Embracing the broken

I am delighted to welcome Liz Carter to my blog, as she continues the ‘Unmasked: stories of authenticity’ series. This will be the last post before I take a little break for the holidays – but will be continuing with this series in the New Year. Liz is incredibly honest here and I resonated with a  lot of what she shared, including the pressure felt as a pastor’s wife and also feeling the need to learn to lament well…

‘How do you feel now?’

I stand there, my head bowed, my body stiff as I contain the pain raging inside. What do I say?

‘Are you feeling better?’

I bite down on my lip. ‘A little, yes, thank you.’

But inside I am berating myself. That’s not true, is it? I don’t feel a little better at all. If anything, I feel worse, the pain made somehow more obvious by the prayer. I feel just that bit smaller, that bit more invisible, the real me hiding behind the reality that once again, I am not healed. Once again, I have let somebody down, someone who wanted to pray with me, to see me set free from the pain which holds me in fierce bonds.

You see, this is my mask. This is the face I put on. It’s the face I have put on all my life, growing up with a degenerative lung disease. And it’s the face I sometimes put on with God, too.

It’s the ‘I’m fine’ face. It’s the words I say when folk ask me if I am better yet, the smile I smile when people tell me I look so well. It’s the false mask of pretence; a way to escape being too real, because sometimes it’s just too hard. Too exhausting to reveal my inner self with all its pain and loneliness, enclosed in a body which keeps me caged from the world for so much of the time. So instead of sharing my unmasked self, I nod. I smile. I’m fine, thank you.

Somewhere along the way, I learned to hide my feelings. Growing up with this disease meant that I had to put a mask on every day, to face the world, to be a person who deserved a place in the world. If I took my mask off, I thought I was showing that I wasn’t good enough, after all. That I was too weak and helpless. Too pathetic to be of use, because my body always let me down. The easiest way was to hide the fact that I was in pain. To pretend that all was well.

I started doing this in church, as well. I thought that people didn’t want to hear that I had another infection or felt too exhausted to go out of my house or that pleurisy was racking me yet again. I thought that I wasn’t displaying God’s power at work in my life if I was sick. I thought people wanted to hear bright and positive stuff.

But I was wrong.

People long to see authenticity

They yearn to see people being more honest, more open about their struggles. And when I share what I am really feeling, how I am struggling, then that brings me to a better place, as well. A place where I don’t have to pretend, anymore, a place where I don’t have to be lonely in my pain, because others have taken some of it and held it along with me.

Unmasking is scary. It’s risky. It doesn’t always go down so well, either. There have been the times I’ve tried to be more real with folk and they haven’t wanted to know. The shutters have come down, the glances over my shoulder more marked, the barriers erected. The platitudes start: ‘I’m sure you’ll be better soon.’ ‘You just need a bit of fresh air/exercise/aloe vera.’ Some people don’t want to be faced with the reality of my pain.

But there are actually far fewer of these people than I once told myself. Once upon a time, I felt I could only be open with my closest friends and family. Now, I’ve found that saying how I really feel can open conversations in the most wonderful way. I was talking to a lovely lady the other day – I don’t know her very well, so was all ready to say ‘fine, thanks,’ when the question came. But I caught myself, and told her that I was feeling fairly broken, actually, and that this year had been really bad for me, with multiple infections and a hospital admission. Instead of the conversation continuing on the superficial level it had started with, it got deep quickly, because this lady was released to speak about stuff going on for her, too. My decision to be real meant a much more profound connection. A healing conversation.

The perfect parson’s wife

I’m especially aware of this as a vicar’s wife. Perhaps there’s a script running somewhere in my mind telling me what a vicar’s wife should look like and act like, something which says that a vicar’s wife is always impeccably presented, and coolly calm and confident. I couldn’t possibly show folk who I really am, because that wouldn’t be appropriate.

I know that script is really a load of rubbish. It’s an archaic leftover of old novels I’ve read featuring distant and collected parson’s wives (we’re talking Austen and Bronte here.) It’s nothing like the reality of living life with honesty and integrity – which leads to messiness.

But messy is good. Messy is important, and real. Standing in coffee time after church with tears running down my cheeks means an unmasking which gives others permission to give of themselves, too. It means a sharing of lives marred with brokenness, an honesty about suffering which still crushes us, an authenticity about those times we just don’t get it.

