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Bra Straps and Boundary Lines

I don’t know if it’s an eldest child trait, but I grew up a nervously ‘good’ child, believing that this was the only way to get on in life. Later, I believed that this was also the only way to keep in with a God who was always watching. Swearing, wild behaviour of any kind… it would only come back to bite you on the bum. I could just about get away with using the word ‘bum’…

I began to notice some random things. Once – I must have been 12ish – I guiltily told a close school-friend a slightly risqué joke about a nun whose bra strap had broken. ‘Bugger!’ she exclaimed. ‘My bloody bra strap’s broken!’ ‘Sister!’ reproved a nun who overheard her. ‘Oh come on!’ the first one continued impatiently, ‘What do you expect me to say? ‘Behold my cup overfloweth…?’

My friend exploded with laughter – partly because she couldn’t quite believe that this joke had just come from her mild-mannered friend. Me neither. I remember it as a bitter-sweet moment – the schizophrenic sensation of aching with shared laughter and reveling in the heady, freeing sense of authenticity… whilst also believing sadly that I had just let God down.

Over the years I learned that you can keep the rules and miss the important stuff, ending up emotionally brittle and judgmental. I once stayed with others at a guest house run by an uptight Christian couple, where Mick outraged the wife by calling the local cinema on her ‘sanctified’ phone. She’d just discovered a couple of shandy cans in one of the bins, and was already pretty incandescent. I heard her later sounding off to one of the staff: ‘Today cinema and beer, tomorrow swearing – and then all hell will break loose!’ She and her husband didn’t get on – they ignored each other and went to different churches. But they didn’t drink. Or swear.

Actually, she was partly right. As Christians transition away from a rigid legalistic faith they do sometimes begin to swear – often for the first time. But hell isn’t breaking out. They have just stopped straining at gnats and swallowing camels. And now they are adjusting their old paradigm, stepping on the lines to check that the sky doesn’t fall down. Like children of parents whose faces always light up at seeing them, they sense that yes, God is watching – and he’s delighting in them, recognising who they really are rather than nitpicking about boundary lines. He gets them.

As for me, I’ve told my joke a few times since I was a shy, bound-up 12-year-old. It still cracks me up, but now there’s no schizophrenia. In fact I reckon I can hear God laughing, just a little bit more distinctly every time…