Out of the chrysalis

I am thrilled to welcome Tracy Williamson to the Unmasked: stories of authenticity blog today. She has written with such candour and bravery – I’m sure it will bless everyone who reads it. Thank you Tracy.

Many of us hide our weaker areas behind a mask of self-sufficiency, serving others or being the joker of the group. We bury our weaknesses behind this capable, strong persona, the only part we allow others to see.

But what if our mask is the weakness and the beauty of what God created us to be is what is hidden? Can we really let that mask be removed or even believe there is anything else to discover?

I know this is possible because for the last 35 years God’s love has been releasing the real Tracy from behind her mask of fear and shame.

CHILDHOOD TRAUMA

My journey began when I was two and became ill with encephalitis and was in hospital for several months. My balance and co-ordination were badly affected but no one realised that my vision and hearing were also damaged. A child with hearing problems is usually diagnosed when they fail to hear the sounds around them or respond to their family’s voices. I did hear all those things but no one realised that I couldn’t understand what I heard because of brain damage. The effects were devastating for when I started school; instead of being given support as a deaf child, I was judged mentally impaired and treated accordingly by both the children and staff.

When I was 12 I was finally diagnosed as hard of hearing (I am now severely deaf) and given hearing aids. Ironically hearing aids are useless for someone with sensory neural deafness and simply became another focus for the bullies.

Anyone who has hidden in the playground trying to avoid gangs of children chanting names – in my case: spastic, mental, deaf ears – will know that sickening feeling of shame and fear that becomes your identity and the writhing feeling inside when teachers call you up to the front and tear strips off you in front of the class. I didn’t know I was deaf so I believed I was stupid as everyone said. And even when my deafness was diagnosed I’d spent so many years believing a lie, it had become who I was.

My dad died when I was seven and, soon after, my mum met my stepfather. He abused me verbally and sexually, compounding all that was happening at school. You only have to hear negative words a few times before you believe them, and he was shouting daily that I was rubbish, mental, perverted, unlovable….

My shame at his actions went deep and, as I hit adolescence, I hated and crushed my budding femininity. My sister, cousins and friends were developing relationships and social lives but I was hiding behind books, stick thin in baggy trousers and t-shirts.

Who was Tracy? The shame and fear mask was all I had to show people as I didn’t even know there was a beautiful, God-created Tracy, trapped inside.

But God loved me and despite me knowing nothing about faith, drew me to believe in Him during my first year of college. And so began my journey of unmasking and healing.

BEGINNING TO EMERGE

Who was Tracy? Step by step through prayer, love, affirmation, the care of church friends, reading the Bible…God’s power and love began to heal me. I had always loved reading but books had been my escape. What I didn’t know was that God had given me a love of words and the ability to be expressive through speaking and writing. I had hardly ever dared share an opinion as it was bound to be ridiculed, yet God’s healing love has, over the years, set me more and more free

I had ministry from committed friends who spoke His words of truth over me that I was beautiful, chosen, created and uniquely gifted by God – a beloved woman and daughter not a thing to be used and destroyed. As they prayed and loved me I began to emerge, to dare to dress prettily, to speak, to laugh and to love others.

One of the most amazing ways that God taught me to drop my mask was through listening for His voice. His word is more powerful than anything else we can ever hear and sets us free from deep within. One day as I walked to college and was feeling very anxious, I sensed I should stop and look around me and listen. I was in a beautiful location with fields and trees spreading out before me.

He whispered into my heart:

‘I made all this so you could know what I am like, but none of this is as beautiful to me as you are.’

I was stunned! It was my first experience of hearing Him and it shattered the lie that I was ugly and shameful. Step by step I began to come out of my chrysalis and discover that I could be feminine without fear and didn’t have to live as an apology but rather, as a blessing.

After college God called me to work in an itinerant ministry with the blind Gospel singer Marilyn Baker and so I went from hardly daring to speak to sharing my testimony, giving prophecies, teaching in conferences and writing.

BEING A BUTTERFLY

My disabilities had been such a source of mockery that it would never occur to me to ask for help. But through working with Marilyn, and through the muddles that inevitably occur with one of us blind and the other deaf and partially sighted, God showed me that it is okay to have a weakness. It is part of me but doesn’t define me and I actually bless others when I admit I can’t do certain things and that I need their assistance.

Now I happily tell people I am deaf and trust they will try to help me, which 90 per cent of the time they do– and if they don’t respond well it’s their problem not mine!. Friends, especially Marilyn, always type on my iPad what is being said in church or in social times and tell me they love to do it – and we all have a laugh over my hearing mistakes! I rejoice in having a Hearing Dog, Goldie (see photo) whose jacket proudly asserts that he is helping a deaf person. He alerts me to sounds I can’t identify but his special gift is simply connecting me to people in streets and shops that normally I would be cut off from. And I now chat with them without fear that being deaf makes me less.

I am still a work in progress but I know that this butterfly is emerging from her chrysalis, for no mask of fear or shame is as powerful as God’s love.

Tracy Williamson lives near Tonbridge in Kent with her friend and partner in ministry Marilyn Baker, together with Tracy’s Hearing Dog, Goldie, and Marilyn’s Guide Dog, Saffie.

