Twitter feed, with its 33,000+ strong following, is similarly garnished with girlie affirmations ("Always & forever friends!") and glossy neologisms ("Just sayin'", "OMGOODNESS!", "Yay!", "Wow-wee!"). Her chic wardrobe of billowy tops, skinny-leg pants and funky boots wouldn't look out of place on a Women's Weekly shoot; her face in a L'Oreal campaign. Time, and undoubtedly clean living, has been very kind to this lady.
Over the weekend, Houston hosted the annual Hillsong Colour Your World Women's Conference, a gathering of 10,000 women from 19 denominations and 33 nations at the Sydney Entertainment Centre. That's a lot of oestrogen in one place. Thanks to a friend who secured me a ticket (they are pricey), I was in the audience. Mostly up in the rafters.
Like many people, my views on Hillsong Church have been largely shaped by the media (read: cynicism, skepticism, control, money, money, money!). But this is not a post about the monolithic church that is Hillsong per se. Before heading down to Sydney, I vowed to not let my preconceptions get in the way of what might be a positive spiritual and relational experience.
The prospect of spending three days in close proximity to 10,000 other women is not everyone's cup of tea. It's not mine. But the overwhelming feeling I experienced was one of warmth and inclusiveness. It's wasn't too girl-powerish, either, but rather about touching your humanity: helping women overcome any personal obstacles and then encouraging them, through the dissemination of information and emotional provocation, to become involved in a global movement towards equality and quality of life for women.
"The church is broad and diverse and we don’t have to do it all the same way or look the same, but we are of one spirit," writes Houston on the Colour website. "It involves compassion, which commands response from our heart, as does empathy. At the very core of the Sisterhood we come together and have lots of fun and games and girl connect time (and that’s important – we need one another) but at the end of the day – it’s about every day girls, rolling up their sleeves and seeking to make a difference in their world... and not only that but inspiring others to make that difference also."
To that end, in addition to Houston, there were four other "key speakers" who took to the stage over the two-day event: Christine Caine of A21, a ministry offshoot of the Colour Sisterhood concerned with human trafficking and restoring dignity to its victims; 60-something youth leader Jeanne Mayo; author Lisa Bevere; and Craig Groeschel, senior pastor of LifeChurch.tv and father of six. Additionally, two panel sessions were held with representatives from Compassion Australia, A21, the McGrath Foundation and Hillsong Church.
At the beginning of proceedings, we reflected on the environmental disasters brought on Japan, New Zealand and Queensland. We are encouraged to buy gift vouchers for victims to donate at the Conference stands. (Yes, we are also encouraged to make a donation to Colour Conference itself.) With 1,500 smiling volunteers on hand helping to smooth the way for the ladies – handing out daily lunch bags, helping mums carry strollers up and down the stairs, directing us to our seats, distributing flyers for the 2012 Conference – the event itself is a slick exercise in obedience and service to the church.
Mayo led into her first talk with a comedic sketch of mammograms (take your boob and slam it between two icy cold bricks) before extolling a Martin Luther King Jr. quote: "If a man hasn't discovered something that he will die for, he isn't fit to live." It's not what you do, but why you do it, she says, so in a world of half-heartedness, dare to live with passion. "I will not offer to the Lord that which costs me nothing," she quotes Isiah. Passion, she says, together with discipline and endurance = power, so dare to make a quality decision about what to do with your hurts.
The affable Groeschel becomes the unofficial husband/dad of the conference, easing into his first sermon on loss, failure, rejection and the unknown by recounting his personal struggle with the I'm-not-good-enoughs. God has not given us a spirit of fear but of power, love and a sound mind, he says. "When I am afraid, I will trust in you," says the Pslamist (56:3). He quotes Christian theologian John Wesley: "I have never known more than 15 minutes of anxiety and fear... I take comfort in his control in all the affairs of my life".
Houston's daughter, Laura, hosted the intermittent Conference News TV broadcasts. And Aftermath, the new album by Hillsong United, is plugged, along with resources (books, CDs, DVDs, merchandise) and Conference t-shirts all available at the merchandise stands. Magnum ice-creams are handed out in addition to lunch bags filled with water, an apple, banana bread/fruit bun and a chocolate.
Lisa Bevere exhorts us not to be afraid of our strengths and to "be all you were created to be" and "be the change that you want to see". "Are you incapacitated or fully awake?" she asks. She talks about pornography, the shame in sexuality and the degradation of the value of women that leads to human trafficking. "We are all so different – don't aspire to be generic". Depending on where you're at in life, this could be intimidating or motivating.
