Re-potting

After 29½ years, it was time to change churches. (The ½ matters, I always say, if it includes the Christmas pageant!)

I guess I want to document what this felt like. For one thing, it was a strange experience that deserves commentary; and for another thing, it might shed some light into what newcomers, visitors, shoppers and seekers experience when they first walk in our doors. Do keep in mind, though, that this is one person’s experience, and that one person has her own baggage and filters.

The church I left was a megachurch, a very good one. Over the time I was there, it had morphed considerably from the fellowship I joined in my late teens. I still miss that old vibe, but it was one for the times; churches should morph.

Three things were very weird for me in this process. The first was the novel experience of having a wishlist. I couldn’t decide if the wishlist was valid or not. It seemed so entitled. I was so ‘planted’ in my old church that any wishes I carried for it were prayers and whinges and discussions over coffee as a family member – not weekly dealbreakers that I held over it like a client. So, walking into fresh churches with a set of dealbreakers in the back of my head made me feel uncomfortable. Who was I to pass judgment on a church? Was I looking for reasons to write them off? Was I desperately looking for clues and cues to tell me I’d be okay there? “Please want me”?

Still, you know, selecting a church is like selecting a husband. You’re going to be long-term partners in the business of life. No man, or church, is perfect. All of them have strengths, weaknesses, flaws, beauties, a particular mindset, a direction. All of them are worthy. Yet not all of them are for you. Choose carefully, if you have the luxury of choosing. So, in the end, you really have to have (and can’t help having) a wishlist. (We decided to ‘date’ our new church for a month before ‘marrying’ it!)

What was on my wishlist? That’s very personal, so don’t take this as any kind of commentary on churches that don’t meet my particular description. In the end I was looking for a small puddle of sunlight in which to lift my hands to my beautiful God; a place my husband could enjoy and relax with me in; somewhere my gifts might make a contribution; authenticity; hopefully, the expression of spiritual gifts; and a core group of friends to do life with. It’s been a very long time since I woke up on a Sunday morning dying to get me to a nightclub.

These are mostly inward-focussed desires: things that I want in relation to myself. They don’t speak to the equally-important aspect of community engagement. But remember, as a missionaries’ kid I’ve spent my whole life facing outwards. I don’t underrate that, but I believe God wants a balance for us. Otherwise, He would never have had Paul describe us as a body.

The second weird thing was how excruciating it was to be churchless. Here I cannot tell how much this experience is unique to me. There is something very latchy about me as a third-culture kid. When I first moved from New Zealand to Australia, all of my immediate family were in the Philippines. I adopted myself into my church as a surrogate family, and held on like grim death. To leave that family decades later, even in its morphed form, was more wrenching than I expected. I thought (especially in traumatic seasons when I fantasised about leaving) that I would feel free, unfettered, the world my oyster, my time my own. Nuh-uh. I felt like a castaway. Adrift. Like a pot plant midway between pots, hanging helplessly in the air, roots dangling, soil crumbling away. Literally like a fish out of water, gasping and desperate. I HATED IT. I felt (but wasn’t) friendless. You don’t necessarily lose your friends when you change churches, but you do lose your social life. All the things that bring you together become inaccessible. I couldn’t just swan in and out, scooping up the cream without making a contribution or commitment. It didn’t seem right. So I felt isolated and alone, and I’d done it to myself. I wondered if this was one of the things people feel during a divorce.

As I’ve said, it’s hard to tell if I felt this so strongly because my attachment to church was more fanatical than is healthy. Could it possibly mean that strong attachment is the way it should be – that if you don’t find separation wrenching, you weren’t really part of the body? I’m not sure. I don’t want to push that interpretation at anyone else. Attachment is as individual as each person. So I’ll simply leave it as a record of what this individual felt.

The third weird thing is that when you already know what sort of things are in your ministry skillset, when you do walk into a new church, you can’t help but look for where you might fit. (It’s on the wishlist, after all.) So it’s a strange feeling for me to look at the team on the stage and be thinking, “Will this be my tribe? Will they like me? Will they find me Too Much? Not Enough? How long will it take to prove myself? Will I fit in? Have they got ten of me already? Will they think I overrate myself because I’ve served in a Big Church? Will they be disappointed in my rusty skills or happy that I have more than one? Will I step on anyone’s toes? Will I be allowed to step anywhere at all?” And then you meet them and you try really hard not to be yourself, because yourself is relaxed and loud and talkative and funny and affectionate, and you can’t throw all that at people you’ve known for five minutes. And so they get A-Ca-Awkward Beck who doesn’t know what to do with her hands when she talks. I do want to be honest about who I am and what I bring, such as it is … but I don’t want to lead with my resume. I just want a tribe who gets me and values me.

We’re in a mid-size and quite variegated suburban church now, and it’s working out. Will it be perfect? Of course not. Will we learn and grow and give and receive there? I feel sure we will. I’m grateful to God for the lovely people we’re getting to know, and a new adventure in a new season. Settling in. God is good.

Whitewash

I’m having trouble getting this song to work in the cadence I want, and it’s not too consistent yet — but I’m liking the lyrics, so I thought I’d share them.

People are falling off the Christian wagon left and right. They are not lost. They are reconfiguring. This is a good thing, a necessary step towards authenticity. Be patient with them. God is in the mix.

 

WHITEWASH
© Rebekah Robinson 2019

Put down your brush, heavy head
You’ve been painting so long
Let fall that can, it feels like lead
You can’t carry it, and stay strong

Been painting over doubt
Covering the pain
That we don’t talk about
The scar and the stain
Elephants and flies
Persistent truths and lies
Let it all go …

And come to Me
Bring Me all the hard questions
Come to Me
Sit with Me in pain
Come to Me
I will give you rest.

Laying aside the fight with issues that linger
No wonder you feel free
Getting to the bottom, to raw timber
There you will find Me

Been filling in the blanks
With activities
Coming in with tanks
At anomalies
Minimise the horses
Emphasise the carts
Signing up for courses
Bending broken hearts
Let it all go …

And come to Me
Bring Me all the hard questions
Come to Me
Sit with Me in pain
Come to Me
I will give you rest.