Tracy wrote her first book The Voice of the Father (Hodder) in 1995, followed by four shorter books published by New Wine Press between 2004 and 2008. Tracy has recently completed her sixth book, called The Father’s Kiss, which will be published by Authentic Media in October 2018.

Today Tracy and Marilyn still travel the country and sometimes abroad taking concerts and church services and also leading Rest and Renewal days and conferences on Intimacy with God. See www.mbm-ministries.org

 

 

Who’s in control?

I am delighted to welcome author Fiona Lloyd to the Unmasked: stories of authenticity blog series. Having also worn an ‘I’m in control’ mask, much of what she shares resonated deeply with me – and the lessons she has learned are full of wisdom pertinent for all of us seeking to walk with God each day…

I’ve spent my professional life wearing a mask. As a teacher, I discovered early on that letting my feelings show was likely to result in ridicule rather than sympathy, and I quickly learned how to disguise my nervousness and anxiety by projecting a calm exterior. Much as I’d like to blame my erstwhile pupils for my desire to be in control, however, they were only reinforcing a habit that had been honed over many years.

A LEARNED BEHAVIOUR

As the eldest of three children, I constantly felt under pressure to set an example. I was academically able, and drove myself to excel as far as I could. Underneath the studious façade, though, was a shy and reserved little girl who lacked the social confidence of her more gregarious siblings, and felt easily intimidated by the banter of her louder classmates. I developed a fear of unpredictable situations, preferring to put myself in settings where I could feel in control of things.

Often, I attempted to mask my insecurities by being overly competitive, but this in turn resulted in a fear of failure, so that I hated to play any game where I stood a good chance of losing. My driven nature and desire for control had not equipped me to cope with the notion of being proved second-best (or worse). And when I didn’t achieve at the level I’d set for myself, I became hugely self-critical.

BECOMING VULNERABLE

I was in my late twenties – and a new mum – when I became aware of God gently picking away at my mask. I’d gone from being a teacher with responsibility for 200 pupils each week to someone whose life was focused around the needs of one small (and very noisy) baby. Suddenly, I didn’t have all the answers anymore, and – without the requirement to keep myself together at work – I realised I needed to allow myself to be vulnerable. With the support of my husband, I spent time receiving prayer ministry from Christian friends, and started to tackle the pressures and beliefs that had contributed to my mask of control.

This was a difficult and painful experience: it’s something of a miracle in itself that I asked for help in the first place, and even more of a miracle that I agreed to return after the first session. Childhood hurts and disappointments had to be faced and dealt with: my natural inclination is to push things under the surface, so this required a complete change of tack. I also had to let go of my reluctance to be beholden to others and make an active choice to be dependent on God.

The change in me has been both dramatic and slow-burning. Those first few sessions led to me sensing God’s loving presence in such a deep and tangible way that I almost floated home afterwards. But I’ve also had to learn that walking with Jesus is about making good choices on an ongoing basis. It’s one thing to forgive X today, but part of that decision means doing my best not to revisit that particular offence tomorrow. This doesn’t mean that past hurts are always instantly healed – some scars are still tender – but being willing to be part of an ongoing process of forgiveness is immensely freeing.

LEARNING TO TRUST OTHERS

A major factor in letting go of my ‘in control’ mask was learning to trust both God and other people. This felt easy when I was on a spiritual high, but when God seemed more distant, or when fellow Christians let me down, I tended to panic and reach for my mask. Understanding that faith grows and matures in the lean times was a difficult lesson (and one I forget all too easily).

However, as I’ve spent less time hiding behind the safety of my mask, I’ve noticed that people are drawn to vulnerability. In my head, I’ve always wanted to be someone who could help others by being calm and in control as I doled out wise advice, and I’ve been slow to recognise that a toughened exterior tends to discourage others from sharing their needs. This feels super-scary – and goes against all my natural instincts – but it appears that God’s strength really is made perfect in my weakness.

Fiona Lloyd is vice-chair of the Association of Christian Writers, and is married with three grown-up children. Her first novel, The Diary of a (trying to be holy) Mum, was published by Instant Apostle on 18 January 2018.

Fiona has also had short stories published in Woman Alive and Writers’ News, and has written articles for Christian Writer and Together Magazine. Fiona works part time as a music teacher, and is a member of the worship team at her local church.

You can follow Fiona on Twitter: @FionaJLloyd & @FionaLloyd16

The importance of rest

 

This week started off with me being interviewed on the Premier Inspirational Breakfast show about the article I wrote in Premier Christianity’s January issue on new ways to connect with God.

We were discussing the fact that so many of us are praying on the run these days, rather than actually stopping in order to spend quality time with God – and whether that means we are squashing Him out of our lives.

It was an interesting discussion, and I talked about the ways in which short, contemplative prayers have given me space to breathe and be revitalised before tackling the day ahead. I also mentioned the daily examen – the practise of looking back over our days and being aware of when we felt God’s presence – and when we didn’t, in order to learn lessons we can take into tomorrow.

