person who controls Holly is me.  I am the one who ‘thinks’ her, I ‘voice’ her, I ‘act’ her.  She’s a version of me and my thinking.  It is impossible for her to be anything different.  Without me breathing life into her, she is just like a rag doll.

I’ve been pondering lately about the way I hear people sometimes talk about Jesus.  Some people say they’re a Christian and then state their personal view on all the things that Jesus would and wouldn’t agree with.  They challenge individuals, they hurt and damage and cause unhappiness, they create rules and put up fences – all in the name of Jesus.  The things they say, don’t tally up with my view of Jesus at all. They sound to me like they are treating Jesus like their puppet.  His message becomes what they want it to be and his voice becomes theirs and not his own.  But Jesus is not like Holly.  He’s not a puppet.  And for any human to choose to be a mouthpiece for the person of Jesus is a brave and risky thing to do.

Of course anyone who calls themselves a follower of Jesus, a Christian, does become a mouthpiece for the person of Jesus. Whether they intend to or not, want to or not, inevitably others around them will immediately view them as such.  The challenge for us as followers of Jesus is to take this responsibility seriously.   How can we really know Jesus?  How can we dare to act as if we know Jesus so closely it is as if we are actually Jesus himself?  How can we actually be qualified to be the mouthpiece of Jesus Christ?  What does this actually mean for us?  What does it mean for Jesus?

This is where the concept of ‘follower’ can make us breathe a sigh of relief.  If we call ourselves followers of Jesus Christ, then we acknowledge that we are on a journey following him.  We’re a ‘follower of Jesus’.  We’re not Jesus himself.  We’re on a journey toward Jesus, with Jesus and in Jesus.  We’re following Jesus, moving towards him, being guided and supported and even carried by him, understanding him more and more as time passes.  He’s in our sight, he’s urging us on, he’s guiding us, letting us rest against him, sustaining us, rejuvenating us. The journey is always changing. When we want to be on it, it is never truly stopped. And the joy of being a follower of Jesus is found in the journey itself.  We’re not at the destination yet, we’re on the road towards it.

This is why groups of followers gather together to talk about Jesus, to share food and conversation, struggles and joys, to sing their praises to Jesus for the journey and to pray for their own needs and the needs of others around them.  This is why followers of Jesus read the Bible over and over again and talk about what they’ve discovered about the person of Jesus in the pages of the gospels.  This is why followers of Jesus after reading about his teachings, his miracles, his stories, look outward beyond themselves, to others around them, feeding the poor, housing the homeless, protecting the refugee, supporting the oppressed, advocating for the marginalised, healing the sick, grieving with the dying, crying with the ostracised. This is why followers of Jesus increasingly value the characteristics of grace, mercy, love, forgiveness, humility, kindness to name a few and incorporate these characteristics into their lives.  This is why followers of Jesus look eagerly for Jesus at work around them in God’s creation and actively engage in being part of that work and bringing it to fruitfulness.  This is why followers joining together share a memory meal of Jesus Christ.  This is why followers of Jesus see potential in the journey.

If we call ourselves followers of Jesus we need to be people of faith who constantly strive to understand Jesus’ message and allow ourselves to be internally changed by Jesus.  To keep travelling the Christian faith journey, constantly growing and changing and evolving in understanding.  To view our faith as a work in progress, a moving forward work in progress, a frail, human, underwhelming attempt to understand and reflect Jesus to others who may or may not be on the journey too.

And when we open our mouths to say words that represent Jesus, we need to be ever so aware that Jesus is not our puppet.

Unless you are like a child

Andrew and I lead Avenues Church, an all-age, all-stage worshipping community.  We’ve long since passed any need to justify this venture or prove anything to anyone.  Avenues works for the people who come.  It brings meaningful interaction into our participants’ lives and faith journey.  Invariably, when people hear ‘all-age’ they translate this to it being a children’s church and when people hear ‘all-stage’ they often translate this to being age-based.  If you’re young you’re at an earlier stage, the older you get the further up the stage stairway you progress.    That’s not quite how we see it and how we’ve experienced it in the last fourteen years with our Avenues church and prior to that when we were exploring all-age worship within the context of a regular worship service.

People come to our Avenues Church from all walks of life.  They have had different experiences, different upbringings, different faith experiences and they are all ages.   Together we journey, and try to create a place where no matter what stage of faith you are at, you are welcome to join us on the journey.   The structure created by our education system of age-based learning, and duplicated across most mainstream churches, is not engaged here.  It’s all mixed up.   It doesn’t matter what stage you’re at in your faith.  It doesn’t matter how old you are, there’s no expectation that by a certain age you will be at a certain level and therefore ready to process a newer, harder faith concept.  No, it’s a full-on free for all!  It’s ‘come as you are’ church.