Because a life lived with God does not mean a life lived without pain. And if we can learn to be honest about the pain then we can reach out to each other so much more. We can listen to one another and make the world a less lonely place, even if for only a moment or two. We can reach out and catch hold of the work of the Spirit among us as God brings healing through our willingness to open ourselves up. Even when it hurts.

We’re allowed to shout at God

I’ve had to go through a journey of being real with God, as well as with others. I got too good at pretending that everything was fine. That I didn’t mind when others were healed and I wasn’t, that I was good with it, that it was okay because I wanted those people to be happy. I told God that I was fine with my sick body if that was who I was supposed to be. I plastered a grin on my face and carried on.

Some of this was authentic. I found joy in worship, and felt that I had come to a place of acceptance of where I was. I’d lived with it forever, after all, so had known no other way, so perhaps it was easier for me than for others who suddenly get sick or become disabled. God was so much more than my feelings, and I found that I could take hold of contentment in God’s presence rather than in my circumstances.

But in all of this, I forgot to actually acknowledge my feelings.

I forgot that it is important to tell God how we feel.

I forgot about lament.

The Bible is an incredible model of how to be authentic. Right through all the books, we see broken people responding to God from out of their brokenness. We see people shouting at God, moaning, weeping, screaming. We see people battering their fists into God’s chest.

We even see Jesus in the deepest grief, sweating drops of blood as He asks God to take this great burden away from him. We see in Jesus’ desperation the most profound authenticity, an honesty not afraid to express His fears and His pain, while always saying Yet not my will. Yet not my will, but yours be done. Jesus had no need to put on a mask before His Father, no need to say that He was fine thank you, that He was really okay with what He knew He had to do.

Because He really wasn’t okay. He was sweating blood.

In the psalms, the writers so often share their brokenness in the most raw words, ragged and haunting poetry which expresses their pain. How long, O Lord, how long?… Why, my soul, are you so downcast?… Do not hide your face from me! The writers don’t hold back from God, because they know that God can take their grief and their shame, their agony and their hatred. They give us a model for how we can be genuine in our prayers. How we can share the depths of our hearts with God, even when those depths are so very dark, because there is no darkness that cannot be lit up with God’s dazzling light. Those psalmists always move on from laying out their brokenness to trusting in God, even when things look bleak. And it’s in their active decisions to remember God’s work in their life and to praise God anyway that they find their healing, that they find their mourning turned to dancing and their lives lifted from the pit.

Their unmasking leads to their healing.

This is my experience, too. Pretending does nothing, before God and before people, because pretending leads to superficiality, and there is little point to that. Honesty – even in all its raw brutality – does so much more. It lays bare truth and its vulnerability speaks to battered hearts and crushed lives.

‘Are you feeling better, now?’ the person praying asks of me.

I begin to speak, but stop myself for a second.

‘I’m still in pain. So much pain. Why can’t God take my pain away?’

And we weep together. We weep in the waiting and in the brokenness, but our weeping is seasoned with hope, the hope we both know, the reason we keep on asking.

The hope that will never let us go.

Liz lives in Shropshire with her Rev. other half and two teens. She loves writing more than most other things and blogs here. Her Bible study book about Beauty and the Beast is available here or you can get an e-copy for free on her blog. Liz’s first book is about contentment living in a broken world and will be published by IVP in 2018.

Unmasked: removing the mask of self-reliance

I am thrilled to welcome Anita Kelly to my guest blog series, Unmasked: stories of authenticity. She shares with great honesty and openness about life with a son with high-functioning ASD, but also delves much further back to explore where her sense of having to ‘have everything together’ for everyone came from…

Over the past year or so, God has been challenging me about taking off my mask of emotional deception. Since July, when one of our sons was diagnosed with autism, we have been coming to terms with what that means for us as a family and working through a rollercoaster of emotions.

While reading The Emotionally Healthy Woman by Geri Scazzero, God started to point out my true emotions about my situation and church, particularly around my relationships with other Christians and where I was getting my sense of affirmation from rather than looking to God first. I started to be honest about my negative emotions about myself and look more to God to hear what He said about who I am and His unconditional love for me. The verse from Ephesians 3:18 started to take on more meaning for me: ‘I pray that you may be able to grasp how high, and how wide and how long and how deep is the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.’