Afterwards one of the presenters told me how much they had enjoyed the conversation – and commented on the fact that I was croaky-voiced. I said I was under the weather – probably partly because I’ve been so busy recently. We then joked about how I need to take my own advice (isn’t that so often the case though – we learn something, share it with others and then realise we need to take heed of it again ourselves!)

Then the following cropped up on my Facebook feed today, and it really made me stop and think. I can’t believe it was two years ago that God literally forced me to rest through an ailment that necessitated a minor op. After a month of recuperation, I reflected on what I had learned:

Having spoken to my family about the fact I haven’t felt well for the whole of January, and the impact that has had, I started thinking about what I’ve learned over the last month. Here’s what I’m thankful for:

  1. The reminder that I’m not superwoman, so I don’t have to try to be.

  2.  The enforced rest, which has taught me there are seasons to be gentle on myself rather than always pushing to do more.

  3.  A husband who, while also having his own unusual stints of being ill, has shared the load with me.

  4.  Friends who have shown they truly care – and who have reminded me that it’s okay to ask for help sometimes.

  5.  Breaking free from any preconceived notions of expectations. I’m certainly not indispensable – this time has shown me that – so who can I be encouraging to realise their potential while I cheer them on from the sidelines?

  6.  A deeper understanding and empathy for those who live with long-term conditions.

FEELING GOD’S NUDGE

Those were important lessons, and ones that I have come back to time and time again. But I can feel God’s nudge again and it has made me realise: I don’t want to be forced to rest again – in the deepest place of my heart I acknowledge that I still need to learn how to really live in those ‘unforced rhythms of grace’ every hour of every day:

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me – watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” (Matthew 11:28–30)

Learning from Jesus is the wisest thing to do. After all, He had constant demands on His time, but always ensured He got away from the crowds in order to connect with His Father. Do we?

LEADERS CAN MAKE THE WORST LEARNERS

I think that our busy 21st-century lifestyle makes it hard for any of us to carve out time for rest – and God – each day – but it is so vital. And I have found over the years that leaders can be the worst at this! Looking after so many other people, with their needs pressing in constantly, means that it can be easy to forget about your own needs.

I have been researching an article on the benefits of retreats for the next issue of Premier Christianity magazine, and came across the wonderful work of Ellel Scotland. Their Operation Blairmore is specifically for leaders who are burned out and in need of healing themselves.

While the idea of a sabbatical is one I am familiar with, and have seen practised by the leaders in our circle of churches, Blairmore offers 10–14 day retreats specifically for those in ministry or business leadership.

The director, Peter Brokaar, has written an article on the blessing of rest, and has graciously allowed me to quote the bulk of it here. I think there is much we can learn from the wisdom within it.

BLESSED BY REST

There is an immense pressure in this world that keeps us busy, occupied, forever moving and squeezing out time for rest, space and healthy relaxation.

The Bible does tell us indeed to imitate the busy ants and most Christians agree that ‘Idle hands can be the devil’s tools.’ But what if this right need to avoid laziness gets pushed too far? It’s so easy for us to let inner pressures of fear and guilt push us into ongoing, relentless busyness. On top of that the technocentric world of today seems out to rob us of the last quiet moments we had left. We’re in real danger of losing out on one of God’s greatest blessings – genuine rest!

In between all the other voices clamouring for attention we hear Jesus’ eternal invitation call out to us: ‘Come to Me, and I will give you rest’ (Matthew 11:28). But have we heeded that voice? Or has His call too been pushed out by other, more demanding voices? A person that has found true rest – is that how we would describe the average Christian, or even ourselves?

Jesus invited us to come to Him, to live from a place close to His heart. He wants us to ‘abide in Him’, in the language of John 15, and from that place of close relationship to bear fruit for God’s glory.

But it’s almost as if the Lord’s words got lost in translation, as if His words have gone through some kind of filter. So instead of coming, abiding and bearing fruit we, as a church, seem to have misheard the Lord: Work harder and make sure you keep very busy at all times!

Of the Ten Commandments it is the fourth commandment, the one about a weekly rest day, that gets by far the most attention. Rest is important, says Exodus 20, because of Creation. God rested the seventh day and hallowed it. So we, too, should rest one day per week. But why, we naturally ask? Isn’t there a lot of good to do? Jesus answers why: “Sabbath was made for man…” (Mark 2:27).

God built a rest day into creation because of His love towards mankind. It’s amazing to think of this: after having been created, humankind’s first full day was a Sabbath day– a day spent in God’s rest. It wasn’t until AFTER that day of rest that work begun. First rest (in God), then work. That is the picture the Bible gives us.

The enemy of humankind wants to steal God-given (and even God-ordained!) rest from us and he uses the world system as well as our internal pressures to accomplish his wicked goal. He knows that as long as he keeps us running on the proverbial hamster wheel we cannot connect deeply with God in that place of rest.

Jesus, on the other hand, is still inviting us to regain that place of rest which was lost at the fall. Hebrews 4:11 admonishes us to ‘make every effort to enter into [God’s] rest’, which tells us that regaining rest somehow requires effort and goes against the grain of our sinful nature.

 

There’s a lot to think about there. Can I just leave you with a challenge – how are you actively seeking God’s rest?