Sometimes when someone who is involved in a mainstream style church hears about Avenues they assume that it is a church especially for children. What can appear to make it a children’s church is that we are tactile.  We call our worship, “Discovery Worship” and it is hands on, colourful, interactive and fast moving.  This means while children can fit in with ease, it is also welcoming for adults with short attention spans, adults who struggle to learn by reading or listening, adults with no prior experience of the Christian faith, adults who have English as a second language, or have learning difficulties and so on.  What can be surprising to people when they ask, is that we also have highly educated people in our Avenues Church.  Right from the beginning we’ve had well qualified academics and professionals join us in our journey.  Perhaps from their own lives they know that just because an idea is presented simply, it does not make it a simple idea.

We don’t exist just to appeal to children.  If we didn’t have children attend, we’d still carry on the same way with our worship.  But I think our regular worshippers would agree that something would be missing if we didn’t have children on a regular basis.  The involvement of children just makes it so much more real, simpler, more challenging and more inspiring.

Here’s just a handful of reasons why I like to worship with all-ages together and have the wonder of a child’s voice in our worship experience.

Inquisitive – the art of asking a good question  

I’ve observed that something happens to our questioning ability the older we get.  Instead of focussing on a good question, we tend to focus on finding the right answer.  Perhaps this is why we appeal to academics as well as children.  Children are brilliant at asking questions and academics have learned that the more you find out about something, the more it shows you what you don’t know.  Children can cut right to the heart of things.  They pull no punches, and they persist.  “Where does God live?”, “Who made God?”, “Why did Jesus have to die?”, “What happens when we die?”…. are typical four year old questions, and any parent or grandparent who has experienced a full-on question asking pre-schooler will know that more often than not, these kind of questions can leave you flummoxed and embarrassed with your own inability to provide adequate answers.  Jesus disciples were great at asking questions, and you can hear Jesus gently guiding them, often by a return question.  Asking questions is a wonderful part of faith journeying because it moves us forward to seeking more.

Mystery and wonder– the art of appreciating something bigger than our understanding

There is a point somewhere in our faith stages where we appreciate the question to which we just can’t get answer.  That there is some mysterious explanation beyond our human understanding is in itself an answer.  Children have a sense of mystery and wonder.  Have you ever watched a child, out of bed as a special treat, on a dark night looking at the stars?  Their sense of mystery, wonder and delight at what they see is inspiring.  Children don’t have to know all the details about why and how and when and who… to appreciate that there is something going on that is bigger than their understanding.  A sense of mystery and wonder is a delightful part of faith journeying because it moves us forward to seeking more.

Honesty – the art of being frank with ourselves, with others and with God.

Children have an honesty that can be breath taking.   They haven’t yet learned all the social etiquette and rules about what should or shouldn’t be voiced.  They see things through a simpler lens than the lens through which an adult views the world.   An adult’s world has had far more experiences and voices.  While the wisdom and knowledge gained may help make a better, informed decision about appropriate action, a child’s view can often provide great clarity on the presenting issue.   A typical example is when children are hearing about poverty in two-thirds world countries.  Their response will often be starkly honest.  “There shouldn’t be hungry people. Can I give them some of my food?” says the child.  They’re disturbed that hunger should exist and see the fixing of it as a simple act of provision.  A sense of honesty is a refreshing part of our faith journeying because it moves us forward to be more genuinely honest with ourselves, with each other and with God.

Power – the art of destructing our stereotypical structures and giving voice to the powerless

It is almost impossible to have any people orientated system that does not have power.  It’s a natural way in which we organise ourselves.   Whether the power is in individuals or by committee, whether it’s in the local church, or in the group of churches, power is inevitable.  Giving a voice to the powerless is structurally challenging.  When I’ve talked to other pastors I can hear the struggle they are under in leading their church.  The idea that a child could contribute something of more value than a theologically qualified professional is not a popular thought.  On more than one occasion we’ve had an adult visiting Avenues who has some theological training.  When a child offers something that us Avenues regulars might view as a valuable contribution itself, our visiting adult wants to chip in to round it off, to clarify, to add some additional words.  A sense of lack of power is a significant part of our faith journeying because it allows us to see God at work in each other.

Generosity – the art of giving from your best

We seem to unlearn giving as we get older.   A baby will take their soggy biscuit out of their mouth to share with their mother, a toddler will give hugs to complete strangers, a pre-schooler will spontaneously pick a bunch of weeds to give to someone they like, a five or six year old will draw picture after picture and give these away to everyone around them.  The more we know about life, the more our generosity shrivels to be given from our excess, not from our all.  Children haven’t learned this yet, so whether in physical acts such as hugs or giving drawings or cards, or verbally by giving words that come straight from the heart, a child leads us to God’s heart and generosity.  In our worship, a child will often say out loud their generous feelings or response to a situation that makes the rest of us nod and take note.  A sense of generosity is a significant part of our faith journey because it allows us to interact with the people whom God loves.