Strip down the walls
Peel the layers off
Bare timber
Bare timber … and Me
There you are
And here am I.

Someone to Look Up To

Announcing the launch of my very first book: SOMEONE TO LOOK UP TO – A Lay View of Leadership. Yay!!! It’s a feedback book about doing church leadership well. You can get it here or from your favourite store.

This book scooped up several of these blog pieces, and a heapin’ helpin’ of extra thoughts around church leadership and the way we approach it.

I’m connected to a lot of leaders. One of the trends I noticed last year was that when people posted about what they were learning in their leadership seminars, the quotes seemed very … strident. Almost anti-congregation. It was as if new leaders were being trained to see themselves as a totally different, and oppositional, race from those they wished to lead. It was all very Them and Us. It was coming from several unconnected sources. It put my back up.

In addition to this, as some of you know, I’m a spiritual abuse survivor, so issues around leadership (especially combative leadership) hit all my triggers. And since the bulk of the leadership I actually engage in centres around my parenting, and I’ve had no luck with yesterday’s parenting methods, I began to see that yesterday’s church leadership styles weren’t headed for a stunning future either. And that this would be especially true of adversarial approaches. In the words of Patrick Lencioni, today’s kids “need to weigh in before they can buy in”.

I had very good leadership classes when I was in Bible college, but I don’t remember ever being taught much about spiritual abuse: how to identify it, how to avoid suffering it, how to avoid perpetrating it, how to recover from it.

Well, these three gaps – adversarial approaches, out of date approaches, and harmful approaches – coalesced in my head under the working title Consultative Leadership. I wrote 5,000 words on that first day. That was June 2018 (it’s now September 2019). I am almost finished the study-guide notebook that goes with. It’s my hope that the book (and its guide) find their way into rotation in Christian leadership classes and colleges. On a smaller scale, you can do the study in a connect group as well. There’s plenty in the book to interest observers of leadership as well as its agents.

I’ve started a Facebook author page here, and this is my website.

The book is 182 pages long, has 13 chapters, is easy to read, and is friendly in tone. I hope you enjoy it. I hope it gives you some handy pointers, big signposts, and food for thought. I hope it encourages you and helps you thrive.

 

Listing in the storm

I may not be CEO of this house, but I am certainly Managing Director. I am overwhelmed with checklists. I need a shower and breakfast every morning to function. My doctor wants me to exercise daily. My physio wants me to do a range of stretches for every 30 minutes I sit. Nutritionists want me to eat a ridiculous amount of veges every day and drink 2L water. I need to invent, plan, shop for and balance all the meals for all the family (adding for variety, seasonal availability, and budget). I need to monitor all the rooms, the cupboards, and the fridge for items that need replacing, trying or adding. I need to water the plants every day. I need to keep old food out of the fridge, clutter from the surfaces, dirty dishes done or queued to be done. A certain amount of housework and cleaning should be done – toilets, floors, benchtop etc. I need to marshal all the people in the house who do chores to actually do them. I need to memorise and plan around everyone’s schedule, including my own. I need to take care of the emotional needs of my family and be sure to spend time with them. There is a brief five minutes of bliss at some point when all the laundry is done. If I go out, I need to check the petrol (and once a month the oil and tyres). I need to pass on/pay the bills. I need to pray and read my Bible. I need to be involved in church and be diligent with my ministry.  I need to be in a life group. I need to not neglect my friends. I need to run my business/job/career. And I need to find time for self-care. Smiling, and exhibiting the fruit of the Spirit. All of this, every day. And I’m supposed to look pretty while I do it.

We were raised with a checklist, girls like me, pre-feminist. There was always this sentence in the back of your mind: “You’ll never get a husband if you don’t …”  These days a girl has more options for her future security than the acquisition of a sugar daddy. But she wants to be loved, she wants to be cherished and found fascinating. She hopes that the man she chooses, or who chooses her, will be the repository of all the beauty in her heart, as well as the eager recipient of her bodily favours. Sometimes, she chases him until he catches her.

The invisible checklist sits at the front door, but it can sometimes lurk in the bathroom and in the small hours of the night. Many of these items become automatic as time goes by, but I’m listing them because when you think about the number of considerations a woman has to have in play, every single day of her life, it’s quite overwhelming and you understand why we’re stressed and sometimes resentful. The fear is that if we don’t keep this checklist humming, we’ll “let ourselves go” and become frumpy or skanky. We run the risk of contempt. As we age, it’s hard to let go of the list, even though on some level we realise that nobody expects us, in middle age, to look fabulous. We’re aware that this is all very superficial. We’re aware that it’s not very feminist. But it’s written into us and it’s hard to break free from it. It’s hard to want to. So, if we navigate this list well, we kinda want kudos for it.