How finding my authentic self transformed my writing – and my life

 

Today I welcome my good friend James Prescott to the Unmasked: stories of authenticity blog series. He is incredibly honest about his own journey, which also gives real insight into the struggle with authenticity that writers can have, especially when chasing after recognition. Thank you James for your honesty!

Authentic.

It’s a word which gets banded around a lot nowadays. Indeed, it’s been used so much that now it’s become a word associated with jargon, with anyone using it in relation to themselves, often being labelled as inauthentic.

But authenticity is needed more than ever.

LOSING INTEGRITY

As a writer, with the saturation of platform building, the urgent need for all authors to ‘brand’, and build a following, and marketing intruding into the writing world more and more, a writer I need to keep my eyes open to any lack of integrity and honesty in my work.

But there was a time when I lost my authenticity – as a writer, and as a result, as a person. And it came from this need to please, this desperation for success, for followers.

I had been writing for a while, and enjoyed blogging. I toyed with wanting more, but had never pushed for it. Then I did a writing course which challenged me to step up, be more professional, and to write an e-book, a manifesto, and make it public.

 

The promise, the guarantee which was dangled out in front of me, was lots of people subscribing to my blog, and ultimately a book contract. Given I had no followers at the time, it was beyond anything I could imagine.

And it triggered my then fragile ego, and gave it life. In time, I began to lose my soul. My writing lost focus, lost its truth. I was more focused on good graphics, comments and titles than great blog posts – and I didn’t even know what my voice really was.

I look back at that time disappointed in myself. I was more concerned with numbers, with stats, than creating great, honest work. And I’d lost myself in the process too. The whole image I was giving to the world, I knew wasn’t true. This impacted every single area of my life.

When I lost my authenticity, I almost didn’t know who I was anymore.

I was wearing a mask, not even knowing who I was underneath.

TAKING ACTION

And once good friends confirmed this to me, I had to take action. It couldn’t go on this way. So I made an ultimately life-changing decision.

I decided to stop writing publicly. For as long as it took for me to find my voice.

For as long as it took to find my integrity.

For as long as it took to find myself again.

So I wrote for myself on a private blog, every day for 15 minutes. Free-writing. No agenda, no plan, no structure, no editing. As time went on, it was something I began to look forward to. It saved me so much energy I’d used worrying about promoting work, or publishing blog posts.

Slowly, but surely, I began to notice many of these posts were all pointing to a particular direction. Similar themes were emerging. Themes around creativity, identity, calling, and being true to yourself. What it meant to be an authentic writer.

Suddenly, words were pouring out of me. I wrote about 10 ‘proper’ blog posts in a short space of time, all unpublished of course. It became the most creative, most enjoyable period I’ve had as a writer.

And I felt more alive, more myself than I’d ever felt in my life.

I felt like me again. In fact, I knew I’d connected with my true self.

RECONNECTED

When the time came to publish publicly again, I was reluctant. But I now knew I had something worthwhile to share. And I was going to share it, not for anyone else, but for me. Because it was who I was.

This material poured out into an e-book. I launched and promoted it, not expecting anything back and not even needing any major response anymore. I didn’t care. And strangely, it ended up being my most successful piece of work.

But the point of it all was – I was myself again. I’d connected with my true self. I’d taken off the mask and found who I really was.

And that’s what being authentic is all about. It’s about connecting with your truest self. Having integrity in how you live your life.

When you find that, it impacts every area of your life. Work. Faith. Relationships. Health.

So today, have the courage to take off your masks and be who you truly are. Tell the truth of your story.

From my experience, you’ll never have any cause to regret it.

James Prescott is a writer, podcaster and writing coach from Sutton, near London. He is the author of numerous books including Dance Of The Writer – The Beginners Guide To Authentic Writing, and Mosaic Of Grace. He has written for the Huffington Post and is a ‘Top Writer’ on creativity and writing on Medium, as well as hosting the weekly Poema Podcast. You can access all his work at jamesprescott.co.uk and follow him on Twitter at @JamesPrescott77

‘My journey from desertion to redemption’

I am pleased to welcome David Mike to the Unmasked: stories of authenticity blog series today. He has faced great difficulties in his life and bravely shares his mistakes, as well as what he has learned, with us. Do check out his book

DOWNFALL

In 1987, at the age of seventeen, I swore in to the U.S. Army, fulfilling a childhood dream of mine to become a soldier. Two years later, I found myself sitting in a jail cell facing thirty-eight years in prison. After going through a relationship break-up, I began to start hanging out in nightclubs with some fellow soldiers. It was in a moment of depression that I ended up taking a hit of ecstasy. After the first time, I immediately became addicted to the drug and the release from reality that it gave me. I deserted my Army unit and lived on the run for six months. My only source of income was from selling the very same drugs I was using.

After finally being captured by the Army’s Drug Suppression Team, I was court-martialed and stripped of my rank. I also received a dishonorable discharge and a five-year prison sentence at the United States Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, KS. I had nothing left, not even my own pride.