Sorry – the art of confession for wrongs

Children learn right from wrong fairly early on in life.   A toddler who has just learned the word, “No” will be reduced to tears on hearing it.  When a child does something that they know is wrong they project their guilt and their need to be forgiven, getting very upset over their ‘wrong’.  Children have an enormous capacity for feeling sorry and an enormous capacity to forgive.  You have only to watch pre-schoolers playing in the sand to see this in action.  Watch the child get in a fight in the sand pit over sharing a toy with another child, they will be enemies one moment, then with some intervention, and a chance to say sorry, they’re friends the next moment.  At Avenues we often have confession prayers which are typically interactive.  The practice of confession is freeing and liberating and sadly often overlooked in our ‘smug goodness of being a Christian. We all do things wrong, whether deliberately or inadvertently.  So at Avenues we might be thinking out loud some examples that a child can relate to, such as “Was there anyone you said something horrible to this week?”  While it will likely relate to children who’ve been playing with other children, we find ourselves challenged. Did we offend someone this week?  Such wrongs can seem small and simple, but they are very real and they are blocking our way to be more like Jesus.  A sense of saying sorry is a significant part of our faith journey to become more like Jesus.

This is just a handful of thoughts that I’ve had over the last week about why I love to worship with children as an integral part of our worshipping faith community.  It’s almost selfish actually!  I’m trying to decide if I get more from the children than I give to them?  Life is a journey and faith is a journey.   For myself, my faith is strengthened by the presence of children and if that means I become like a child mysef….  well hey, that can’t be bad, it’s what Jesus told us to be!

About this time the disciples came to Jesus and asked him who would be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus called a child over and had the child stand near him. Then he said:  I promise you this. If you don’t change and become like a child, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven. But if you are as humble as this child, you are the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And when you welcome one of these children because of me, you welcome me. Matthew 18:1-5Contemporary English Version (CEV)

The language of a common meal

My friend Sylwia and I do not have a shared spoken language.  She has two languages, I have one… and between us we have three.  Not exactly a straightforward start to a friendship.  But here’s the thing…  we have shared food together.  There is something special about eating food with others.    We met  Sylwia for the first time across a table from each other and a couple of hours later Sylwia was entertaining Andrew and I in her home in Dresden, Germany, with more food!  We would never have met if it hadn’t been for a particular set of circumstances in our own century and because of the connection between the stories of other people in a different century and of a different culture to each of our own.   A complex recipe of religion, culture, academic study and being in the right place at the right time.

Sylwia is a very special person to us. Who could have guessed on the day in which we met, that less than 24 hours later I would be in hospital fighting for my life?  On that first day and in the days and weeks that followed, while we were still in Germany, Sylwia took us both into her heart and Andrew into her home and her family.  With our large and loving extended family hundreds of miles away, we were alone.  Sylwia was my mother, my sister and my friend.  A bond has been formed that is beyond words, so the fact we don’t have shared words to use probably doesn’t matter much!

Caroline and SylwiaIn person our communication has been conducted in gestures, smiles, laughs and the odd experimental word in one of our own languages.  Via the Internet we continue to communicate regularly in a way that is a constant wonder to me.  We actually manage to keep up to date with the news by the means of all kinds of things (in written form with the help of electronic apps and translators, and in spoken form with the help of Claudia who translates between English and German and Polish for us, and in visual form –  because a photo tells a thousand words!)

So where words fail we do have that first language that we did share… the food of an ordinary lunch across a table.  I’ve always been keen on the idea of sharing food as part of our gathered together worshipping community.  At our Avenues Church we always have food as part of our gathering.  As a child I grew up in a family with a round dining table, and an approach to dining that meant there was always room for one more person.  Around our family dinner table we caught up on the things that were happening in each other’s lives.  We debated, we encouraged, we argued, we shared, we ate, we challenged each other, we welcomed others and we grew.

The opportunity of sharing food together, as a part of our Christian journey is not new.  Jesus’ ministry begins at a feast.  He turns water into wine at a wedding feast.  The gospels record numerous other meals including the feeding of enormous crowds with a boy’s humble lunch, and smaller events like Jesus catching up with his friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus.   Then there is that significant last meal shared with his closest friends and followers, his disciples.  Who would have guessed after the last supper that the pattern of this meal would be repeated across centuries, across countries, across cultures?

annabelenglishannabelpolish.jpgWhile I was in hospital in Germany I was trying to think of a way that we could thank Sylwia and her family.  What is the perfect gift that money does not buy?   I wanted to find a gift that said ‘New Zealand’ and ‘grateful thanks’.  I remembered that Annabel Langbein, Kiwi successful cook, cookbook writer and businesswoman had been to the Frankfurt Book Fair, the year New Zealand was guest country, and I was pretty sure her book, “The Free-Range Cook” (which I owned in English) had been translated into German.  It was a start – a way to signal to Sylwia in a language that she spoke, the ‘language of cooking food’, to tell her that we were grateful and thankful to God that she had been there, at that time, in our lives.  With the help of my tablet, I found that not only had Annabel Langbein’s  book been translated into German, it was also available in Polish.  Polish is Sylwia’s mother-tongue!  From what I already knew of Sylwia, I knew she’d love the ‘grow your own’, ‘feed everyone’, ‘simple food’, feel to Annabel’s approach.