It’s variations on the following:-

  • Have you showered?
  • Thoroughly?
  • Today?
  • Washed your hair?
  • Styled your hair?
  • Does your hair colour suit you?
  • Does your regrowth need doing?
  • Does your hairstyle give maximum effect to your face?
  • Is it sitting nicely with enough product to give it shape but not so much that it’s like a piece of armour?
  • Need a haircut?
  • Put on deodorant? Maybe add some perfume.
  • Are your clothes clean?
  • Ironed?
  • Fashionable?
  • Do they go well together?
  • Are they appropriate for the occasion?
  • Do they make the right statement?
  • Do the colours work for you?
  • Are they too old/young for you?
  • Do they accentuate bulges you’d rather hide?
  • Do they cover what they should cover?
  • Are you being a stumbling-block?
  • Are you being yourself?
  • Are you representing Christ well?
  • Does your handbag match your shoes?
  • Do you have everything in it that you or your companions may possibly need while you’re out? (Purse, keys, phone, paracetamol, tampons, nail file, tiny scissors, lipstick, chapstick, comb, mirror, business cards, USB, safety pin, hair tie, toothpick, mints, tissues, wet wipes, sanitiser, water, reusable shopping bags, cards and/or card app)
  • Are your nails clean?
  • Well shaped?
  • A matched set?
  • All chipped nailpolish removed?
  • How about your toenails?
  • And your heels?
  • And your elbows?
  • Do you need sunscreen?
  • Have you shaved/waxed/lasered/depilated your legs?
  • Are they brown?
  • Have you done your armpits?
  • Is your bikini line tidy (or non-existent)?
  • Have you brushed your teeth?
  • Flossed?
  • Cleaned your ears?
  • Are you toned?
  • Checked your jewellery matches your outfit?
  • Have you plucked your eyebrows?
  • Checked your face for pimples?
  • Blackheads?
  • Stray hairs?
  • Cleansed and exfoliated?
  • Put on moisturiser? You want to stave off wrinkles as long as you can.
  • Do you need makeup?
  • Is it too thick?
  • Too thin?
  • Too dated?
  • Wrong colours for you?
  • Is there lipstick on your teeth?
  • Do your lashes look long?
  • Are you wearing a bra?
  • Is it working?
  • Does it show through your clothes?
  • Are you drinking enough water?
  • Do you look pretty and well-put-together?
  • If you ran into an old friend would you feel confident in your presentation?
  • Is your period due soon? You might need to watch your tone and reactions, and the condition of your skin, and pack extra supplies.
  • Have you taken your Pill/medication/vitamins?
  • Are there pet hairs on your clothes? Do you smell like dog? Have you washed your hands?
  • Are there any baby poo/vomit/food/milk stains/dark circles visible?
  • Do you have enough time/energy/relationship stock/cash/petrol/toll credit for this outing?
  • Put on a smile. Be nice. Blend in. Keep up.

Some men will argue that they are unaware of and not at all looking for completion of this list. Others will add to it (there are men out there who will judge a date on the quality of her nether trimming, to which the only proper response is, if you’re lucky enough to get invited there, take what you’re given with profound gratitude, bozo!) The point is that there are lots of expectations on women – far more than those on men. Whether or not we are judged by men, we feel judged by society at large, because we have been taught to judge ourselves. We’re pretty certain other women are judging us. We have internalised a paranoid system where we scan ourselves every day for flaws, and feel the need to apologise or hide if we accidentally overlook one. And our partners wonder why we lack confidence.

Not every woman, of course. But women like me. Anxious, impressionable, prissy me. I know a lot of this is pride.

Right now, on the cusp of a challenging season, I am low on steam, and I am finding my strength in God for perhaps the first time. List aside, I am desperately asking for Him to be my refuge and to lend me His strength. And He’s doing that. He’s wonderful. I am clinging tightly to Him, and I am managing not because I am heroic but because He is all-sufficient. I don’t want to ride His coattails only until I am “strong enough” to do life without Him. No. He and I, we don’t want to do life separately. I want His strength every day. Continuing to ask for it will be a test I’ll have to pass when today’s trials are over.

In a normal parent-child relationship, the parent delights in the autonomy of the grown child. He expects the young person to individuate and become their own pilot. But my relationship with Jesus is not precisely or only that of a parent and a child. It is also a Lover-beloved relationship. And in that kind of committed covenant, the goal is not increased independence, but increased intimacy. And weirdly, I’m finding that the more of Him I borrow, the more myself I can become – that is to say, who I am expands. It’s not a case of not growing up, but of growing outwards, growing new skills. Leaning on Him does not limit or stunt me in the slightest. He is not a crutch. He is an armoury.

People used to say cryptic things to me like, “Don’t do it in your own strength,” and “Rely on God.” I had NO IDEA what they meant or how to implement that. Without context, they sounded like nonsense phrases. But in this place of desperation I feel a closeness to God. I feel Him helping me.

Tasks & Asks

James is an interesting book, written by Jesus’ half-brother to His Jewish followers all around the world. It’s mostly practical, asking and answering the question, “What does your faith look like on the ground?” But it opens without preamble into an instruction to rejoice in trials.

I don’t know about you, but when I read the word “trials”, I automatically translate it into “sufferings”. And there’s no doubt that the early (and sections of the modern) Church faced a good deal of persecution: physical, social & relational, financial & economical, and political. It seems unimaginable to greet these things with joy – as if the Scriptures were calling us to some sort of bizarre masochism.

As we read on, James elaborates on the results of trials, but let’s have a look first at what else the term “trials” might encompass.

I’m a big fan of The Block, a reality TV show where contestant couples each renovate a flat in an apartment building, and compete for the greatest profit margin at auction, keeping any amount over reserve into the bargain. They sacrifice their regular lives on the gamble that the gain outweighs the rigours of involvement. Like most competitions, there are “challenges” interspersed throughout the duration: side projects, often for charities, giving contestants the chance to up their skills and make extra money to put towards their main goal. In many cases the contestants acknowledge that, while finding these tasks difficult, they come out with a sense of joy that they have contributed toward the cause at hand, regardless of whether or not they’ve won.

What if “trials” aren’t only about terrible things happening to us? What if they’re assignments? Opportunities? Side quests, to use gaming parlance? Professional development, so to speak? Pierasmos, sometimes translated temptations rather than trials, is defined as follows:

a putting to proof (by experiment [of good], experience [of evil], solicitation, discipline or provocation); by implication, adversity: — temptation, X try.

Suffering, therefore, is part of the equation, but so is simple testing to see how we handle both the good and the bad that comes our way. The Block contestants get to do exactly that, what with setbacks, do-overs, tradies that don’t come through or cut corners, costly mistakes, unexpected bonuses and expert coaching. In the end, they find the experience ultimately rewarding, affording them both material and personal growth, sometimes to the opening up of new careers and opportunities. And unquestionably it reveals what they are made of.

