‘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

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: The battle of the masks

I am delighted to welcome Amanda to my guest blog slot ‘Unmasked: stories of authenticity’ this week. She bravely shares the reasons for her mask-wearing, and her battle to take them off.

We so often hear ‘I went through this’ stories, as people are often willing to get up on stage and talk about their suffering when it’s over. They’re happy to talk about what God taught them and how they can now see He was working.

I think suffering is a bit like childbirth, once it’s over we forget how bad it was. When we hear these stories people often don’t describe the depths of their despair. When I hear these stories I feel left out; I start to wonder why God hasn’t fixed me yet. I feel like I’ve failed for not having gotten through it yet.

I know that I am not the only one who feels like this, I have met many people in the Church that are continuing to struggle and find these stories hopeful and painful at the same time. Don’t get me wrong, we need these testimonies; they show God’s power and give us hope, but I do feel that churches want happy-ending stories. Why? Because nobody likes to suffer!

None of us want to face the reality that we will all suffer; we are frightened of it, which is natural. But when a church only has happy-ending stories it can cause members to put on a mask, because they feel they’re not valid or useful because they’re not better – or can’t say what God has shown them.

I have been sharing my stories with my friends and other people in church. As I have been doing this I’ve seen amazing things happen; other people have come to me with their stories, knowing I won’t judge them. Even though I’m not fixed and I’m fighting to get better, God is using me and my story. Groups that I have been part of have gone from being very academic to being very honest, life-sharing groups. I wanted to write this guest post today to encourage people that by removing their masks it allows others to take theirs off too.

HOW I STARTED WEARING MASKS

I have discovered that my personal masks are ‘I’m fine’ (along with ‘I can cope’) and ‘no one wants to know what goes on in my life’. These were backed up by an internal message early on, telling me that I couldn’t trust anyone.

I first started wearing these masks when I was 11. I had been raped as a child and blocked out the memories – until they were triggered when I was 11. I started having nightmares; I tried to tell my family, but they told me ‘not to be stupid, it didn’t happen’. I knew that it had, but I couldn’t tell anyone, as I didn’t want a big fall out, and I had forgiven the person. The person was young; they knew what they were doing, but they didn’t understand the consequences.

I knew if I talked about it at school, Child Protection would kick in, so I didn’t talk about it again until I was 18. Unfortunately, I had two more experiences where I was sexually assaulted as a young adult. This combination of events made it very hard for me to trust anyone. The first counsellor I saw told me I must have made it up, as it’s not possible for a child to be raped! Needless to say, I didn’t see her again.

As a child, I learned that people liked me when I was cheerful, so I always put on a brave face. And then people praised me for putting on a brave face during difficult things, so I decided this was a good thing to do. I did this to the point that I numbed out all negative feelings, in order to be the positive person everyone wanted me to be. Unfortunately, this took its toll; I started self-harming, developed severe panic attacks and became depressed.

While I was at university I did find some helpful friends and counsellors. Even though none of them made me better, each time I talked about what I had been through a symptom would fall away. So I learned that talking helped, even though it went against what I believed I should do.

LEARNING TO BE MORE OPEN

I desperately didn’t want people to think I was weak and couldn’t cope. I thought they wouldn’t want to know the negative stuff about me. Because when I did start to tell more friends, I had some horrible reactions – where friends walked away from me and said very hurtful things. But I also had some amazing reactions; people who showed me love and stuck by me despite what I’d told them. These people went a long way to challenging those deeply held internal beliefs of mine.

I am now at a point where I can talk about what I have been through more openly, and, when I do so, many people appreciate it and come back with their own stories. This is a huge privilege, because I know how hard it is to be honest and vulnerable.

I have recently been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which is really helpful in understanding my symptoms and enabling me to get the right help. I have an absolutely amazing, patient psychologist who has started Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing (EMDR) with me. It is hard, but I can see how it works. I am making more and more links between the past and the present, which enables me to then question my deeply held beliefs.

For example, when I think ‘no one wants to know’, I can now ask myself, ‘is this true’? I have learned over time that people do want to know. I am beginning to understand that, while it will make them sad, it’s the event that makes them sad not me. People do know and are still standing by me.

