Umasked: fuelled by misunderstanding; removed through love

It is such a pleasure to welcome Vicki Cottingham to my guest blog series Unmasked: stories of authenticity today. With courage and vulnerability she shares how difficult it was to remove her mask due to ill health and misunderstandings.

I am very familiar with mask wearing. I became ill with M.E. (also known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome) over twenty years ago. I also suffer with chronic migraines and depression. In the beginning it was particularly hard to adjust to. Whenever I prepared to meet with anyone I would make sure that my mask was firmly in place.

People in my life, such as family, friends and church, knew I was living with this long-term illness, but I didn’t like to talk about it. If anyone asked how I was, rather than be honest with them and tell them ‘I’m really struggling, I’m depressed and my poor health is getting to me’, I would tell them that I was fine thank you and then quickly change the subject. I would paste a smile on my face while inside I was an emotional mess.

I was afraid of being judged, afraid that people would think I was just being lazy, or a hypochondriac, or making a fuss about nothing, because everyone gets tired, and everyone has aches and pains, don’t they?

Being misunderstood

I was afraid of people’s misunderstanding, because being misunderstood just felt so painful. For me, being misunderstood was actually one of the hardest things to cope with when struggling with an unseen illness. Before my diagnosis, I remember my GP telling me all I needed was to get out in the fresh air, and go for a walk on the Downs. As if that would be the solution to whatever was ailing me.

When asked how I was, there were some people who weren’t really prepared for an honest answer. They were just going through the formalities of asking how I was. After all, that’s what we do, don’t we? We politely ask someone how they are today and expect the response to be ‘Fine, thank you’. The truth was, I was far from fine, but didn’t feel able to share what my life was really like. I couldn’t face dealing with people’s misunderstanding of me and my illness.

People would say to me how well I looked and then ask me how I was. I didn’t then feel able to say that actually I felt really ill that day, that it had been hard to get to church that morning and that I would need to rest for the remainder of the day as a result. Because I was so hurt by misunderstanding I resolved to keep my mask on to avoid being hurt any more. I thought it was better to keep the truth to myself, and so I hid behind the mask that I had perfected.

Now that I can see things more clearly, I realise that it wasn’t others’ fault that they didn’t understand what M.E. was and how it affected me, because at that time very little was known or understood of the illness. I also know that none of these people intentionally set out to cause me pain. I was overly sensitive as a result of the illness and was also struggling to come to terms with it myself.

Impossible to maintain the mask

I feared being vulnerable and letting people see the real me. What if I broke down and cried in front of them? What would they think of me? I felt I had to pretend I had it all together. It was all pretence and the mask was my protection.

I found that wearing this mask for any length of time was hard work. It took a lot of energy. Energy I didn’t really have and so I felt drained by trying so hard to keep it from slipping. It was impossible to maintain and was certainly not a healthy way for me to live.

In my season of mask wearing, while I was distant with others, my relationship with God grew stronger and deeper. Over time he enabled me to remove my mask.

What helped me to take off my mask

There were two things in particular that helped me to remove my mask and be real. First, was my relationship with God. When it feels like everything has been taken away from you, all you are left with is God, and God came to mean everything to me. He reassured me of His unconditional love for me time and time again and, because He loves and accepts me I have no fear of His rejection, His displeasure or His judgement. It says in 1 John 4:10–18 (NLT):

This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins… We know how much God loves us, and we have put our trust in his love.  God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them. And as we live in God, our love grows more perfect… Such love has no fear, because perfect love expels all fear.  

God created me deliberately and so He knows and understands the real me. I can be completely honest with Him; I don’t need to hide who I am, how I’m really feeling or pretend that I have no problems or struggles. As Psalm 139:1–4 (NLT) says:

 O Lord, you have examined my heart and know everything about me. You know when I sit down or stand up. You know my thoughts even when I’m far away. You see me when I travel and when I rest at home. You know everything I do. You know what I am going to say even before I say it, Lord.

It is very freeing and liberating when we realise that with God there really is no need to pretend to be something we are not, that we can be who we really are: ‘And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free’ John 8:32 (NLT).