God isn’t asking us to be masochistic, but rather to see whatever comes our way as an opportunity to grow and gain, even in the midst of sacrifice, hard work and hardship – keeping before our eyes the joy set before us, in order to scorn any shame we might encounter along the way. Nor is God performing random experiments on us, like lab rats. We find ourselves facing things we wish God would prevent. But He is not “finding” us in unexpected circumstances, nor plonking us down in them. He knows we have awakened in a fallen world, in which He will lean on outcomes but will not force any of us to do the right thing. Under those conditions, He has set His face to redeem what He can – and there is much – from the hash other people are making of our lives. God is a master upcycler and (with the greatest admiration and respect) an opportunist. We are talking about the God who makes pearls out of the bits of grit that irritate oysters, who uses the very decay of compost to grow healthful vegetables, turning smog into sunsets and terrible forest fires into terraforming.

Am I smart enough to welcome trials? Can I see them as puzzles to be solved in myself, rather than devastation by which I could be laid low? Can I relish being presented with a dangerous side quest, knowing that I will pick up artefacts/tools/weapons/wealth/energy/provisions for my inventory as I go along? I suspect not, for the most part, even in my most “can-do” optimistic mood. And so God Himself provides the way forward.

It’s okay to be nervous about facing trials. If we weren’t nervous, we would never seek His help. We’d be doing everything in our own strength. I’m nervous about what the trials might contain, and I’m nervous about whether or not I can make the grade – whether I’ve got what it takes.

Trials, God says, develop perseverance. They are like the workouts that enable the athlete to run a marathon without flagging. They may be not only par for the course, but indispensable. While exhausting rather than invigorating, getting pushed to the limit does extend our capabilities. Nobody enjoys the actual sensations of that pushing, but the endorphins and the results are rewarding, yes?

Perseverance, He says, is what brings us to maturity and completes our kit. It has to finish its work, like a course of antibiotics, to bring about this completion. We don’t have to like the taste of the pills, but we do need to be very, very glad they’re available, knowing them to be invaluable. Both trials and antibiotics seem counterintuitive: putting in that which is negative in order to bring about that which is positive, and indeed to put what is wrong in us right.

Clearly, God intends maturity to be achievable. With my emotional nature and constant bumbling, I have at times despaired of ever reaching maturity, wondering if it would take my entire lifetime to achieve. But James does not speak of maturity as the finish line at the Pearly Gates. It’s more like the university degree we get under our belt as we move forward into adult life. It’s not the summation of living: it’s the tool for living.

Maturity, James says, is a state of lacklessness, or completion. I do not think he can possibly mean perfection, or the cessation of growth. There is a completeness where there’s a sense of arrival, yet room to add more and more richness. Think of it again like the Block apartments. A unit with dilapidated rooms is not complete. A unit with sound rooms, fully furnished, is complete. A unit made spectacular with objets d’art is glorious. So then, the Word invites us to renovate our heart-rooms with God, hinting that completion is possible and that we can then go forward from glory to glory.

The first lack we can make up to move toward completion, James says, is the lack of wisdom. And this, it turns out, is a free resource. You simply ask God for it. The only catch is that you have to believe you’re going to get it. Here’s where we can get tripped up. The Word has told us we can ask for anything we need, but has also cautioned us that we don’t get things we request for selfish reasons, or things that aren’t in His will to give us. However, the goal of maturing our own soul is not selfish. Rather, it puts us in a position to outwork love competently – and love is never selfish. It’s a win/win: we are blessed AND we are a blessing. James tells us outright that the request for wisdom is ALWAYS in the will of God. He wants us to be wise. Jesus is wise, is He not? And we are called to become more like Him, are we not? God is neither short of, nor stingy with, wisdom. So if I ask Him but doubt I’ll receive it, what’s really going on?

First, I need to believe God doesn’t see His wisdom as a non-renewal resource, to be parcelled out carefully, and only to “worthy” recipients. What He offers is not a divided pie. It’s more like an information website multiple people can access at once. It doesn’t “run out” or even crash, and you don’t have to earn it.

Second, I need to believe Him when He describes Himself as generous and non-judgmental. God doesn’t see me as a gumby who’s so dumb she has to ask for basic smarts. He knows my limitations and the gap between what I know and what He knows. He probably thinks it’s sharp and commendable to go to the right store for the right product. The decision to depend on God is the smartest one we can make, even in our un-smart state. He wants to be asked, and He takes all comers. When we ask, we are affirming our faith in His nature. We don’t just come to God because of what He has: “I know You are rich, Dad.” We come to God because of who He is: “I know You love me to bits, Dad.”

Third, I need to believe that it’s possible to receive wisdom from God. Can I trust my instincts, forget for a moment that my heart can be deceitful, and make decisions trusting that God has done the necessary direction-nudging in me, giving me the mind of Christ? Is wisdom only for decision making, or is it also about outlook? In that case, I would get to improve in the way I approach life and other people. Wisdom would then be about learning to see things as God sees them. It would be about becoming more like Him.

My thick skull is not a rock He’s made that’s too big for Him to lift. What hubris it would be, to believe my mind so dense that even the wisdom of my almighty Maker cannot penetrate it! He can impart to me anything He likes, and He’s offering wisdom for free, almost begging me to come get it. I think I’ll take Him up on that.

So, to answer my original question about what’s going on when I doubt: it’s failing to trust that God loves me and tells the truth about Himself. And that trust underpins the whole Christian life.

Scripture hints that God cannot/should not/will not give us anything (I’m not sure if this is specific to the wisdom-request, or refers to general asking) that we ask for in doubt. When we ask and doubt at the same time, according to James, we put ourselves at the mercy of circumstance, emotion, and cognitive confusion. Faith in the kind of person God is – generous, kind, accepting, with intelligence that sees us to our core and foreplans all of time – is the path to stability, as well as the key that unlocks the treasury. When He says, “This you can ask for, and I’ll unquestionably give it, because I’m generous,” we’d be nuts to turn Him down. When we say, “I’m asking, but I don’t think You’ll really do it,” we’re calling Him a liar when He has testified about His own identity. He may actually find it insulting, as if we have said, “I think you might love me a little bit, Dad, maybe, some of the time, despite what You claim.” We think we are being humble, calling into question our own worthiness, when in fact we are calling into question His truthfulness, the size of His love, and therefore the content of His character.