CONTINUING MY JOURNEY

I have realised that my family didn’t want to know because they couldn’t handle it; it wasn’t that they couldn’t handle me. I still have a long way to go. When I’m with my psychologist, all of my masks have to come off. I still fight it, because it’s horrible being vulnerable, but equally I want people to see who I truly am and I know she can only help me if I’m open with her.

With friends I can take it a bit slower. I still often revert back to my ‘I can cope’ mask because I’m scared of losing respect, but actually I’ve found I get more respect when I’m honest. People ask me how I am and I say ‘I’m fine’ without realising it, including when I go to the doctor because I’m ill! I don’t know I’ve said it.

I am learning to be more honest with my friends, partly because I believe they will see God working in me as I go through suffering, rather than waiting to tell them about what happened afterwards. With my family I have to keep these masks on, as most of them don’t know what has happened to me. But now, when I go back and put these masks back on, they feel heavy – and I feel stressed, on edge and exhausted. I can’t wait to get back to my friends and husband, as I can be honest with them.

My masks protected me for a while, but then they made me ill. I’m still in the process of learning how to take off these masks, but I have a massive hope that I will overcome what I have been through. I believe I will recover and be stronger, and I also constantly pray that God will use my story, when and where appropriate. The simple message I have clung onto is that ‘God is with me’. He has whispered that into my ears so many times over the years.

 

Worshipping through suffering

general-background

Reflections based on Acts 16:16–38.

‘After they had been severely flogged, they were thrown into prison, and the jailor was commanded to guard them carefully… About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God.’

One of the Christian women I admire most is my mum. She suffers from lupus and also has rheumatoid arthritis. She finds it hard to breathe and is in constant pain. But nothing makes her faith waver – it may dwindle to a tiny flicker at times but it is always there. I find that incredible. So I don’t write about this subject lightly.

Imagine how much Paul and Silas must have been suffering, and yet they choose to praise God despite their circumstances. The result: their chains were loosed; they showed integrity to the jailer by not running away and led his whole family to the Lord. I’m not saying there will always be such a positive outcome to your pain – just that there could be. My mum has been to hospital countless times, and is usually desperate not to go in. Yet often she testifies to some ‘God-incidence’ where she was able to share with someone who was dying or suffering badly. Each time she is able to say that if she was admitted simply to speak to that person the pain was worth it. Wow. I wish I could lift my head above my circumstances more often. That is what I think the crux of the matter is. It’s a choice we make – to look at our circumstances and the physical reality and allow ourselves to slide downwards, or to acknowledge the suffering, but also choose to remember God’s sovereignty doesn’t change in the light of it.

God knows how you are feeling so be honest – but don’t stay there. The Psalms are made up of 70% laments; take a look at some. Note how, even in the depths of despair, the writers lift their eyes heavenward, speaking out truths of His greatness. For your own sake, ask God to help you learn to do the same.

Prayer: Use what Habakkuk said, even in the light of impending starvation and devastation, as a starting point for your own prayer: ‘yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my saviour’. (Habakkuk 3:18)

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.

In the Garden…

Garden-of-Gethsemane-Jerusalem

In Matthew 26, Mark 14 and Luke 22 we have similar accounts of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. His heart is heavy – he describes it as ‘overwhelmed with sorrow’. He needs some time with his father, but also wants his friends to stay nearby.

Just imagine the intensity of emotions Jesus is wrestling with now. They reach their peak where he cries out, ‘Abba Father…everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me’. I can sense some panic in the human voice Jesus uses – and yet his spiritual being still submits, ‘yet not my will, but yours be done’. Luke’s account indicates that once he submitted in this way an angel appeared and ‘strengthened’ him. But, even after this visitation, the anguish was still upon him, his prayer intensified and his sweat became like ‘drops of blood’.

Matthew’s account reveals how Jesus went back to his friends – presumably for support and to check they were praying for him. Three times he went to them… and each time found them asleep. It seems they hadn’t grasped the enormity of the situation, and so allowed tiredness to overtake them. He must have felt so let down and alone.

I can’t begin to compare our own situations with Jesus’, but I do know there are times when we are overwhelmed with loneliness, sadness and despair. Perhaps your friends have let you down – by not doing something or by acting in a way that hurt you. Perhaps God is asking you to face a situation you feel is too difficult – why would he ask it of you? How do you respond – to your friends, and to God? I think Jesus is modelling the most helpful response to us in the Garden – pour it all out to God in prayer; the hurt, despair, pain, sadness. At the end he then says, ‘Rise, let us go!’ He uses his time in prayer to be real about his emotional tussle, then meets the situation head on.