The other thing that helped me was having real, intimate friendships with others. I said how some people just didn’t understand what I was going through. But there were others who stood by me and offered me friendship, even when they didn’t fully understand. They have given me practical help, have listened to me as I’ve explained how I’m really feeling and the struggles I’m having, and they have prayed for and with me. They have shown me that they really care about me. They have given me love and acceptance. I found that there was no need for me to wear a mask when I was with them. I was able to be real and honest with them.

Over the years I have learnt the value of these friendships and God has blessed me with some great friends. These genuine, intimate friendships take time to develop – they don’t happen overnight, but they are definitely worth investing in.

In these friendships we: ‘Love each other with genuine affection, and take delight in honouring each other’ Romans 12:10 (NLT). These friendships mirror the relationship we have with God. In John 15:12 (NLT) Jesus says, ‘This is my commandment: Love each other in the same way I have loved you’.

Giving permission to others

I have found that when I am real with others it also gives them the freedom to be real with me. It’s something we all need – to be free to be who God created us to be. In this kind of environment, we feel safe to be ourselves, rather than pretend to be something that we are not. We can share our struggles, our fears, our sins, our problems etc., and know that we are loved and accepted. It’s in this kind of environment that we can all have the confidence and security to remove our masks and be real with each other.

Vicki Cottingham lives in the South East of England with her husband and two teenage children. She has a love for God’s Word, studying it and sharing it with others through the written and spoken word.  Her joy of writing led her to writing a regular devotional blog called Hope for Today.

 

Author interview: Beth Moran

TheNameICallMyself blog tour posterI am delighted to be a part of the blog tour for Beth Moran’s third novel, The Name I Call Myself. It is a great summer read – a romance novel that also tackles some pretty huge subject matter including identity, grief, abuse, murder. It might sound heavy, but Beth writes in such a way that grips you right from the start and there are also some wonderful moments of female friendship and laughter. I asked Beth to give us some insight into her writing process for this novel:

What was the inspiration behind this new book?

The Name I Call Myself started with three different ideas that had been floating around inside my head for a while. Like all my books, this led to asking lots of questions, that I hoped The Name I Call Myself might begin to answer!

The first idea was a brother. I have two brothers and no sisters and my daughter also has two brothers and no sisters, so I knew I would enjoy writing about a sister-brother relationship (my husband has seven brothers and no sisters, but that will be a whole other story!) I wanted to include a big brother who had once been his sister`s hero, and explore what happens when that dynamic shifts, and he is the one needing help. Is there a limit to the sacrifices we should make for a sibling?

The second idea I wanted to write about was a secret past, and a main character who has changed her name. I wondered how trying to keep that covered up would affect how she felt about herself. Does keeping old secrets mean you can never really leave them behind, or are some things better kept in the past?

But all that sounds a bit serious and heavy… I knew this woman was going to need some help, and also something to smile about, and that fit really well with the third idea, which was a choir. I sang in choirs in my younger days and really enjoyed them. They are also great equalisers, where age, size, status or labels are irrelevant, and stresses, problems and to-do lists are cast aside for a while. And let’s be honest, most of us women can do with places like that! There is also something incredible that happens when we work together to create something beautiful. And as well as being a safe place where anyone could unashamedly be their messed up, crazy selves, this choir needed to be a whole lot of fun!

Why did you decide to tackle such big issues as grief, abuse, murder and addiction?

Goodness! I certainly didn’t set out with that in mind… It was really the two threads of the brother in trouble and the secret past. Once I’d established the reasons for Faith and her brother Sam changing their identities, which had to be fairly horrific, I worked with the fact that an early trauma, if not dealt with well, can often lead to making bad choices later on. I wanted the contrast of one sibling who ended up very needy, and another who dealt with the past by trying to become independent and tough. I like including both big, serious issues and more fun elements in my stories because I think that`s the way life is for most of us.

What are your working methods when writing a novel?