Trials are not God’s expressions of suspicion, looking to see how quickly we’re going to fold. They are the natural results of the Fall, recycled by Him into invitations to level up. So it’s wise to embrace them, and if we lack that wisdom, well, He’s holding it out to us.

What Women Want

I hear that many men are asking this question, so why not take a whack at it? Though I will confess to a little trepidation! I’ll be looking at this through the lens of Christian marriage, but much of what I’ll say will hold good for unchurched relationships as well, I hope.

Honestly, this is not as hard as it seems, though it is complex. I find it strange that there is even a mystery attached, because it’s not as though no woman has ever talked, done research, pleaded, cajoled, threatened or fought to reveal or attain what they want. Women have been telling men what they want for, like, ever. The problem isn’t that we can’t articulate what we want. The problem is that the things we want appear, as a collection, to be incompatible – and a lot of hard work, to boot.

Here’s what women want. Or at least, what this woman wants.

I want to be known, loved, and valued.

Nobody but God is ever going to know me thoroughly and fully – as my favourite author Lois McMaster Bujold puts it, “right down to the muck at the bottom of the soul’s well.” But I want to be known as fully as possible by my husband. While this will severely reduce my manipulative potential, it will also massively enhance my belief that I am accepted. For if he knows me pretty well and still sticks around, it not only says something about his character, but hopefully about mine. That I’m not all bad, for instance. When someone knows us, they can make assessment, yes. But they can also hold our hand and let us know that we’re not alone in the morass of things we struggle with. To be known is to not be alone. While our darkness becomes evident, so does the light of our best intentions and sincere efforts. The very shape and colour of our soul can be observed, admired, explored and cherished.

There’s a difference between being loved and being valued, as the same author once pointed out. You can be loved without being valued; this looks like patronism. “Let me pat you on the head, lovable idiot who contributes nothing.” Might as well be the cat. And you can be valued without being loved; but this is mercenary. “Keep proving yourself useful, because that’s the only reason I keep you around.” Might as well be the gardener.

To be known, loved and valued is to be celebrated. You can be quietly celebrated – as when you enter a room and get a warm smile in response. You can be loudly celebrated – with praise and professions of undying love. And you can be celebrated in absentia – when your partner brags about or sticks up for you.

The thing is, I want to be known, loved and valued in all three areas of my being: body, soul & spirit. And now we have a matrix of nine things, and men’s apparent confusion begins to make a glimmer of sense! Perhaps a table would be helpful. Keep in mind that these are not prerequisites, but long-term goals. That said, those who have several prerequisites under their belt going into the relationship, or the general seed or shape of them, or who show an openness to learn – these men have a much better chance of not being eliminated in the candidacy period! Also, keep in mind that this is one woman’s matrix. For example, I’ve listed “corrects me privately and gently”, because if I say something silly, I’d rather not say it again the next day; yet some people thrive on straight-up, loud confrontations which clear the air. I’m just not one of them. And there’ll be an equal amount of correction flowing back the other way, that I’ll try to give respectfully and kindly. So, don’t be daunted by the amount of information in the matrix. Just take it as a helpful guide, not as the Nine Commandments.

 

BODY SOUL SPIRIT
KNOWN

 

communication research
 fascination

he knows my health, physical needs, sexuality, capabilities, talents, limitations, preferences he knows my strengths, weaknesses, triggers, history, dreams, longings, detestations, anxieties, wellbeing needs he knows my spiritual gifts and goals, my calling, my priorities, pitfalls, attitudes & posture toward God
VALUED

 

noticing
esteeming
gratitude
celebrating honouring
respecting

he admires the things my body can do – for his, and for him, in my work, ministry, hobbies, our home, our family; he contributes at a similar level he understands or acknowledges what drives me, he’s committed to my personal growth and mental health, he respects me, my vibe is wanted around, my conversation is welcome and matters, I’m not a burden he takes me seriously as a Christian and workmate in the Gospel, he trusts me to hear from God accurately as an individual, he seeks my prayer support, he nurtures my spiritual life, we share insights and learn from each other
LOVED

 

care
compassion
protection
provision
cherishing
affection

whatever my shape or condition, he is fond of my body because it’s mine, he loves to make it feel good, he is undemanding, understanding of its cycle, he will go all out to protect and care for it and get it any help it needs; he ensures I do not burn out he finds beauty in the way my mind works, listens to me and hears me, makes reasonable adjustments when feasible, corrects me privately and gently, notices the way I treat others, appreciates my tastes and humour, enjoys my company he understands that Jesus must come first, he makes room for my relationship with God, my commitments, my development and my calling to flourish, he finds me beautiful when I worship, he finds a reflection of Christ in me

 

You can understand now why some wives are uninterested in opening up their legs on a given day, if they’ve not yet been able to open up what’s in their heart. This is not a condition imposed on coitus: “I won’t sleep with you if you don’t talk to me.” It is rather an optimal setting for coitus: “If you talk to me at some point today – ask me how I am, be interested in what’s on my mind – treating me as a whole person rather than just a warm body – I’ll feel much closer to you, and emotional intimacy makes physical intimacy far more appealing to me and far more likely for you.” Without making it an end to a means, it’s like car maintenance. Sure, the car can be run as soon as you turn the key; but it runs far better when you warm it up, keep it well-oiled, and put fuel in it. This works for an inanimate machine. Since a woman is more than an inanimate machine, using the warmth of patience, the oil of kindness and compliments, and the fuel of communication becomes the bare minimum.

The problems can also arise because there are, indeed, conflicts within each woman. Some days she wants to talk; some days she needs more Cave Time than you do. Some days she wants desperately to be touched; other days the slightest touch makes her want to scream. There is no remedy for this other than understanding. You can’t predict the Touch-O-Meter reading unless you track her cycle (while not tying the entirety of what she feels to it), read her body language, or keep a close eye on the stressors in her life. Knowing her well is obviously key.