FACING THE HARD TIMES HONESTLY

Coming to terms with emotions around the fact that we have a high-functioning ASD son has been difficult and painful at times. Even more so has been taking off my ‘I am capable and strong in my own strength’ mask and being honest with myself and others about the negative impact of this situation on our family life when we were in crisis.

It was only when the paramedics were talking to us about being very clear with the other medical professionals about how we were feeling that I realised I had to face how rough I felt. Even at church I struggled to be real with some people because I wasn’t sure how they would react or I simply didn’t want to be judged. Unless you have been through a similar experience, it’s very difficult to empathise and understand another person’s situation. Certain people were quick to tell me to stop being so down and that I should have more joy. You can’t summon up these emotions at will, no matter how hard you try in your own strength!

The one thing I can say is that I’m beginning to rest in the knowledge of God’s love and acceptance and reject any false beliefs that I need to be anything other than myself. There is an unexplainable, mysterious peace in being in that place with God, not striving or driven to prove myself. It’s a new place, but one that I continue to delight in!

RECOGNISING FALSE BELIEFS

The lesson I have been learning through these hard times is that I can be real about how I feel emotionally with those I love and trust, including God, my loving, heavenly Father. Growing up in a non-Christian family, where I cared for everyone else’s needs and ignored my own, had a damaging effect on my self-esteem and sense of identity.

I picked up the unsaid rule that: ‘I must please others’ and found myself losing sight of myself under the weight of others’ perceived demands and expectations of me, especially as a carer to my mum. Coming from a family where nothing but hard work and the need to succeed were the bottom line, I threw myself into everything I did: music exams, Duke of Edinburgh awards and my university degree.

I believed that if I excelled at what I did then I was okay and people would love and accept me. The truth is that I’m loved and accepted by the One who created me and knew me before the beginning of time. In my teens and early twenties I struggled to know this truth outside of my intellect. I looked for love in the wrong places, hoping that a romantic relationship would fill that ‘God-shaped hole’. It never did and I found myself lost in anxiety and fear of others’ approval, constantly striving to be the perfect woman, glossing over my weakness, unable to admit my failures. This pressure to perform was the mask I chose to wear, denying my sadness, anger and fear.

A LIFE-CHANGING VISION

Things started to change while I was on retreat in Wales a few years ago. God showed me a vision of a solid marble throne, representing Him as the Rock. He told me He wanted me to sit on this as a princess in His Kingdom, and that He chose to put His crown on my head. I was really gobsmacked by this as I still didn’t believe I deserved this in my heart. I had to make the choice to receive His identity for me as His precious daughter and reject the lie that what I did made me worthy of His love.

I am still on this journey of receiving and accepting my true identity in Christ, allowing the masks of self-reliance and independence to fall to the ground, shattered. In their place, I choose to accept my new identity, clothed in Christ’s royal robes of righteousness, pleasing and acceptable to Him. All because of His body broken and His blood poured out on the cross for me. There’s nothing I can do to gain His love – today I can simply receive it as a gift.

All I can say is that God remains faithful to us, despite our weaknesses and failings. In our pain and suffering He holds us close and says: ‘No matter what happens, I AM here with you, loving you and cheering you on every step of the way!  I will never leave you nor forsake you.’

Are there any masks of self-reliance that God is showing you that you need to surrender to Him?

Anita Kelly grew up in the home counties of the UK, becoming a Christian aged 12 in her home church, before studying for a BSc (Hons) Environmental Sciences degree at UEA, Norwich. After graduating, she moved to London, where she has worked in environmental administration, for non-government and public sector organisations and the financial sector, before moving into education. Her home church is St. Peter’s Church, Harrow, where she has worshipped for nearly 20 years. She met her husband through the local church and since then has also gained an MA from Kings College London, in environmental politics.

Anita now writes a blog, Hope in the Wilderness, sharing insight from her Christian faith and practical advice for overcoming mental-health issues, reflecting on God’s view of us and our true identity in Him. She is also writing her first book, an autobiography about God’s healing in her life while battling anxiety and depression. Being creative, she has recently rediscovered watercolour painting alongside her writing as an expressive outlet.