It took some weeks longer before I actually managed to navigate my way through the possibilities of ordering a book in the polish language and getting it to Sylwia, but finally it arrived to its destination.

So now we speak a new shared communication language.  The language of ‘Annabel Langbein’ or maybe it is the ‘language of a common meal’ – across countries and time.  Our regular skype conversations are conducted with our recipe books at hand, and page numbers to explain and show what we made last.   It’s kind of like hospitality or the sharing of a common meal in the virtual world!

Chilli Jam.jpg

Last week at my work we had an international week.  I was on bringing food on the ‘German’ day.  a nod to my Polish-German friends that God had sent my way?   Thanks to google translator I was able to ask for and receive a recipe for ‘the best apple pie in the world’ – ‘Szarlotka’. It is such a great feeling to send a ‘help’ message across to the other side of the world and get a message straight back with recipe as well as further instructions on the tricks to make it even better!

Szarlotka

Simple entertaining as a daily part of life has been given a back seat in our culture today.  While the café and restaurant culture has grown in NZ, and the age of the dinner party or the more relaxed, but still elaborate barbeque are typical hospitality events, the regular and simple act of dropping in to a friend for a cuppa, a biscuit and a chat is less frequent.   Of necessity, our busy lives move even catching up for a coffee and a chat to the side-lines of daily life.  They become scheduled activities, events in their own right, booked into our jam-packed calendars between other busy activities.  They have to be arranged, rather than just happen.  We still drink our coffee, we just do it on our own, sandwiching it between our own busy activities.  We stand in queues, buy it in paper cups, drink it in our cars, on our own, in the traffic, listening to the radio, on the way to work.  Even ordinary daily family dinners are disrupted and staggered events, with nights where there is sports practice for one person, a meeting or other evening activity for someone else, another person being home late from work while someone else is watching the news on tv for homework. Our time is sliced, diced and cut up into tiny portions, and having the space in our programme to leisurely share food together is treated as a luxury.

Sylwias pg 67What would happen if we could find a way to strip all the frills and fancies of entertaining back, to just be ourselves, to keep things simple and uncluttered, casual and relaxed, to make the focus of the shared meal about ‘breaking bread together’, about the act of eating and drinking and talking together and about creating a common experience?   If we recognised the language of the common meal to be about something else happening as well as food, to see it has a God-given opportunity to make connection, meeting each other’s needs, sharing each other’s burdens and joys?   I think this might be an important part of living out our Christian life and faith.   And I think that it can be the start of some amazing opportunities to share God’s love with others.  It might be a way of listening to the voice of God, of receiving and giving, of bonding with each other and with Jesus Christ… something like communion.

(Photo credits: my Szarlotka, Sylwia & I, Annabel Langbein’s books in Polish & English, ‘my page 128’ and Sylwia’s page 67)

Farm Fresh Organic Eggs and the Still Small Voice of God

‘If you could choose only one food, what food would you choose to not live without?’  That seemingly lightweight question that people ask sometimes for fun… and for most of my life, ‘chocolate’ would have been the first word on my lips, but with my recent health challenges, I’ve had to radically rethink my answer.

Since last November my diet has been lacking in variety.  Amongst a few other things, I’ve been eating eggs! I’ve always liked eggs, but I would never have thought them to be my ‘can’t live without food’.  How things change.  Currently they truly are a super food to me!

I’ve become obsessive about them, and very particular!  They have to be fresh and they have to be free range.  It’s all about nuances and subtle differences – I mean we’ve never stocked our pantry with reject eggs!  But as eggs make up at least one of my daily meals I’ve become a fussy egg connoisseur.  Does such a thing exist?  You hear of wine connoisseurs, but eggs???

I had such a special gift a couple of weeks ago.   Andrew was leading a church service at the country church in his parish and they had a harvest festival.  When he came home with six eggs, freshly laid that morning I was extremely elated, causing a lot of laughter in our household as I made it clear to the family (and a guest we had staying), that the eggs were mine only so hands-off everyone!!

It set me to thinking that by simplifying my diet and focussing on eggs, I have been able to notice the subtleties of eggs so much.  Whether it’s, the way the egg poaches, the size or softness of the yolk, the colour of the yolk, the flavour when I eat it – I notice it all now.

I can hear my children groaning, “Here comes Mum with another metaphor!”  So I will not disappoint them!  Yep, I can see a metaphor for our own God journeys.   In this case, I was thinking how my new found appreciation of the subtleties and nuances in different eggs, is a bit like our conversations with God.   When we’re surrounded by a cacophony of noises, hearing God’s voice in our lives is hard work.  When we’re only talking to God occasionally on a, ‘I need something from you now God’ way, it’s almost impossible to know what is God’s voice and what is our own voice reverberating in our heads with our hopes and dreams.