GRACE AND REDEMPTION

During my time in prison, I had an encounter with God. I read Classic Christianity by Bob George that defined grace and forgiveness. It was all new information to me. I was raised in church but never really understood what these words meant. This book really resonated with me and I learned more about the way God sees us.

Romans 8:1:

There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus

I was not a disgrace to my creator. He no longer saw what I did in the past because he took care of the penalty for me. He nailed it to the cross.

Even though I had a dishonorable discharge, it could not define me. My identity was in Christ. To Him, I was perfect and holy. It didn’t matter that I was in prison, because:

John 8:36:

So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed

Freedom.

Not the freedom I tried to take for myself.

Not the freedom that I would be eventually awarded by the Army.

Not the freedom that this current life was about to offer me.

But real freedom.

Released from the bondage of sin, my own thoughts, and the brokenness of my own flesh.

By God’s grace, I had been forgiven and I had been redeemed by my Savior.

LIFE AFTER DISHONOR

At the three-year point in my sentence, I was offered parole and was released.

As time passed, I tried to get on with my life. I did the best work I could at the at my job and stayed out of trouble. Life was not perfect or easy and I still suffered from my human identity. This meant that I made mistakes from time to time. No one ever gets it right, only one man did and He was God so there’s that. So, I tried to be a productive member of society, a role model to the students that I taught in a hair school, and a good man.

On September 11, 2001 the world changed forever. After the attacks a huge wave of patriotism swept our nation. War was imminent and everyone backed our service members no matter what branch of service or what job they held. It was amazing seeing how much love and respect was shared with anyone wearing a uniform.

GUILT AND SHAME

It was at this time I became very unsettled. My father, brother and sister were all veterans and my youngest brother had just signed up just months before the attacks. As America hailed and praised our men and women in uniform, I began to develop a deep sense of guilt and shame about the actions that led to my incarceration and dishonorable discharge.

This feeling wouldn’t go away and it cut deep into my soul. It was hard to go to work every day feeling like that. I was feeling like there really was no significance to what I was doing. That in the grand scheme of life, I was irrelevant. Men and women were going overseas to fight and die for a cause.

In no way, shape or form did I ever want to leave my family to go to war. It was in knowing that even if I did want to, I was blacklisted from serving. The time that I spent in the Army was good for nothing. The worst part was, every time someone said to me, ‘Thank you for your service’ it dug the knife in even deeper. They meant well, but I just couldn’t shake these feelings.

This same thing would happen around Veteran’s day and Memorial Day. Holidays honoring those who serve or have served and for remembering the men and women who died while serving in our country’s armed forces.

A reminder that I live in a country that was fought for with blood, sweat, tears and lives. I know that I walk around every day with the freedom that was provided for me. My heart is heavy and my head hangs low because I was discharged from the Army with dishonor. My selfish actions are to blame and I accept full responsibility. Having failed my family, my country and God miserably, I deserve the death that each military grave represents.

Yes, I know now that I am forgiven, and I know that God doesn’t look at me this way. However, it seems, the consequences of my past still haunt me year after year. The enemy likes to attack me with guilt and shame, so it rears its ugly head from time to time. Remembering the truth of who we are in Christ is the only way to dispel the lies that we tend to believe about ourselves.

SURRENDER

In an ongoing process of spiritual maturity, I came across the concept of surrender and dependency. I am very aware that I can not do things on my own. As humans we tend to mess things up when left to our own devices. So releasing the thing that we can not deal with, to God, is our only option. Being dependent on Him to do the work in us when we have hit a limit, gives us the freedom to become who He wants and designed us to be. We need to rest in the promises that God gives us in His word that He has our best interests in mind. Just, knowing that I am forgiven by God’s grace is not enough. I need to surrender my past to Him and rest in my new identity daily. My conviction does not have to define me. I have to leave my old identity and accept my new one.

1 Peter 2:9 (NLT):

For he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light

You do not have to be defined by your past, you have been forgiven and can have a new identity in Christ.

WRITING

Several years ago, I felt called to write my story. It started out as a blog at dilemmamike.com. Eventually the blog posts were compiled and turned into a book. That process released so much pain of my past, as a huge weight felt like it had been lifted off of my shoulders. What happened next, as I shared my story was unexpected. During the three years that I blogged, people started following along. I began to receive messages about how my story resonated with them.

Some mentioned that they went through a similar situation and that hearing my story made them feel like they were not alone. One woman even said that she read my blog to feel sane and to keep from using drugs. It was awesome to hear people say they were touched by God through reading about my messy past.

Others mentioned that a family member or friend struggled with addiction, incarceration or both. For them, reading my experience, gave them a better understanding of their loved one. Again, I had no idea that putting my broken past out there would help anyone. It was very humbling.

DISHONOUR BOOK

Once the book was released, a new opportunities arose. I was able to get copies of my testimony into the hands of inmates. There were many requests from people, to mail copies of my book to incarcerated loved ones. Just like the life-changing book I read in prison, God was now using my book to do the same for others. I love hearing the stories that people share with me after reading my book.

I have been able to share my book with people struggling with addiction or just trying to deal with the shame and guilt with their past.

After the release of my book, I was able to speak to several churches, schools and organizations. This whole thing has been so surreal.