Encouraging yourself in God

 

Reflections based on 1 Samuel 30.

‘David was greatly distressed because the men were talking of stoning him; each one was bitter in spirit because of his sons and daughters. But David found strength in the Lord his God.’

Encouragement gives us fresh hope, as well as the courage to carry on. David is a great biblical character to show us how to find encouragement in God. At this point in his story (covered by chapters 27, 29 and 30), he had decided to escape King Saul’s pursuit of him and went to live within the Philistines’ land. He ended up serving a Philistine king, which must have been bizarre for them all (as he had previously killed the Philistine giant Goliath)! Indeed, not all of the king’s men accept him and eventually David and his men are sent back to Ziklag, where their wives and children were. While they had been away, Amalekites had raided and taken their women and children captive.

At this point, David’s men begin to turn on him. What was David’s response? He didn’t despair, run or try to plead with them; we are told he ‘found strength in the Lord’ and then asked for the ephod so he could ask God what to do. How did he encourage himself in God? It isn’t spelt out in scripture but, given what is revealed about him in the psalms he penned, I think he probably brought to mind past examples of God’s faithfulness and stood firm on God’s promises. A look through psalms 34–41, for example, shows that David wasn’t afraid to be honest about his circumstances and emotions, and yet he always turned to praise, reminding himself how trustworthy and faithful God is. I love the tone of Psalm 37 – it is as if David is revealing what he has learned over the years: ‘I was young and now I am old, yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken’ (v25). In other psalms he tells his downcast soul to look to God. I think we can learn a lot about how to encourage ourselves through reading the psalms he penned.

Meditation: Spend some time thinking about ways that you can encourage yourself in God today.

Letting go of worry

nature-sky-sunset-man“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7)

Yesterday we looked at the negative affects of worry. I’m now going to share some things I have found have helped me during those times when I know I’m allowing worry to overtake me. If you have a tendency to worry, I hope they are useful for you too.

  1. Be honest with yourself – and God

Look at what it is that you are worrying about and decide: is this a legitimate concern or an irrational worry? Then take it to God and ask for His help. If you feel you are really struggling with a particular worry then it can be helpful to share it with a close friend who can pray with you and keep you accountable on the subject too.

  1. Spend time each day focusing on God

Remind yourself of who He is and what He is capable of. With a different perspective, our problems and worries can seem to literally shrink before our eyes.

  1. Remind yourself of God’s promises

Look at the particular thing that is causing worry and ask yourself: what can I do and what should I simply leave up to God?

If you are struggling with a particular area then it could be beneficial to do a study on God’s promises specifically about that. So, for example, if you worry about finances look at what the Bible says about God providing for us.

  1. Learn to ‘pray continually’

If we get into the habit of talking to God throughout our day – bringing Him the big and little things – then it is much harder for worries to overtake us and blow us off course away from him. Here’s another great quote from Corrie Ten Boom: “Any concern too small to be turned into a prayer is too small to be made into a burden.” In her book, Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World, Weaver describes how she consciously learned to turn every little worry into a prayer.

If you know your thoughts are mainly made up of worries, try turning those thoughts into prayers.

“Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)

  1. Learn to be thankful

This is where a journal can be so helpful. If we record all the ways that God is faithful and how He has worked in our lives, we have a constant supply of practical reminders of how He does look after us and how He “will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:19)

There are a few of us in our book group who have spent time either writing in a thankfulness journal every day or tweeting three good things about our day each evening. Each one of us commented on how it has made us more aware of those little details that made our day special, but which are so easy to overlook without such a discipline (as our minds have a tendency to focus on the difficulties). If you know you find it hard to be thankful or recollect positives, why don’t you try writing down three things you are thankful to God for each evening?

  1. Actively ‘take captive every thought’ (2 Corinthians 10:5)

We can so easily let thoughts come and go in our minds, feeling that we have no control over them, but the Bible is very clear that we have a part to play in ensuring that what we think about is beneficial and edifying to us:

“Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.” (Philippians 4:8)

Have you ever stopped and reflected on what your mind has lingered on in the previous 10 minutes? It can be really revealing – and challenging!