There are other conflicts, too – internal ones, strange oxymorons in how a woman feels about herself. Take myself for instance. I am Generation X, but brought up even more old-fashioned, as the Church was still rather enamoured of the ’50s way of life, even in the ’80s. I grew up on a steady societal diet of “be beautiful (and well-mannered and snappily dressed) at all times. And you’ll get the boyfriend/social life/opportunity/ promotion/husband worthy of you.” I wanted to be beautiful, and sexy, and desirable, sought-after. Since I simultaneously wanted to keep my self-respect and virginity, this was mostly manifested in clothing, hair and makeup. And there’s a certain amount of “keeping up with the Joneses” in there as well, of course. Incidentally, this did not contribute to my self-respect. Every bad hair day made me cross with myself and feel like a failure.

Beside this out-of-proportion, media-fuelled thirst to attain to a physical pedestal, was a sense of annoyance. I did not like that I Iived in “a man’s world”. But it was the world I had to deal with; so I would use any advantage available to me that didn’t compromise my integrity. At the time, I mistakenly believed that beauty and sexuality were the only tools women had (and I wasn’t at all sure I possessed either). Too much intelligence would get you blacklisted by dumb men in authority who felt threatened by you. Too much wit would disgust dignified patriarchs who were accustomed to being planted like implacable oaks in an ancient grove. I was not a game changer. It was simplest to fly demurely under the radar and take whatever you could get, hoping things would improve for women as time went by.

Today there is still a tendency within me – even at this late date, with 23 years of marriage under my belt – to wake up in the morning and quickly arrange myself on the pillow as artistically as I can. I’m … somewhat posed. I call it poise, but that’s what it is: posing. Deep down I still believe that moments of ugliness are dangerous and anathema for women, though I surely have them. Now that I’m 47 and no Barbie doll, well … it’s hard to reassess my wifely value when I have placed my value in such a dubious box. I know the beauty box is a lie. So does my husband. We are both baffled by how important it remains to me to be as beautiful as I can. I am ashamed of how shallow this is – as if to say that only the Beautiful People deserve good things! Or that his love is attached only to my person! I am also ashamed that my hope for a better future for my daughter relied on the hard work, sacrifice and courage of other women, pioneers such as I never thought I could be, blazing a trail I could barely envisage. My big dream was up to God; but my paltry dream at the time was to be the best Little Woman I could be, while I waited for fame & fortune to descend from on high.

I was taught to believe that men (all men without exception) are rabidly lustful creatures with hooting eyeballs, who are only too keen to make the most of any and every opportunity offered them. So imagine my surprise to find that my husband doesn’t want to be sexually “on call” any more than I do. That he has other interests that sex does not necessarily trump. I didn’t marry a drive: I married a person! And alongside my insane need to be treasured as beautiful, was an equally insane corollary that said, “So if he’s not falling over himself to get you into bed all the time, you must be very ugly and unacceptable indeed. Because if, after all, any consenting adult vagina is a good one – and yours is being turned down – then yours must be the only vagina in the universe that isn’t a good one. Which makes you less than nothing.”

All of this, of course, would go away if (a) the vagina was not, after all, the sole call of a woman’s worth, and (b) I could only keep remembering that my vagina isn’t about anyone else. And, for that matter, neither is my soul – though what comes forth from it is. But I see clearly in the above paragraph that I have done the very thing I resent, and I have done it to both of us. I have reduced two human beings to the sum of their parts. The husband’s body might belong to the wife, and the wife’s to the husband, but both of them have to deal responsibly with the soul that comes with the body, as St Paul goes on to elucidate. Hence his insistence on love, respect and mutual back-having in marriage.

Let us suppose for a second that my husband was concerned – solely concerned – with bedding me. That he had no thought in his head about what sort of person I was, how I made him feel in my company, that I am a child of God, what my talents or capabilities or potential were. Might as well be a prostitute. Or a blow-up doll, for that matter. I don’t want to just be valued for my beauty & booty. I am so much more than that. And, thankfully, my husband agrees; but I remain subconsciously convinced that the physical is paramount. No amount of logic has been able to fully shift this silly belief. And because I am getting older and the physical is slowly but surely declining, I feel panicked and vaguely resentful. This is patently unfair to both of us. It needs to change. As I learn to rule over rejection (real and imagined) in my life, and shift my focus to cultivating inner beauty with the same ferocity with which I obsessed over outer beauty, I hope that it will.

The matrix, complex as it is, is important. But while it could conceivably be used as a how-to, every woman is subtly different. Her psychological traps (such as my beauty trap) will be different. There are probably women who believe intelligence is paramount, and despair because they cannot spell. Or that silent endurance is key, and drink because they are desperately trying to bury a fiery personality. Her needs will be different. Her love language will be different. (Me, I like all five love languages, and if one is not in evidence, I want to know why!) So take it with a grain of salt, but try to remember that the grain of salt is probably a dried tear. Don’t look at it with despair and believe it to be unachievable. Think of it like a Bingo card. If you’re kicking goals in several areas, you’re doing great. You’ve got the rest of your marriage to see, one by one, what may be done in the others.

No spouse is perfect overnight. And it’s not all on you, my dear male reader; both of you have agency to enact change. Women, however, speaking broadly, are natural renovators as well as connectors: we focus on building and maintaining and improving the marriage far more than our spouses do, I think. Perhaps it’s because we are less satisfied with the static, or perhaps it’s simply that men may prefer the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” route.

I’m generalising madly, aren’t I. I still don’t know the depths of my own sexism. For instance, I am perfectly capable of asking my husband for sex, help with the dishes, a date, a conversation; but there is still this idea deep in my scripting which says “let the man do the chasing, or you’ll get hurt”. So if he doesn’t chase, do I go without? I feel humiliated when I verbally ask for sex (as though I don’t have enough allure to be invited to it). I feel frustrated when I ask for practical help (as though the pile of dishes doesn’t speak for itself). I feel nervous when I ask for a date, and pathetic when I ask for conversation (as though the contents of my mind are not interesting enough to be sought out). I do initiate all these things from time to time, but again there is an element of resentment, because in my head they are as much “men’s work” as, well, things we traditionally regarded as “women’s work”. And that, my friends, is my great hypocrisy!