My Aunty Ada was a distant cousin on my mother’s side.  When I was a teenager she used to visit us to stay sometimes.  Having an elderly guest in a house full of energy and the teenage activity of me and my three brothers might sound like a problem, but Aunty Ada was a welcome guest.  She was a very little lady with twinkling mischievous eyes, a sense of humour and a wicked laugh.  She was also a ‘rebellious nun’ (her words).   By rebellious I think what she meant was that she didn’t like being obedient within the institution of the church if it didn’t make sense to her and she as always looking at ways to challenge things.  It wasn’t that she was rebellious against God.  Having lived a very secluded life, she was amazingly knowing, intelligent and insightful about people. The power of prayer was strong in Aunty Ada. She prayed about everything and when she talked about God she sounded like her entire everyday life was one long conversation with God.   She always wanted fresh things to pray about and to know that she was praying for you was an extremely good feeling.  She was one of those rare souls who really ‘walked with God’ and her answers to prayer were amazing and breathtakingly spot on, time after time.

Eileen was also a little old lady, married to an energetic and extrovert Irishman.  With rosy pink cheeks and a warm smile, she was the quiet one.  Her husband, a church elder, was active and busy both in local church life and in para-church organisations.  He never sat still, and wherever he went, Eileen went with him, quietly supporting him in all that he undertook.  While her husband was often in upfront roles, including leading worship on a regular basis, where we were treated to upbeat rousing hymns sung with gusto and energy, Eileen was always the unassuming and quiet one.  But Eileen was neither invisible nor overlooked.  When Eileen spoke, people listened.  Because Eileen heard from God.  Often.  Sometimes Eileen would say, “I believe the Lord is saying…” and there would be a collective intake of breath, the hairs on the back of the neck prickling sensation around the congregation.  Eileen’s words from God were so carefully given, and so amazingly spot on.  She was also a woman who ‘walked with God’.

It is interesting how often in the scriptures we see God talking in the stillness and silence.  I loved the story of Samuel as a child and young teen.  The idea that God was calling out to Samuel in the middle of the night and eventually Samuel responds, ‘Speak Lord!  Your servant is listening.’ (You can read it in 1 Samuel 3 https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Samuel+3&version=GNT ) God spoke to Samuel and Samuel listened to God.

I do believe that God can speak to any of us, but I also know that life is noisy and finding time to listen to God is all too easy to reduce to the times when we want something from God.   We fill our days with a multitude of voices, and it can be hard to hear God’s voice amongst the competing noise.   It’s not that we don’t want to hear God, or even that we can’t hear God.  But in the same way as my change in eating habits has made me an egg connoisseur, hearing God’s voice requires regular prayer and times of silence when we stop to listen.

This is of course why retreat centres and health spas exist.  People need to take time out of their busy lives and their ordinary routines and stop.  Stop, relax and be refreshed.  Stop and reflect.  Stop and be.  Stop and think.  Stop and pray.   Hearing God’s voice is available to all of us.  But we have to be ready to listen.  We have to find the time and the space, and (just like noticing the subtleties and nuances of eggs) the more we do it, the more we hear from God.  I love this paraphrase from The Message of Psalm 46:8 https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm+46:8&version=MSG

Many Christians past and present have made a regular pattern of prayer in the early morning or in the dark evening.  There is something about the half-light or night light that makes it easier to be soothed and relaxed.   Some people like to walk and pray, or sit in a peaceful spot, or kneel to pray. Others like to pray before they fall asleep at night or when they first awake in the morning.  Whatever it is, having a pattern of prayer and listening to God, means whatever comes, good or bad, in the journey of our lives, we have the time and space as well as the practise of praying and listening about everything that is going on in our lives and in the lives of people near and far around us.   When God speaks we are not only ready to listen, we also hear the subtleties and the nuances.

We live in busy and noisy times, but God is not too busy to listen to us, ever!  While simplifying our lives might not be possible, maybe it is possible to simplify a portion of time in the regular routine of our days and focus on prayer.   A regular routine of speaking and listening to God, through the good, the bad and the average days of our ordinary lives.  And expect to hear the still small voice of God!

(Photo credit: my perfect breakfast)

Wrapped in Bubble Wrap

We all experience times in our lives when we have to deal with tough stuff.  Things go wrong.  Things we didn’t expect to happen to us, do happen and we are hurt, sad and grief stricken.  The truth is that bad things do happen to good people.  Having a Christian faith doesn’t protect us from sour experiences.  But, hopefully our faith when we’re going through tough times helps us cope.

After my dramatic health situation while on holiday in Germany, last year, I’m continuing to experience ongoing health problems.  But despite the fact that it’s now been five months, and I’m still not well, I’m still feeling somewhat cocooned and protected.  I said to Andrew the other day that it feels like I’m wrapped in bubble wrap.  The impact of all the ongoing health problems is cushioned.  It’s still happening, but I’m not bruising as easily as I could be.   I don’t think I’m in any denial about what is going on with my body, the daily grind is impossible to ignore.  So why do I feel so cushioned and safe?  I can only conclude that my faith has carried me through.