If I never told my story, these things may never have happened.

Maybe you don’t think you have a story.

We have all struggled with something, are struggling right now or will struggle in the future.

Someone out there needs to know that they are not alone.

Share your experiences.

Is there something going on in your life right now or something that you have overcome?

You can share God’s love

You could be the person who leads others the light.

 

Take off the mask, you might be surprised what happens next…

 

 

David Mike is a Christ follower, husband, father, blogger, author of Dishonor: One Soldier’s Journey from Desertion to Redemption and cosmetology instructor in Omaha, NE. David is passionate about sharing the message that we do not have to be defined by our past and that God can use our kind of mess for good. You can follow David on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram

The long and winding road

I am delighted to welcome Fiona Lloyd, author of the intensely honest, moving and funny The Diary of a (Trying to be Holy) Mum to my blog. I had the pleasure of proofreading it, and can thoroughly recommend it. Here, she explains how writing has always been a part of her life – and details the journey towards becoming a published author…

I was 10 when I self-published my first book: a dozen or so of my own poems (written out in my best handwriting), with pencilled illustrations and a cover purloined from an old calendar. I was immensely proud of myself.

Fast-forward a few years into my teens, and I had titles in my head for several more books. Some even made it onto paper, although I never seemed to get much beyond the first page. As I grew up, my dreams faded: I got a sensible job (in teaching), and settled down to married life followed by – at a respectable interval – three children.

It wasn’t until I was in my mid-30s that the idea of writing began to niggle at me again. I started work on a non-fiction book, aimed at helping people to grow closer to God, but my prose was stilted and formal, and relied far too heavily on quotes from other books I had read.

Then one afternoon, while doing the school run, the phrase ‘the day it all went wrong’ drifted into my head. This triggered off all sorts of questions in my mind. Who was talking? What had happened to make it such a bad day? And what were the consequences? Gradually, the character of a flustered mum, trying to do her best (but often failing) formed in my head.

WRITING FROM EXPERIENCE

As a young mum, I frequently felt overwhelmed by the responsibility of looking after three small children (much as I loved them). It appeared as if everyone else knew exactly what to do: I thought I was the only one whose toddler had tantrums in the supermarket, and whose children who refused to eat more than one variety of vegetable. If I tried to set time aside to pray, it was pretty much guaranteed that I would be snoring 30 seconds later. Worse still, there always seemed to be plenty of people around to tell me I wasn’t doing it right.

By the time I got to child number three, I was older and maybe a little wiser. I could see that other mums often struggled with similar issues, leaving them lonely and discouraged. My book started to take shape, inspired by the things I knew that I and others had wrestled with. I hoped that if it ever got to the stage of being read by other young mums it would help them feel less isolated.

GAINING CONFIDENCE IN THE WRITING PROCESS

By now, I had plenty of ideas in my head, but lacked confidence to develop them into a full narrative. I tackled other (shorter) writing projects, with varying degrees of success. I joined the Association of Christian Writers, finding valuable advice and supportive friendships. Still – after several years – my words petered out around the 5,000 mark: I found I spent more time editing the work I’d already done than adding new material.

What eventually got things moving was my decision to take part in NaNoWriMo [National Novel Writing Month] in November 2014. I knew I was unlikely to hit their proposed target of 50,000 words in a month…but I did manage 20,000. I was delighted: I was also reinvigorated. I knew I needed a more defined story-arc, so I spent my work commutes having lengthy conversations with my protagonist, Becky, about what was going on in her life. My word count crept steadily up until August 2015, when – after much reworking and tea-drinking – my first draft was completed.

SUBMITTING MY WORK TO A PUBLISHER

One of the advantages of having spent such a long time on it was that I knew (from conversations with other writers) that several rewrites would be required before it was ready to go off to a publisher. I quite enjoy a bit of nit-picking, so I spent many happy hours deleting unnecessary or over-used words – ‘just’, ‘actually’ and ‘but’ were popular culprits. Over the next year I tweaked and re-tweaked. A few kind friends read the manuscript for me, resulting in yet more amendments. Even after I’d incorporated their suggestions, I agonised about whether I’d really got it to the point where it was ready for submission.

This raised another issue: where to send it? I’d written a clearly Christian work of fiction – because I wanted to encourage Christian mums – only to discover that there are very few publishers taking on such books nowadays. I wondered about going down the self-publishing route – and I have friends who’ve done this very successfully – but I wasn’t sure I felt able to take on such a huge task.

It was through a writing friend that I found out about Instant Apostle, a small – but growing – Christian publishing company. At the time, they’d just taken on a second novel from her, and she knew that they were looking to publish some more overtly Christian books. I did some last-minute fine-tuning, dithered for a few weeks, prayed like mad, and finally sent off my first three chapters plus synopsis to Instant Apostle.

BEING ENCOURAGED

A few weeks later, an email pinged into my in-box: they liked what they’d seen – could I send the rest of the manuscript? Could I? Could I?? I’d pressed ‘send’ almost before I’d finished reading the email. This time, the wait was much shorter. On 17 May 2017, I received a phone call: Instant Apostle wanted to publish my book! I’ve been very pleased with the support they’ve given me, and I think the finished product – now entitled The Diary of a (Trying to be Holy) Mum – looks amazing. I’m trying to keep both feet on the floor, and my prayer is still very much that young mums (and others) will be encouraged by it.