I start mulling over ideas for the next novel about halfway through writing the one before it. This includes a lot of daydreaming, often while driving or walking or cleaning my house. I play around with plot elements, start getting to know the main characters and keep a notebook full of scrappy thoughts, random conversations, half-written sentences and loads of questions.

Before I start writing I spend a couple of weeks getting the main plot together, ending up with three or four sides of notes, following a rough order. I then create a document where I keep any more random thoughts that pop up, a timeline, areas needing research and themes I want to develop.

Once I’m ready to begin, I tend to make detailed plans for each section of the book as I go, so every day I know what I’m writing about. I also aim for a rough word count each week. This will range from 5000 -12,000 words depending on how busy I am with other things. I find it really difficult to write unless I have a clear two or three hours, but if I have an odd hour I will edit, plot details or do some research, so I’m always adding to the notes as well as the main book. I find that if I start to feel a bit lost, or progress becomes heavy going, getting back to the notes always helps me refocus, and the more planning I do in advance, the quicker I write. Having said that, I often experience that weird phenomenon where my characters just seem to take over and lead me off into a completely unexpected direction, so there are always surprises for me too!

moran_bethBeth’s new novel is available now, in both paperback and Kindle formats.

As a special promotional offer during the blog tour, Beth’s second novel, I Hope You Dance, is available on Kindle for £1.19. I absolutely loved that book, and asked Beth to write a guest post for me when it first came out, which you can read here. It was on the theme of friendship, which is a common thread in her books.

Why I’m glad my friends aren’t nice…

beth-new-cropped-w179I’m so pleased Beth Moran agreed to write a guest blog for my site. She is a brilliant writer, drawing the reader in right from the word go in the way she constructs her storylines. Her characters are totally believable and we get to share the best and worst moments of their lives. In honour of Women’s Friendship Month, on this last day of September, I asked Beth to write about the importance of friendship in women’s lives. This is one of the themes that weaves throughout her latest novel, I Hope You Dance, which centres around Ruth, a woman in her thirties who has just lost her husband. She discovers he has left her with a mountain of secret debts so she and her teenage daughter have to move back into her parents’ home. Ruth has to learn to face her past, present and future head on…

I’m going to come right out with it: for a long time, I had big issues with Christian women. Well, not all of them. It was the nice ones I had a problem with. The ones that always smiled, and said encouraging things, who made little jokes about their own deficiencies while their faces glowed and shiny hair sat perfectly in place. Those women who never complained, or gossiped, or growled at anyone. Who tirelessly served others, forsaking the last piece of cake so someone else could have two. Not once kicking up a fuss or making a mess or forgetting a birthday.

Don’t get me wrong, I genuinely liked these women. My issue was, I didn’t trust them.

Oh, I trusted them to do what they promised, to keep a secret, to be kind.

I didn’t trust them to be my friend.

I didn’t trust them when they said, “Well done, you were fantastic!” or “It was so wonderful to see you!” or told me how gorgeous I looked, or what a mess their car was or how they totally understood why I just kicked a chair across the kitchen.

I was dubious about the fact they were doing “really well!”, had an amazing time – every time, no matter what or where or how long the time. I didn’t quite believe they always loved being a mum, or a wife, or a Christian, or none of those things, as much as it appeared. And I couldn’t accept they liked me.

Instead, I felt comfortable with those who were blunt, who sometimes shouted at their kids in public, who made loud, large mistakes. I found myself spending time with women whose houses were a tip, honoured they invited me into the chaos. Grateful they were honest enough to tell me when they’d had a flaming row with their husband, or felt useless and weak, or were too tired to pray anymore. Or that I’d hurt them.

I loved these women, who welcomed me with open arms into their imperfections. I felt safe to be imperfect, too. These were the women I could turn to when I couldn’t forgive, or struggled to do the right thing, or I wanted a genuine answer to “Does my bum look big in this?”

But a weird thing happened. Me and these non-nice women, over time we learnt to have our rants in private, to share our fears, our troubles, our sins, with coffee in our messy living rooms not after Sunday services.

Together we learnt to lean on each other before things reached snapping point. To share advice and faith and lessons we’ve learnt about living well.