I shouldn’t be surprised by this really, given it’s what I believe for myself and for others I guide on their spiritual journey, but it’s nice when it really matters, to know that faith really does help!  And it’s extremely comforting to me, to know that my faith does provide me comfort.

But I know people who are going through difficult times and don’t find the same comfort in their faith.  It’s made me think a bit about this of late and reflect on why my faith has helped me so much as well as hoping that in the future I’ll continue to get the same comfort from my faith.  I’ve been wondering if for me, my current bubble-wrap comfort is rooted in my view of God.  Maybe our view of God, affects what we think God can be and do in our lives.  Two people experiencing the same thing, both cope differently and have a different view of God’s involvement in their lives.

I’ve heard all kinds of things said by people that show how they view God.

If our view of God is something like ‘God as Santa Claus’, handing out special treats to good boys and girls, we assume that our ‘goodness’ as noticed by God is rewarded by treats from God. Our interaction with God is reduced to something like us making lists of things we want to receive once a year, while trying to avoid getting on a naughty list meaning we’d end up with no treats.

If our view of God is something like ‘God as Fairy Godmother’, waving a wand and fixing things that are not quite right, magically turning our pumpkins into carriages and our rags into beautiful gowns, we assume that God moves in and out of our lives, transforming some of our ordinary into extraordinary and making us feel special.  Our interaction with God is reduced to a cry for help for what we want from God, a cry to change our circumstances and bring us riches and magical moments.

If our view of God is something like ‘God as Police Officer’, enforcing rules, keeping the law, looking after public health and safety, we see God as official law enforcers, uniformed and tough, sometimes on our side, sometimes on the side of the other person.  Our interaction with God is reduced to a valiant attempt to keep the laws and be a good citizen, staying out of God’s way, and only involving God’s help personally with our emergency phone call when something is going wrong.

If our view of God is something like ‘God as Judge’,  determining whether by our behaviour we’re guilty or not-guilty and dishing out punishment accordingly, we see God as remote from us, sitting behind a high bench, protected by the legal traditions and processes.  Our interaction with God only happens at times of judgement, maybe when we think we’ve done something wrong or if someone else we know has wronged us, and in our eyes deserves punishment.

There are plenty of other views of God out there, and feel free to post a comment with your ideas. I think the closest I can come to describing my view of God, is something like God as Journey Guide.  You’ll know if you’ve ever been on a tourist tour and had a great local guide, how it helps to really see what is going on in the places you’re travelling through, to get an appreciation of the people that live in that place, their history and customs, to figure out currencies and sort out simple things that become so important on tour, such as great places to eat!  There is also the adventure guide, such as the Sherpas that guide hiking groups up the Nepalese mountains.  I imagine that these guides know the way, know the conditions, know what to do when things get rough, know the unpredictability and uncertainties of the climb.  These guides have experience of such journeys, yet at the same time, each journey is unique and new.  No two climbs are the same, and each brings their own challenges, joys, dangers and achievements.  And of course a journey guide can only lead if people are willing to follow. And as a follower, you can’t opt in and out of parts of the climb, picking out the parts you want, choosing only to walk on the flat bits and somehow jump over the steep climbs and avoid them. You have to follow from the bottom to the top all the way if you’re going to be sure of where you’re going.

To me this metaphor comes closest to my faith understanding of Jesus as journey guide.  One of my favourite things about Christmas is the celebration of Emmanuel.  In the birth of Jesus, the world received Emmanuel or ‘God is with us’.  As Jesus lived amongst people, we have the eyewitness records of what kind of person this ‘God with us’ was, what he did, what he said and what he felt. ‘God with us’ or Jesus Christ as ‘journey guide’ is to me extremely comforting.  Jesus who understands pain and suffering. Jesus who speaks words of peace and love, forgiveness and hope.  Jesus who gives priority to the poor, the needy and the sick.  Jesus who tells us to follow him.  Jesus who shows us the way, the truth and the life. Jesus who faced despair, loneliness, sorrow and grief.  There is such comfort in knowing that God with us, in the person of Jesus is alongside me. And right now he’s got me bubble wrapped because he knows that’s what I need.

I’ve been thinking all of this over in my head in the last few weeks, and had actually started writing the blog a few days ago up to this point…

This weekend I’ve been quietly sitting with my laptop and formatting our next book, ‘Solving the God Problem’.  It’s written by Brian K. Smith, and is actually a revised version of a manuscript he wrote many years ago, called ‘The Xerox Equation’.    As my eyes flicked over the words, it struck me that this manuscript has been hugely influential in my thinking and concept of my view of God.  In fact it actually surprised me how many of the thoughts and ideas in Brian’s book, are integrally part of my faith, fully permeated through my thinking and have been now for many years.   “Jesus is the Son of God. See him, and you’ve seen the God that nobody has ever seen.” (Brian K. Smith from the ‘Solving the God Problem – John for Today” Due for publication in next few weeks from Kereru Publishing.)