So, I’ll leave the closing thoughts to another friend who has just read the book.

‘It’s so reassuring,’ she told me, ‘to know that I’m not the only one who struggles.’

I can’t ask for more than that.

Fiona Lloyd is vice-chair of the Association of Christian Writers, and is married with three grown-up children. Her first novel, The Diary of a (trying to be holy) Mum, is being published by Instant Apostle on 18 January 2018. Fiona has also had short stories published in Woman Alive and Writers’ News, and has written articles for Christian Writer and Together Magazine. Fiona works part-time as a music teacher, and is a member of the worship-leading team at her local church. You can find her on Twitter: @FionaJLloyd & @FionaLloyd16

 

You are not your social media

At the end of last week, a new report from England’s children’s commissioner called for schools to better support tweens with the emotional impact of social media. I was asked to write my thoughts in response on Premier Christianity’s blog, as it ties in with a subject I cover in Taking Off the Mask. Here’s an extract:

Is our desire for ‘Likes’ causing us harm?

Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, Tumblr, Pinterest, YouTube and other social media websites and apps have minimum age limits (often 13) in order to protect children. But a new report from England’s children’s commissioner says that three-quarters of 10–12 year olds already have accounts. The commissioner, Anne Longfield, this week called for schools not only to provide e-safety education, but work more closely with children as they move from primary to secondary school in order to prepare them for the emotional impact engaging more heavily with social media will have on them.

Our children are growing up in the culture of the selfie. This reinforces the notion that we are judged by what we look like. In that vital, yet delicate, period of learning more about who they are as people the digital world can often pile on extra, unhelpful pressure.

The commissioner’s report found that children were far too dependent on ‘likes’, looking to social media for much of their validation as people. Here are some of the children’s comments:

  • “If I got 150 likes, I’d be like, ‘that’s pretty cool, it means they like you'” – Aaron, 11
  • “I just edit my photos to make sure I look nice” – Annie, 11
  • “I saw a pretty girl and everything she has I want, my aim is to be like her” – Bridie, 11

The report may have looked solely at the impact on children, but in my own work I’ve found that the emotional impact of social media can be felt just as keenly by us adults.

If you would like to read the rest of this article, please click here.

Mask-wearing, role-playing and being myself

Today I welcome Peter Martin to the Unmasked: stories of authenticity blog series. He talks candidly about how, when he first started working, he tried to copy those he admired, and also about when it is and isn’t appropriate to wear a mask…

When I fell off the conveyor belt that is education I graduated with a degree in Youth and Community work but at the age of 23 had little life experience to complement it. I found myself quickly in a part-time role where I was in front of groups of young people leading group work programmes focusing on personal development. It was sink or swim time!

As a graduate I weaved together all my experiences of role models and taught myself to mimic them. I remember thinking of Mr Farrell in our church who when he felt the need to issue a command spoke like he was about to go through you. Yet he was popular with us as everyone knew the boundaries and knew he was in charge. It was no surprise then that when I started to work within a juvenile detention centre in Dublin I would occasionally ask myself: ‘what would Mr Farrell do’? As I got my answer I would put a mask on, role-play, and, much to my surprise, it worked!

Fast forward a few years and a few different posts and I found myself in management. As I sat at the board table was the real me the upper half of my body that spoke with authority and fairness or was it my lower half that trembled?

I currently hold the post of youth and children’s coordinator for a local church. I am now frequently before our youth and children and I’m funny, loud, energetic, warm and often mischievous. However as someone who suffers from chronic fatigue and who is no stranger to anxiety am I being me, have I been authentic or am I just wearing a mask?

The answer is I am being both, as opposed to either-or. Sometimes it’s appropriate to wear a mask and sometimes it isn’t. The important thing is to know who you are. To know when you should wear a mask and when you shouldn’t. Be aware that these are traitorous waters full of the dangerous temptations of believing your own hype.

 TRYING TO COPY SOMEONE ELSE

One of my heroes can be found in the Youth For Christ (YFC) institution that is John Duncan (JD) an old colleague of mine. This man has held local, national and international posts and exceled at them all. He has energy to burn and vision and creativity to give away by the truck load.

In the early days of our working relationship as we grafted shoulder to shoulder I tried to copy his persona and to keep up with his unbelievable pace. This was a BIG mistake as I quickly wore out and the grumpy dog in me that surfaces when tired all too often came to the surface. Worse than that, Youth For Christ didn’t need a second JD!

As it turned out what they needed was someone to come behind the visionary and after the dust settled to gently put in place a plan to achieve the vision. The relief I felt as I dropped the duplicate JD mask, and found my own role, was incredible. I was startled to realise that what YFC needed and why the Lord wanted me in this post was to be me, not him.

NOT ALWAYS A BLACK AND WHITE ISSUE

Experience teaches me that there are times when wearing a mask is a necessity and there are times when it is clearly not and can even be dangerous. I guess as with many things in life the main question is around why you would want to wear a mask.