  1. Change what you meditate on

We can think that reading and meditating on the Bible is far too difficult a practise to do daily, but we are often very well versed in meditating on our problems and worries! We simply need to re-educate our minds to focus on those things that will help us rather than hinder us.

Why not try replacing a specific worry with a scripture that speaks directly to it? Each time the worry pops into your head, speak the scripture to it.

Worry is one of those things that we know the Bible tells us not to do, but we can so often struggle to be free of. Putting some of the above simple ideas into action can help us form new habits. Because worry is a habit in itself – and a toxic one at that. Learning to recognise when a worry rears its ugly head, and being equipped with some simple ways of replacing or dealing with it, can be so helpful.

This is taken from an article that first appeared on Christian Today.

God isn’t put off by our negative emotions

looking wistful out window

Recently I’ve been spending time reading psychology books, mainly about infant attachment and parenting styles, as research for my own book. I have been really struck about a particular aspect: how a secure self learns not to be threatened by negative feelings.

I’ve read how sensitive parenting allows a child to feel those negative emotions and also teaches him/her how to deal with them through both support (unconditional love and empathy) and challenge. The child is also reassured that the source of their security and love is not threatened by such negative emotions either.

I’ve looked at how behavioural patterns learned in childhood get transformed into our adult lives. They affect the way we respond to, and interpret, the actions and words of those around us.

I was challenged by one particular book that linked the way a child approaches negative feelings to the way we respond to God when we are experiencing negative emotions.

We are His children and yet has the parenting style we’ve experienced by our earthly parents affected the way we anticipate His responses? I’m sure it must do.

For example, if you are feeling angry, bitter or sad do you feel God will condemn you, pointing out all the reasons why you are feeling like that – and revealing that it is your fault?

To read the rest of this post please click here.

In pursuit of honesty

I had a real treat last night. I entered a competition to win free tickets to see Amy Grant – I didn’t expect to win, nor had I, in all honesty, listened to her music in recent years. But I grew up with it being blasted from my sister’s room and thought it would be great to hear where she is at now. So, accompanied by a good friend from church, off I travelled to Union Chapel in Islington. The venue was cosy and really atmospheric – a beautiful old church. I didn’t know anything about the gig really, so didn’t realise it was a stripped back acoustic set. Some musicians casually appeared and I thought perhaps they were the support act – but then Amy gracefully walked on stage. I was blown away by how little she’s changed – after 5 kids and at the age of 51 she looks absolutely amazing – and beautiful. And her new songs were really chilled and a mixture of bluesy/country/folky.

What I really loved, though, was her honesty and openness. After a while she asked people to shout out songs they wanted her to play. Some she hadn’t sung for over 20 years and she struggled a little with some chord arrangements/remembering a few lyrics but it was okay – she was honest about that and it just made it even more like we were party to an intimate gathering of friends jamming at that point.

The main thing that struck me was how raw, and how honest the whole evening was. Her songwriting has always told stories but hearing the true stories behind a lot of the songs was amazing – and gut wrenching at times. And even though she looks great, it is obvious that, like all of us, she’s lived through the good and bad – but refreshingly isn’t scared of letting that show. And of saying how much she needs the good friends and family who will be honest with her around her at all times.

After a particularly difficult time in my own life God really pushed me to be honest about where I was at, to help pull down the masks that we all seem to wear in Christian circles. I fought it for a while, as it was draining to be the only one doing it, but now my husband might say I’m sometimes too honest with the amount I share! 😉 The point is, I can always sense when I am in the presence of someone else who isn’t scared to let their mask down and be who they really are, and comment on life as it really is. Aside from the trips down memory lane, as I realised I knew a lot of the lyrics to her songs off by heart,  I felt privileged to share an evening with an honest soul who bares so much in her songs. She may have started out as a teenager, but she still has a deep joy about singing from her heart and she definitely had a profound affect on me last night. And it gave me fresh hope as I dwelt on the fact that most of the Christian musicians I’ve interviewed recently have also been really honest and had great depth to them. That is what it should be like – Christians pursuing honesty and integrity and supporting one another in love. That’s what the early Church was like – do you have those kinds of relationships in which you can bare all and expect total honesty, laced with grace, in return?