One thing to try if you have been hurt or feel overwhelmed is to write a letter (to God or the friend). Express all your emotions as you do this. Sometimes it is necessary to speak to the person, in which case the letter can be a good way to vent your intense feelings before working out the best way to approach a meeting with grace. At other times it is simply right to bring the letter before God, read it out and then tear it up, asking him to take away the pain as you do so – or to enable you to face the difficult situation with his help.

This reflection first appeared in Quite Spaces.

‘In the run up to Easter, I keep thinking about how Jesus was totally betrayed by one close to him – with a kiss. What was going through Judas’ mind? How could he actually do what he did?’ This is an extract from my latest piece for Christian Today, which looks at how the Bible can help us when we are not sure who to trust. To read more, please click here.

Suffragette – and sacrifice

SUFFRAGETTEOfficialUKPosterI was so excited to see the new film Suffragette last night. It was everything I was hoping it would be – challenging, inspiring, uncomfortable in (lots of) places, beautifully shot, well acted. When I take the time to ponder what those women went through I still can’t quite believe that it was such a relatively short time ago. Our generation of women owe a huge debt of gratitude to the women of that era who refused to be silenced. (But yes I do acknowledge there is still much to be done…)

I have to say, I’m not sure that I would have condoned the violent methods that were employed by the WSPU. But watching the film last night, having the bits of history literally brought to life in front of me, did make me think again. How would I have felt if I had been led to believe that there were men in government that supported votes for women, who spent time listening to women’s testimonies, only to be told in a quick announcement that nothing was changing? As Meryl Streep said in her speech as Emmeline Pankhurst, for fifty years they had tried peaceful methods. How much pent-up frustration must there have been amongst the crowd of women at that point?

suffragette film pic

I know, if I’m truly honest, how frustrated I get if my voice isn’t heard. So while I can’t say I agree with all I saw and have read about their methods, and it’s a shame the film didn’t include the more peaceful ways the suffragists, for example, protested, I don’t feel that I can sit in judgement. I can’t get the thought of the women being expected to simply accept the decision out of my mind, and the way the police dispersed the crowd using violence – and even physical abuse (ripping clothes and groping).

The film’s action is propelled by the story of a young mother, Maud. It is hugely emotive at times – she seems to be pushed into becoming a suffragette by others and I found myself finding that rather uncomfortable. But, trying not to give too much away, she gets to a point where standing up for the rights of women could cost her everything – including her family. I was really challenged by that. Is there a cause that I’m that passionate about?

Then I thought to myself: what would I do if there comes a point in my life when following Jesus could cost me my family? It’s such a painful thing to consider – and yet the Bible talks about us losing our lives for Jesus (Matthew 10:39), and there are many around the world doing just that right now.

What I was reading as part of my daily devotion today, Rachel Gardner’s wonderful book Beloved, has a line that really jumped out at me: ‘Nothing life can offer, including life itself, can compare to knowing Jesus’. Wow. I know I know that, but just reading it afresh made that truth hit me again. Wow.

Watching Suffragette made me truly grateful for those who stood up for what they believed in, and also made me question whether I ever do the same. But this morning I’ve been challenged once again to consider how much I am willing to give up for Jesus…

Learning to be thankful – at all times

The new term is well under way and already I feel like I’ve been struggling to catch up. I had the most wonderful Christmas, but since then both my husband and I have been dogged with illness. New Year came and went with no let up, then the kids went back to school and life continued to seem like a blur.

Friends asked if I’d made new year’s resolutions, but I replied that I was frustrated that I hadn’t had any time or space to reflect on the previous year and pray through my goals and vision for this year (something I like to do every January). I hadn’t even got my office in order or put up a new calendar.

beach walking shot

A few days after the kids went back to school it suddenly dawned on me how down I felt. It wasn’t that anything awful had happened – and, as I’ve said, we had a lovely Christmas. But the constant pain and problems in my body, combined with a lack of sleep, were taking their toll on my emotions.