I just don’t know how to feel differently, though. Perhaps husbands are stuck in a similar rut. Maybe we all secretly want gender roles of some kind (though not necessarily those of the ’50s or ’80s!) just so we can know we’re on the same page, or whether we’re each holding up our end. But redefining these roles is not the same as living them. We’re always coming up against our upbringings and the unwritten rules and expectations in our souls, even when we know cognitively that they don’t make sense.

Pages could be (and have been) also written about what a MAN needs in a relationship; but since this is not my area of expertise, neither being a man nor intimately knowing more than one man and his needs, I leave this to those who know more. I can’t know more about what a man needs than the man himself, unless he’s seriously delusional, of course (as in the case of an alcoholic in need of intervention). So whatever you do, don’t ever let on that you think you know more about what a woman needs, than the woman in question who has just TOLD you what she needs. Take her at her word, give her the benefit of the doubt. In other words, believe in her. And never give up communicating.

Out, damned spot!

For so much of my life, I thought I was normal. In fact, if people weren’t like me, I used to think to myself, “Well, Beck, you’ve been lucky; you’ve grown up with excellent teaching, you’ve had all your ducks in a row from Day Dot.” I would tuck my theology under my arm and smile benignly, knowing that as time went by, all of us would gain similar insight and wisdom.

It was eye-opening to gradually come to realise that my life has not been normal, and I am not normal in consequence. (In fact, very few people are.) And it was complete shock to finally confront the fact that I had a mental illness.

Dial back a second. I’m not nuts. I just have giant holes in me. Holes named Anxiety, Doubt, Confusion, FOMO (fear of missing out).

I used to find it baffling that my children were not like me. They’re a little bit like their dad, and a traces of me show up now and then; but their drives and interests are their own. For a while, I was stumped. I was raising them on the values I was raised on; why had they not turned into carbon copies of me and my brothers? And then I realised: their life experiences, and the times they are living in, and the country we reside in … all of these things are different. They would have to live my exact life, with my soul, in my times, to turn out like myself. So when my daughter, at the end of a big fight, turned to me and said earnestly, “This is all in your head! You’re getting worse, Mum. You need to see someone!” it was time to acknowledge that Things Weren’t Going Well. And my life and upbringing, whatever their advantages, had not dealt me universal blessedness.

Hear me, now. I’m not blaming others. I had good parents and good churches and good pastors (for the most part). It could well be that when I say, “I was wrongly taught xyz,” that in fact I was taught correctly, and I filtered it through my very own xyz and that’s where it got distorted. God knows that the artistic temperament does tend toward the negative. And it could be that xyz was wildly fashionable back then, and taught vehemently, to the detriment of abc. And it could be that xyz really was a bunch of rubbish in the first place, but nobody knew better at the time. And it could be that they did. All of these things are possible; I just don’t want you to get the impression that I’m passing the buck.

All my life I have been conscious of inherent sin. Most churches teach that all people are born with a tendency toward sin, as part of the curse that came upon us in the Garden of Eden. The curse can be lifted by submitting yourself to Jesus Christ as your boss and rescuer; we call this becoming “born again”. What I couldn’t work out, though, was that if I was a new creation, having given my life to Christ, why did sinful thoughts still run through my head? Because they undoubtedly did – with disturbing regularity. And so, convinced I was missing some important step, I jumped through as many hoops as I could. What was I missing? Was it just a case of His DNA taking a lifetime to be unpacked in me? I shouted Scriptures at myself. I came forward for altar calls. I loathed myself. In the end I just resigned myself to not understanding why it worked for everyone else but me. I would just have to lean on the Blood and hope for the best.

The tendency in church life is to tackle EVERYTHING from the theological end. While this is good from the “letting God handle it” point of view, it can leave large gaps, not because God is inadequate but because the people teaching the approach are the ones with enormous gaps in their knowledge. All of us talk about what works for us, or what we’ve heard works for people we know or have read about, or what works in theory. These are not blanket cures, though, and they can be flavoured by a flood of well-meant misinformation. And there you have a person like me, who has mental issues but believes they are broken because their spiritual answers aren’t doing the trick. “You must be doing it wrong,” I told myself. “You idiot. Keep up!”

Rachel Denhollander said recently about poor church response to abuse, “[Biblical truths] are really used to mitigate and to minimize—almost as if the victim handles it ‘properly,’ if the victim just forgives, all of the feelings are going to go away. That’s not true and that’s not what Scripture teaches.”

http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2018/january-web-only/rachael-denhollander-larry-nassar-forgiveness-gospel.html

I can attest to this, and to what she goes on to say about pursuing God’s justice as well as His mercy. It’s hard work to recover from spiritual abuse while you watch your abuser get a free ride and a love offering. You’re sitting there, week after week, praying blessing on your enemy, all the while feeling guilty that you see a brother in the Lord, a pastor, no less, as your enemy. When you don’t feel you have a voice, when it’s not safe to speak up, it’s a soul-destroying place to be in. And you know that when people look at you, they see someone scarred. Scarring is not beautiful, and opportunities go to the beautiful people. The best thing you can say about your battle scars is that you got them because you refused to sit on the sidelines. You got them because you showed up for the fight. Let no one disqualify you for them!

That was a rather long detour about the failure of “properly handling things” (which even Job, the most righteous man who ever lived, couldn’t do consistently), but what I’m trying to focus on here is the comparison between tackling things from a spiritual “God knows best” point of view, and a cognitive “What are we missing?” approach.

I got breakthrough in therapy. My psychologist (a pastor himself) took me through a process called cognitive defusion. At least, I hope he said “de-fusion” and not “diffusion”. We talked about the early maladaptive schema (when your brain as a small child creates a dysfunctional program for dealing with certain things). We identified three probablies and two maybes, so off my own bat, I mindmapped them all, since that works well for me for loosening up ideas and extrapolating them. He’d asked me to think about when each occurred and what each sounded like, what my self-talk said to me. What I wound up with was a giant sheet of paper covered in vitriol.