You are called to be the best you can be and, while you do that, you are also asked to process and deal with what’s not good within you. To deliver that with an accurate self-awareness is real authenticity and should be nurtured.

 

Peter Martin lives on the Ards peninsula of County Down, Northern Ireland. He is married with two dogs – Cuba, a big friendly German Shepherd, and Lola, a busy Border Terrier who thinks she runs the house – and may just be right! Peter has his own blog, which can be found at www.mcfinkle.com

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.

Post-natal depression unmasked

Wow. I am constantly being overwhelmed by the honesty and vulnerability shown by those who have agreed to guest blog for my Unmasked: stories of authenticity series. Today, Helen Hodgson bravely shares about the horror of experiencing postnatal depression. Having experienced it myself I resonate with the power and truth behind her words. Thank you Helen for sharing so openly. I’m sure Helen joins me in praying that her post helps anyone reading who is suffering from postnatal depression. Please know that you are not alone…

‘Can’t you just smile and put your worries to the back of your mind?’

‘Maybe you should just drag yourself out of bed and you will feel better.’

‘You just need to enjoy them while they’re young – the time flies by so fast!’

‘You’re just tired. Everything will be better when you have some sleep.’

‘Just pray more. That should do the trick.’

‘Haven’t you got enough faith?’

‘It’s a choice, surely?’

Post-natal depression is still so misunderstood and such a taboo, particularly in church circles. My unmasking involves not simply writing about my experiences, but including some photographs that now send shivers down my spine. Pictures explain more than words ever could. My memories from this time are patchy at best and raw at their worse.

Just over 16 years ago, my beautiful boy was born after a traumatic emergency Caesarean and my first words on seeing him were ‘is that mine?’ This baby was like an alien to me and I was already a disappointment. I’d wanted a water birth. Instead, I had a general anaesthetic while they tore this child from my body. I didn’t meet him until I had come round from surgery. I’d had expectations of being the kind of mother that you read about in Enid Blyton books. This wasn’t part of my plan.

No amount of antenatal classes or well-meaning advice could have prepared me for the weeks and months of utter darkness that followed.

Post-natal depression took over as irrational and scarily angry thoughts swirled through my mind. I resented the intrusion of this screaming baby who never slept. I cared for his daily needs but I didn’t feel this mythical surge of love for him I was meant to feel. I watched other new mums cooing over their babies and felt jealous. Instead of nursery rhymes, I sung songs of destruction over him and thought about how to escape. I was so very lonely. I couldn’t connect with my baby and I couldn’t connect with other new mums who seemed so in love with their little ones.

Popping to the shops became a nightmare.

‘Isn’t he just a joy!’ An older lady cooed over him

I was horrified. I couldn’t understand how someone could even feel that way.

‘No.’ I replied. ‘He’s a monster.’

She quickly moved away from me as all I could think about was how this child had ruined my life.

Some days I raged and cried. Some days I numbly got on with the tasks in hand. I knew I had already failed and he was only months old. I was never going to be the mum he needed, so what was the point in trying? Actually, he would be better off without me.

Being part of a church only intensified my feelings of isolation and guilt. Well-meaning people gave me platitudes and I stood by as other mothers seemed to do a far better job than me. I watched them smiling and laughing and wondered why I couldn’t feel any connection with my child. I didn’t know where God was. I knew that I believed He was good and that He loved me. But I was failing Him too. He’d given me this son but I wasn’t able to nurture him the way I knew I was supposed to.

Support came from my health visitor and a few friends, but cups of tea and putting on brave smiles never removed the emptiness, anger, guilt and sense of failure I felt.

It was only after a dramatic sleepless night where my anger spilled over onto my precious baby that my kind and patient husband marched me to the GP. I was prescribed anti-depressants and counselling. By that point I was so numb and so desperate that I followed like a sheep.

And slowly, slowly, over time, the days began to be less dark. I discovered I could find joy in small things again. I could sing songs of hope and faith over him. I began to fall in love with my little boy. And, instead of finding me rocking in a dark corner after his return from work, my faithful husband would see I had made the tea or hung the washing out.

I began to heal.

Post-natal depression was my illness.

It wasn’t a choice.

It wasn’t simply tiredness (although sleep deprivation certainly didn’t help).

It wasn’t difficulty adjusting.

It wasn’t a lack of faith.

It wasn’t laziness.

It wasn’t failure.

And there is hope.

My boy, now 16, stands taller than me. His grin makes my heart melt inside. He sleeps – for too long sometimes! We share ‘in jokes’ and laugh together a lot. We talk about the deep stuff. He hugs me with his long gangly arms and buys me chocolate at just the right moments. Despite my feelings of failure and regret over his first few years, our ever-growing relationship is one of joy and trust. I’m so glad to be his mum.

And that surge of love isn’t mythical anymore. It happens everyday.

Helen is Co-Founder of Hope at Home, a freelance writer and youth worker.  She’s wife to one active husband and mum to three even more active young men.  She also loves running, squelching through mud in her wellies and reading her book in front of a fire.