I first encountered Brian’s Xerox Equation when I was running a children’s holiday programme based on the seven signs from John’s gospel about 25 years ago.  Andrew had a photocopy of the manuscript from his time at theological college when Brian was the Principal, and I used it as my base document to build up our holiday programme content.  Over the years I’ve dipped into it many times.  We were very excited when Brian agreed to give it a brush up for today’s world and publish it with Kereru.   And many of Brian’s old students have already expressed enthusiasm to get a copy once we’ve published, so it’s not just us who’ve been influenced and impressed by his thinking. Brian’s commentary on John We see God through the person of Jesus.  Reading the book of John from the bible alongside Brian’s John commentary shows that through understanding Jesus, we get a view of God.

Well this blog did not start out as a plug for our new book, but it is intriguing that the blog post flitting through my head of late and half written until today, should connect so well with my weekend’s work, so I really can’t help giving this a push!  Brian’s book is written for those with little or no biblical background, so fits in well with my ‘all ages and all stages’ thinking and is really a book for anyone. Brian uses contemporary language and metaphors to unpack the gospel of John and things that you read in the bible and wonder what they mean, are explained engagingly and creatively.  In its earlier format it was probably one of the first bible commentaries I had ever read, and reflecting on it now, I see how significant this has been to the foundation of my adult faith, my view of God and my life journey through the good times and the tough times. My bubble wrapping shouldn’t surprise me after all!

(Photo credit: my dress as seen through the bubble wrap)

In another language, in another country, in another space

Well it’s been a while since my last post… and a lot has happened sandwiched between the last entry and this one!  I’m not going to tell you the whole story, but over the next few months maybe bits and pieces of it will gradually be told.  But I didn’t want to leave this blog looking empty and neglected any longer.  The shortened version is that a few weeks ago, I found myself in a hospital in the town of Pirna, Germany, having emergency surgery! Not quite the holiday experience we’d dreamed and planned.  Following the surgery I spent two and a half weeks in hospital, then a night in a hotel, a 40 hour journey home and a ‘lost’ week at home before the NZ specialist sent me back into hospital for a further week.  Now I’m recovering at home… but this is a bit of my story from Germany…

There were a small handful of people who spoke some English among the staff, but for most of the nurses, they had no English and unfortunately I had no German.    It was an interesting experience in learning about communication without words.  While I was in intensive care my two wonderful daytime nurses did have some English and we got by with the odd words and dramatic gestures,  but when I moved to a general ward it was different.  Retrospectively, I wonder if it was deliberate that my first two nurses could speak some English. Once in the general ward, some of the younger nurses or student nurses had some English, but the older nurses had grown up in the days of the GDR and had learned Russian at school.  (No, I don’t speak Russian either!)  The staff were all amazing and I could not get over their care and compassion despite the language barrier.

My surgeon had the most amazing smile. I only met her after the surgery and when she first came in the room, in a group of doctors, I knew immediately that she was my surgeon, even before she’d introduced herself.  She had a glow around her head and I felt such a sense of warmth on sight.  She had lovely long fingers and when she changed my dressings and looked at my surgery she had the gentlest yet confident touch. She had absolutely no English, but she would pre-practice some key words to talk to me and then draw me pictures or gesture.  Communicating with her was a little like playing Pictionary.  I will always remember her as an angel.  She was my first angel.

My second angel was also there when I came out of the anaesthetic, also recognisable by a glow around her head, so I knew she was someone significant,  but it took me almost a week to find out that she was my Lead Doctor and actually the head of the hospital.   On my second day in the general ward I was uncomfortable with bags and tubes coming out of me.  I didn’t know who to ask for, and what I wanted to ask them.  So I just kept thinking of her face and praying that she’d come and see me because I somehow thought she’d know how to help.  She appeared by my bed in her street clothes – I think it was her day off.  I was ecstatic to see her “Oh, I’m so glad to see your face,  I’ve been hoping you’d come!”  She ordered the bag that was going through my nose to come out and stood over the nurse until it happened.  Even so, it was still another few days before I realised that she was the boss!  One day I asked her how many English speaking patients they had at the hospital, and found to my surprise that I was the first ever!

Necessity meant I had to communicate, and with the help of a tablet and German translator app, I had a resource which was frequently in use.  But there were many times when words became redundant, and I was intrigued how quickly I adapted and how well my nurses nursed me without words.  There was one particularly wonderful nurse on my general ward who was my third angel.  She never tried a word of English but she clucked and fussed over me, making me comfortable, guessing my needs and filling me with relief and confidence.  One night I when I was particularly in pain, so much so that I hadn’t thought to push the button for the nurse, she appeared in my doorway, a golden glow around her head.    “How did you know I needed you?”  I asked her.  She soothingly clucked away and came in and tucked my legs so I was comfortable and adjusted my pillows.  Of course she hadn’t understood my question, but by her actions, I was sure that she answered me, saying something like, “I just knew you were uncomfortable, so I came into help you.”   Whatever she replied… I was comforted and back asleep in no time.