I knew I was responding negatively to people – my husband, kids, others around me – and was desperate to do something about it. But I also knew that I needed time with those who would do me good rather than just pressing through and trying in my own strength. And that meant spending time with God – and booking a lunch date with a friend who both encourages and challenges me.

Over lunch we talked and cried, and I left feeling lighter. The following morning I couldn’t get the phrase ‘For yet I will praise Him’ out of my mind as I drove back from dropping the kids off at school. I had been saying to God that I was frustrated with myself; there was so much I wanted to get done, but I still felt like I just wanted a date with my duvet.

I came home and looked up the phrase, finding it in three psalms. Here’s one from Psalm 42:5:

“Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Saviour and my God.”

Something inside me leapt. I realised that, like the psalmist, I needed to speak to my soul and remind myself to put my hope and trust in God.

To read the rest of this post, please click here.

There’s a crack in my fishbowl

9781782641292I am delighted to welcome Gerard Kelly to my website as a guest blogger. A prolific poet/writer, he has just released his first novel, The Boy Who Loved Rain, a beautifully emotive book tackling huge issues: toxic family secrets, suicide, self-harming… As a pastor’s wife, I was intrigued to see how the central family would deal with the enormous crisis brewing in their lives – particularly as the father, a pastor, will not acknowledge their problems or seek help from outside the church. I was totally drawn into the novel, especially through the way Gerard portrayed the troubled teenager, Colom.

Politicians, entertainers, sports stars and other celebrities often talk of the pressures of living in the limelight. Work / life balance is hard to maintain and where they have families it is hard to establish any kind of normal rhythm for their children. They live in a fishbowl, visible to all. They are subject to constant judgements from those who look on – always ready to offer an opinion and all too often happy to see their idols fall.

My novel The Boy Who Loved Rain explores this fishbowl lifestyle through a different and very specific group of of people: the leaders of churches. Theirs is not a life of celebrity – it would be difficult to describe weekly sessions in the pulpit as ‘the limelight’ – but the pressures on their families are nonetheless real.

David and Fiona Dryden, church leaders and parents to the adolescent Colom, feel this pressure acutely, not least because the growth of their church has come from their acknowledged expertise in parenting. David in particular hands out advice quite publicly – saving marriages and keeping families together. All is not well, though, in the Dryden household. There are dark secrets not far below the surface, and the decision to keep them from the light only means the impending crisis will be deeper.

Renowned psychologist Paul Tournier in his book Secrets suggests that keeping a secret is the first step to becoming an individual. The second step, he says, is telling it. Colom, at fourteen, is on the cusp between the two, and the comfort that secrecy has brought him in childhood will not sustain him in his adult years. The question is whether his parents will have the courage, for the love of their son, to let light shine.

I’m intrigued by the dilemma faced by David and Fiona Dryden because this is my world. I’ve pastored churches and I’ve worked with others doing the same, and too often I’ve seen uncomfortable truths swept under the carpet. It doesn’t matter how successful your ministry is, or how well known you are for helping others: your children are your children and their needs will neither be defined nor be met by the success of your ministry. They need parents, not professionals, and if any role is a crash course in the power of truth-telling, it is parenting. I’ve made huge changes in my own life, including career decisions that on the surface seem foolish, when I’ve seen that the needs of my family are clashing with the demands of my role. My children, as they’ve grown, have become my teachers, and listening to them has been a hard-won but hugely rewarding discipline.

The Boy Who Loved Rain is about the battle to take adolescents seriously; to allow them to be the central actors in their own drama; to recognise that their journey and my journey are not one and the same. Adolescence is the period in which a child moves from being a passenger in someone else’s vehicle to learning to drive their own. Controlling parents, who love nothing more than having their hand on the wheel and assume that they will be making all the route decisions, don’t always take well to this transition. We have plans; goals; desires for our children’s lives: but it is not our job to deliver them. Only they can fight their battles; only they can live their life. Our job is to equip them; to set them on their way, but ultimately to free them to be the warriors their nature and their maker have designed them to be.

For families in the fishbowl, this process of freeing our children might mean a choice – of relationship over reputation; of family over fortune; of those we love over those we serve. In my experience, it is a choice worth making. Sometimes it is the only choice that will save our children’s lives – and our own.

The Boy Who Loved Rain is published by Lion Fiction. Thanks to them for the review copy and for inviting me to be part of the blog tour.