When I showed my psych the paper, we talked about some of the issues. He said that I had a lot of leniency toward people who’d hurt me, but almost none for myself. (“They behaved this way because they had xyz happen to them.” “They’re Muggles, they don’t know any better. But I should know better.” … etc) And then he told me a very interesting thing. “Thoughts just come to you,” he said. “You can’t control them coming in.”

Now, I knew this was true about feelings, though I’m still pretty good at beating myself up for feeling the “wrong” things, just as I’m an absolute expert at beating myself up for thinking the “wrong” things. But I’ve been taught all my life that “as a person thinks in their heart, so they are” and that a good Christian should be “taking every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ”. Add to that a keen awareness of having sin in me. So I’ve been going through my whole life, believing that (a) I have darkness in me – which is true enough, if not the whole truth; (b) I am my thoughts, lots of which are bad; and (c) it’s my job to gate them and eradicate them. And then I’ll have a right to feel okay about myself. Someday. When all my thoughts are pure. And I won’t have to stand ashamed before God, needing yet another wash.

Well … it turns out, that process is really, really bad for me. (So now I have solved a mental issue but created a theological one!) I’ve been taught to deal with negative thoughts by reciting Scripture at them (this from the church) or by replacing negative thoughts with positive ones (this from pop culture). My psych says that’s pretty much like a person busting for the toilet chanting “Don’t think of water, don’t think of water.” All it does is prime the negative thought. He said the key is not to wage war against the thoughts, but to give less attention to them.

Mirabile, this is actually working for me. My brain can shout nasty things at me all day (“You horrible degenerate! That’s not godly! You’re a big fat fake!”), but I’m no longer obligated to listen. The insults are well-worn ruts in the road, of course, so the wheels keep on tending to go down there, though as time goes by the accidents are getting less frequent. Much more quickly, I’m able to shake myself and go, “Wait, I don’t have to pay attention to this.” It’s like a Get Out Of Jail Free card. I can walk away from all that self-flagellation and not, well, feel like I’m wagging. It’s awesome. Not my circus – it’s just my wetware glitching, always was – so not my monkeys. I feel lighter than air. I can’t believe I lived so long under condemnation I knew I wasn’t supposed to have!

So, where does that leave the Bible verses? Can I reconcile the truth of God’s Word with the truth of my experience?

Let’s have a look at the big one, 2 Corinthians 4:5b. “We take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.”

This verse does seem to imply that every passing thought ought to be swiped into a butterfly net, pounded with a rock until it conforms, and then put neatly on the correct shelf with a solid “Hmph!” No doubt this verse was thrown at us a lot in our formative years because “everybody knows teens think about nothing but sex all day long.” But just look at the damage it’s done in my life, without its context. It had me running exhausted day and night, trying to marshal all the random stuff that the brain just generates naturally because that’s what it does!

But guys! Guys! The context! Look! Look how it scans if you start at verse 4!

“The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.”

THIS IS A PASSAGE ABOUT HOW TO DO SPIRITUAL WARFARE. Not a verse about how to discipline your way into God’s good graces. Let the random crap fly – you’re not responsible for it! The brain generates it for free, and there’s not a thing you can do about it! But if you are engaged in a season where you are trying to use spiritual weapons to intentionally bring down a stronghold – THEN it’s time to pound lies with the Rock of Ages! These negative thoughts are the thoughts we have to take captive. Half of them are not even yours. This is the language of war: the thoughts that keep us under enemy siege – those are going to be our prisoners of war. They go under lock and key, and we turn our back on them (literally “repent” – to turn around and go the other way). THIS is the time to shout verses at your problems, because the Word of God and prayer are our two offensive weapons. This is the ONLY time you shout at yourself – and you do it because you’re on your side! And you shout encouragement, you don’t berate yourself! Cheer yourself on! Pray in the Spirit, because He knows what needs to be said!

Note, a stronghold in this context is linked to arguments, pretensions, and blockages that keep us from the knowledge of God. That could be all one thing, or four separate things. But if you remember that God is love, then the knowledge of God would be, in large part, a deep understanding of His love, as well as His righteousness and His values. So anything that argues that God couldn’t really love you, that parades around as a “smarter thought” than the simplicity of God’s love for you, that tells you you’ll never have a grasp on Him or His love – those are stronghold lies that need to be captured and annihilated. Knock ’em down, they’re the enemy.

Note also – the beating up of these pretensions is not something God expects us to do with our own mental resources. He specifically says that they are defeated with spiritual weapons, not natural. That means that the supply of such weaponry is up to Him. He’s given us the Bible and prayer for this very reason. You’re not expected to use aversion therapy or behavioural modification or any other earthly weapon. You’re supposed to listen to the Spirit and strike when and what He tells you to strike.

Back to the difficult verses. Maybe, just maybe, “As a man thinks in his heart, so is he” (Proverbs 23:7) DOESN’T mean “you are your bad thoughts”. Maybe it just means “your style of thinking will shape you” – which in my case was evidently true, because years of upbraiding myself had definitely shaped me into someone defensive and insecure. But even further, consider this: it’s a quote from the King James, lifted completely out of context as well, with the result that the phrase doesn’t even come up in other translations! (It was never about mental hygiene. The passage is about how to behave prudently at a party where your host’s eyes are going “Ch-ching! Ch-ching!” every time you lift your fork. Possibly because he’ll be doing the same thing at your party. And this bad translation chained me to condemnation for decades.)

Maybe the Bible was never, ever meant to be read to ourselves in a stern, accusing voice. Maybe it’s been kindly all along. I’m learning to speak kindly to myself – to speak, in fact, the way Jesus speaks to me. He never snaps, “You idiot, I’m so frustrated with you, haven’t you got this right YET?” Instead He puts an arm around my shoulder, smiles beside my cheek and says gently, “I reckon we could try that again and do it better.”

I thought that underneath everything was my inherent sin. I was wrong. Underneath are the everlasting arms. I thought everything began and ended in my shame. But it begins and ends in the love of the Father. It begins and ends in the love of the Father!