Several people have said how much I will want to forget my time in hospital.  I hope I don’t forget it.  It was a time of great privilege for me.  I’ve always hoped that in a time of darkness, my faith would stay strong and this time it did.  From the moment in the A&E department, when the surgeon told me the news that I had to have emergency surgery and didn’t have time to get back to New Zealand, I had an amazing sense of peace wash over me. I had an image of being held in God’s arms.  Both the feeling of peace and the image of God holding me stayed with me throughout my time in hospital.

And words… the currency I deal with for most of my daily life, in both written and spoken form… all became sideshows to the languages of touch, gestures and images and that special something extra that can only come from God.

(Photo credit: the Krankenhaus (hospital) taken on the day I managed the first big walk outside!

Religiously – imbued with salt and light

The other day I was taking part in a conversation at a meeting which seemed far removed from a religious context.  In my work-a-day construction environment the discussion involved developing a strategy around working with a difficult individual.   Someone present used the term ‘religiously’ to describe a negative characteristic of this individual.  There was a general murmur of agreement to this description.

Afterward I was reflecting on the use of the word ‘religiously.’  What the speaker had meant to convey was the negative idea of an over-zealous, intense individual who was committed to the strict pre-determined routine rather than coming at a problem with an open mind and a creative and flexible approach that would deliver a workable solution.   Hmm…   It made me think about the other times when I’ve heard ‘religious’ used in a negative context… and how a word that should be a positive is often used negatively.

I looked up the definition of ‘religiously’ on dictionary.com http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/religiously and it didn’t really help explain why the word can be used negatively.  I love this defintion of ‘imbued with religion’…  that works for me and my faith journey…  living a life imbued with the Christian faith in every aspect of the journey is something that is always my desire.

It reminded me of another conversation over a cup of coffee when I had just taken a leadership role in a community group a few years back.  I met with a woman who was not a friend at the time and had some influence in the group.  She was a no nonsense business woman and she started our conversation after initial pleasantries, with getting straight to the point.  “I don’t like religious types and I have serious concerns with you taking on this role. ”  Oh great…  now to dig myself out of that hole… “I am religious, but… ”   Fast forward a few months and perhaps surprisingly, I had a new friend.  I’d somehow navigated the path of maintaining my ‘religiousness’ with enough real life authenticity to change her viewpoint on my type of religious type.

That’s just two examples, but when I stop to think, there are plenty of times that I’ve heard about ‘religious nutters’ and the like.  And I wonder, how do I live out my faith in a way that is both true to the Christian religious teachings that are the framework of my faith and conveys a positive impression on those who sit outside of any Christian religious circles.

Perhaps there is a challenge for us in understanding, interpreting and living the word, ‘religious’.  I think for me the images I like to use to define my religious behavior and lifestyle are those of salt and light.   Matthew 5:13-15 says, “You are like salt for everyone on earth.  But if salt no longer tastes like salt, how can it make salty? All it is good for is to be thrown out and walked on.  You are like light for the whole world.  A city built on top of a hill cannot be hidden, and no one would light a lamp and put it under a clay pot.  A lamp is placed on a lampstand, where it can give light to everyone in the house.”

Most of our household likes watching the reality TV cooking shows, ‘My Kitchen Rules’ and ‘Masterchef’.  We get hooked on the competitions, rivalries, personalities and the cooking skills and it makes good winter time television watching.  Invariably and frequently the judges always go on about seasoning…  it seems that even when you’re good enough at home cooking to get all the way through to the finalists, doing something as simple as salting your food can be the difference of a winning dish or not.  I think being a salty Christian is one of my religious goals.  I like the idea of being a flavor enhancer and a preserver of the faith.

Thinking about the image of light, events of this last weekend, come to mind, when we had three nephews and a niece come and stay.  The two older boys at ages 8 & 6 were very thrilled with their sleeping arrangement on a double bed air mattress in front of the TV in the lounge.  The younger 3 year old was not quite as impressed with his mattress in the study next to his sister’s cot.  This might have been why when he woke long before the birds and the sun, he went and jumped on his brothers bed, yelling at the top of his lungs, “Hey guys is it still dark?”  When questioned as to why he’d woken everyone in the entire household up with a question that he could have answered himself by observation, he explained, “Well I didn’t know if it was still dark because I couldn’t see.”  ….  !!  (Okay,  so only the logics of a very verbal three year old could come up with that as an answer!)  That’s the thing with light – even a small glow can light up a large dark space.  A little bit of light cancels out darkness.  Maybe asking whether it is still dark is a question to test our religiousness…  is it still dark… or is the light of our faith, lighting up the way for others as well as ourselves?  It’s a nice picture, the impact of even a little light.

So to conclude this religious ramble…  I think that for the word ‘religiously’ to be viewed as a positive characteristic… it means ensuring our Christian faith journeys must be genuine and authentic experiences of salt and light religion…  and that is always far harder and more challenging than it sounds!

(Photo credit: salt and light on my dining room table)