And then I realised this: nice women let off steam from time to time. They can feel angry and worried and overwhelmed, just like the rest of us.

The women who appear strong and assured in public, who are pretty darn fantastic at what they do; the women who can laugh at the days to come, despite current trials, or past pain – those women have learnt the value of true friendship in private. To cherish a small number of absolute, 24/7, warts and all people in their life. Those who cheer us on, who pray with us, who help us to be the women we were created to be. Those friends who tell us when we need to find a better balance, or stop whining and get moving, or where to go and have a decent bra fitted.

When we have a few, well-chosen people we can be our worst selves with, we are able to face the rest of the world as our best selves.

I don’t know if I’ll ever be thought of as one of those nice women. I’m embarrassingly honest, prone to getting feisty and I have a sense of humour that hovers on the boundaries of taste. But I’m okay with that. And I’m so grateful that some women love and trust me enough not to be nice to me all the time. It’s how I know they count me as their friends.

9781782641704Beth’s latest book, I Hope You Dance, is available now, and is published by Lion Fiction.

Women’s Friendship Month

I know that we are on the last stretch of September, but, as I only recently discovered this, I didn’t want to let International Women’s Friendship Month pass by without mentioning it. Started by a national women’s sorority in the United States, originally as a national day, it was expanded to a month and is now recognised internationally.

9781782641704One of the books I read this month was I Hope You Dance, by Beth Moran. It is a beautiful story about love, loss and new beginnings but what struck me most was the portrayal of deep friendships amongst the group of women that her central character, Ruth, finds herself becoming a part of. Wary, cynical and untrusting to begin with, Ruth is taken aback by the level of openness that is shared amongst these somewhat unlikely friends and is slowly drawn into the centre of their friendship circle. I love the fact that they are a real mix of characters, who would probably never have got to know each other if it wasn’t for their attendance at the local church. Unlikely friendships are so wonderful at revealing some of the creativity of our Maker don’t you think?

There is something about friendship amongst women that is so vital, so life-giving. To be affirmed, encouraged and spurred on is so necessary. But it’s also those friends that are willing to give us a kick up the backside when we need it, or know us well enough to be able to tell us when we look worn out (because we know they will do all they can to help us rest), that we desperately need. Life is enriched when we open ourselves up to the possibility of such deep relationships. I know it is scary, as it also opens up the possibility of being hurt. But there is always risk in relationship isn’t there? Being loved and accepted by other women, and loving and accepting them in return is a wonderful gift. Yes there are those sticky moments at times when we might ruffle each other’s feathers – but that’s an important part of friendship too. We learn to be more gracious – and can also learn a lot about ourselves, if we allow ourselves to. I just wanted to pause today and thank God for my friends – why don’t you too?

How good a friend are you?


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I was challenged recently by a study I was doing on Eve. The guide I was working through asked a question: “What does ‘being one flesh’ in marriage mean, both physically and spiritually?”

I realised I could think of an infinite number of ways in which my husband could show me that we are one flesh (mainly practical things like cooking more often, not going to bed so late, not distracting the kids when I’m trying to get them out to school or to bed … yes, he has read this).

However, I knew in my heart that I had to stop and really think about the ways I can show him more clearly. Here are some of the things I wrote in my journal:

Ensuring his wellbeing and needs come into my daily equation rather than being afterthoughts or forgotten about completely.

Being more thoughtful, gentle, encouraging.

I then noted underneath that that is certainly a lifetime’s worth of work for me. But I immediately thought about how I relate to others that are close to me, too. I have friends who are dear to me but I suddenly began to question how well I show them how much I care about them.

To see the questions I asked myself about how good a friend I am please click here.

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Are you God’s friend?

“God has lots of children in the church today; I’m honestly not sure He has many friends.”

So said Mike Pilavachi at last weekend’s Worship Central conference. I haven’t been able to get the quote out of my head ever since.

Mike was talking about how we can be more intimate with God. He commented that God wants His church to grow up – not to stop being His children, but to be His friends too.