The 'Sisterhood Sessions' are emotive – tears are shed as we watch an A21 video on human trafficking. Compassion Australia reminds us that sponsorships have been crippled by the GFC and world events, but that a great need still exists: 22,000 children die every day from preventable causes. But closer to home, bullying, loneliness and illness are affecting our nextdoor neighbours.
Mother Teresa said, "Being unwanted, unloved, uncared for, forgotten by everybody, I think that is a much greater hunger, a much greater poverty than the person who has nothing to eat." We are shown videos of women who are doing their bit in service for their communities, like a woman who knits rag dolls for cancer wards. So, says Hillsong's Donna Crouch, practise hospitality, plan purposefully, be intelligent about meeting needs, network, be realistic, earn trust, start small and keep the lines of communication open.
Caine tells us about the work of A21 and its victories in bringing perpetrators of human trafficking rings to justice and its victims to restoration; "When you're asleep, it's a nightmare, you can't cope – when you're awake, it's disturbing, but you're also very aware of what's at your disposal to be able to make a difference. We're not sleeping through this – we've made a decision to stop it...In just the last 12 months we've been able to set up a transition home – in addition to the legal centre and emergency centres – so the girls can be educated and get a job. And we have an internship program – people with PhDs and specialists and doctors and nutritionists and doctors and psychologists – have come together to really help the girls move forward. It's amazing what God has done."
Groeschel gives us some reprieve in his second sermon: God is rich in mercy; we're not saved by good works but for good works, which have been laid out in advance for you; you have everything you need to do everything God wants you to do (when he gives you an assignment, he also gives you the resources and knowledge to fulfill it); quit with being consumed with what you don't have and recognise what you do; and, my favourite, sin is like snot...the sneeze feels good at the time, but then you end up with muck on your face.
In one of her closing addresses, Houston urges us not to grow weary with doing good: we are from a nation of pioneers, like Catherine Booth of the Salvation Army. But don't do your good from a place of striving, urgency or panic, but from a place of rest and calm resolve. Be fully awake, be responsive, but at rest. Mayo later adds, "Happiness is not out there, it's an inside job... Hurt is allowing someone who's wronged you to life rent-free in your mind... So stop whining, stop being a martyr and go after it!"
How exhausting. It takes a day or two to digest. I feel like I've been on an Oprah roadshow without the koala cuddling. But these women – beautiful but relatable, charismatic, passionate and sold out to a higher purpose – are clearly onto something, as the Women's Conference spreads to Cape Town, London and Kiev. We're encouraged to sign up for Colour Conference 2012. And you can buy the Conference DVDs and key speaker resources in the merch tent to take home.
As I'm leaving, I ask one of the volunteers the name of the girl who played her piano and sang to us the night before – she was like Regina Spektor, absolutely mesmerising – and did a duet of Bruno Mars' "Just The Way You Are" with one of the Hillsong boys. Her name is Lauren (or was that Laura?) and she goes to the Hillsong College, I'm told. I joke that I should have recorded it to upload to YouTube. This was met with a mild look of horror. I have broken a Hillsong cone of silence. Oops.
Also a little disconcerting: are the perfect hair, good looks, slim physiques and nice clothes sported by the women up on stage coincidental? There are subtle messages about looking, you know, perfect/better/your best, including on the take-home t-shirt and water bottle, which bear the words, "Walking for freedom: walking for orphans, sisters, nations, the captive, the hurting. Walking for health, wellbeing, life & fun...". Good intentions, of course – when the body slips and slides, sometimes life follows (or is that the other way around?) – but for those who struggle with worthiness on a physical level, um, not so great. When I talk to a friend about this, she suggests that women like Bobbie, are in the public eye, therefore so are their figures, which convey a healthy self respect.
Houston tells us a few times that "The church isn't perfect" and that she wasn't always so blessed in the way of material possessions, like the boots from London daughter Laura has acquired. And, be sure, she and husband Brian have had their fair share of troubles. It's hard not to like her. Or to see the fruit of her devotion – the happy marriage, her three successful grown-up children and three grandchildren, her thriving church, her infectiously positive, bubbly outlook, let alone the workings for good – in a positive light. Hers is a good news story in a world of confusion and hurt and pain.
And, at the end of it all, we're all accountable to the same God, for richer or for poorer.
"After Job had prayed for his three friends, the Lord made him prosperous again and gave him twice as much as he had before. All Job's brothers and sisters and former friends came to visit him and feasted with him in his house. They expressed their sympathy and comforted him for all the troubles the Lord had brought on him. Each of them gave him some money and a gold ring. The Lord blessed the last part of Job's life even more than the first...There were no other women in the whole world as beautiful as Job's daughters. Their father gave them a share of the inheritance along with their brothers." - Job 42: 10-15
See also: The Life of Brian - ABC Australian Story; BrianandBobbie.com
Girl With a Satchel