Exploring the concept of friendship, Mike said that while he’s heard of “the five love languages” God has a sixth: obedience.

I have been pondering this subject for a while myself. As God’s people, what is it that sets us apart, which shows we belong to Him? Surely obedience to Him is a key indicator of that?

God never stands over us beating us into submission, and yet Jesus said that if we love Him we will obey His commands (John 14:15). The ultimate expression of love is doing things that we know will please the other person – and that basically boils down to obedience.

We can see that at work in the relationship Jesus describes in John 15, where He says that He loves because His Father has loved Him, and that He remains in God’s love by keeping His commands. He urges us to do the same, in order to enjoy that relationship of love and joy for ourselves too:

“If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love.

“I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.” (vv10–11)

John expresses the same sentiment in 1 John 5:3: “In fact, this is love for God: to keep his commands. And his commands are not burdensome…”

So why do we find the whole idea of obedience difficult? Well, as Mike pointed out, as a society we don’t like to be told what to do; our culture is a very individualistic one in which I am in control of my destiny.

To read the rest of this article please click here.

A BIG weekend = BIG fun! :)

It has gradually dawned on me over the last day or so that we have a manic weekend ahead, and I should really be preparing for it. I can tell I’m tired because instead of rushing about ‘doing’ things, packing and creating lists, I’ve been procrastinating! Anyway, this weekend we will be enjoying three different events that are providing us with unique opportunities to reach out, have fun with our children and make links – both with possible clients but also with neighbours and friends.

The Diamond Jubilee is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and my daughter has grabbed hold of it particularly enthusiastically – she knows more about the royal family than me now! And, to kick off our weekend of fun, we are attending my daughter’s school’s jubilee street party. She has been deciding on what dress to wear for weeks, and has been busy practising the songs they are going to be performing for us. It promises to be a real treat – last year’s royal wedding street party was great fun – if a little noisy and chaotic! ;D

On Saturday we are heading to TheBigChurchDayOut. Armed with my press pass and list of possible questions for the artists, I’m thrilled to finally be able to make it. Having interviewed organiser Tim Jupp earlier in the year, which allowed me to learn more about his heart for the event, has made me intrigued and I’m looking forward to experiencing it for myself. I’m also hoping to catch up with people I’ve been working with – and others I hope to work with in the future. I’m not quite so sure whether we made the right decision when we allowed ourselves to be talked into taking our kids – who are 6 and 3 (although their older cousins are rather excited about the prospect of showing them round and looking after them – hooray!). And looking at the programme there does look like a lot of things for children to do – and Tim assures me it is a big day out for all the family. I guess having mine there will enable me to really test whether that is indeed the case…

On Monday our road will be closed as we host one of the 110 street parties going on in our town alone! I think it is fantastic that so many people have gotten together with their neighbours to organise these parties. Ours is definitely an ambitious one and a small committee of us have been meeting and planning for it for a long time now. There have been fraught moments, when it looked like the budget had been blown, or people disagreed over decisions. However, overall, it has been a fantastic way to get to know the neighbours better (although ours are all pretty friendly anyway – people who spend time with us always comment on how our road is like the one on Neighbours). But even though we are a pretty friendly bunch life is so busy that we rarely get much time to spend with each other. Our fantastic next door neighbours are also now in our church so it has been great that the wife, who is now retired, has been so helpful with the street party preparations, and we have had opportunities to mention the church in a casual way (as my husband is one of the pastors they know we are church goers anyway – and he is down to say the Jubilee Grace on the day). We are also able to help add to the festivities by lending the church face paints (and inviting a few of our best face painters along to the party!). It is moments like these that I think just being there, having fun, helping out and being honest about who we are can really enable us to be Christ’s ambassadors. That truly is worshipping God through our lives. It’s nothing heavy – just fun and friendship. And I know our kids are just going to love it – the thought of memories being created and shared by my family and our neighbours is wonderful.

So here’s to this weekend – just looking at what I’m going to be up to is making me tired – but also making me smile! 🙂 Whatever you are doing I hope you enjoy it x