Let justice roll…

“Let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:24)

This weekend I finally caught up with the rest of the world and watched Philomena. It wasn’t something my husband really fancied watching and so it hadn’t been that high on our list of films to rent. But when it came on he sat there transfixed. The story was incredible, the acting superb and the subject matter chilling. So often we hear about the older generation yearning to go back to the ‘good old days’ and yet, however much we may mourn some of the directions are society is going in, it is important to remember that the past wasn’t perfect.

I wasn’t going to blog about the film, thinking I’d missed the boat months ago, and then I watched the news last night. As you are undoubtedly aware there are currently two inquiries looking into the area of historical child abuse scandals due to claims of an ‘establishment cover-up’. As BBC News reported:

“One is an overarching inquiry into the way public bodies and other important institutions have handled child sex abuse claims. The other will look at how the Home Office dealt with allegations about powerful figures and paedophilia in the 1980s.”

I know that we are still reeling from the facts revealed in the Jimmy Savile case. And the inquiry into whether there was historical institutional abuse in Northern Ireland children’s homes and other institutions was first set up in 2012.  I find it incredible that there is a possibility that child abuse was going on at a high level within government. Today the BBC reported:

“Last week, Amnesty’s NI director, Patrick Corrigan said there were fears that there were ‘many more victims and abusers’ at Kincora [children’s home] during the period between 1960 and 1980.

He said: ‘Allegations have persisted that paedophilia at Kincora was linked to British intelligence services, with claims that visitors to the home included members of the military, politicians and civil servants, and that police investigations into abuse at Kincora were blocked by the Ministry of Defence and MI5.’

It is not the specifics of child abuse cover-up that I want to talk about here, as I am at a complete loss to know quite how to respond (I also know that I am not qualified to share a well-rounded opinion as I know so little of the history). All I can do is describe the overriding sense of sorrow I felt when watching Philomena and then, subsequently, the news. Because last night it was also announced:

“Judge Yvonne Murphy will chair an inquiry into church-run ‘mother and baby homes’ in the Republic of Ireland. The Commission of Investigation was set up after the remains of almost 800 children were found in Tuam, County Galway, earlier this year. It was one of 10 institutions in which about 35,000 unmarried mothers – so-called fallen women – are thought to have been sent.”

However those young pregnant women arrived at the mother and baby homes, they ended up as mothers. I understand that some would have preferred not to have had their children. I also know that others would have realised they didn’t have the means to look after their children. But the point is, both in the film (based on a true story) and on the news last night, it was made very clear that mothers were sometimes either coerced into signing legal documents to say they no longer had any rights to their child or their child was sold without their prior knowledge or agreement. And often their children ended up in America or Australia, making it almost impossible for the young mothers to track their children down.

I know that as a mum myself my emotions really come into play when I watch things about children being taken from their parents, and so my heart bled as I watched the Judi Dench character in Philomena being told her son was being taken and she tried desperately to reach him before it was too late.

I am not standing in judgement on anyone – the nuns in the homes, the government who must have known what was happening. I do not have all the facts in front of me and I am not in a position to be able to do anything about it anyway. However I do believe that we should continue to push for the facts to be made known. It is scandalous that a lot of records were destroyed – that kind of action tends to knock any argument about people doing what they felt was best at the time out the water as that is deliberate cover-up. To hear that there may have been drug trials undertaken on children in institutional homes is yet another can of worms that needs investigating. How horrific.

What struck and pained me most last night is that so many of those mothers never found their children – Philomena at least learned of the successful life her son had had, but the news last night interviewed Helen Murphy, who found out her mother had been in the same city as her all along – Cork – but died three weeks before she tracked her down. How tragic. And how unjust.

Terri Harrison, who was sent to a mother and baby home in 1973 aged 18, told BBC News last night that the girls were repeatedly told, “You are here because nobody wants you… you are here because you sinned.”

What message would that have driven into the very souls of those girls, which would no doubt have lasted far longer than their time in the institution? Being told they were unwanted over and over again would have affected their identity and self-esteem. I am not condoning the fact that these girls were unwed mothers, but it does make me wonder what Jesus would have said to them – I suspect his message would have been very different…

As Christians we are called to “let justice roll like a river”. I think that when we hear of unjust issues like this we have a responsibility, first and foremost, to pray. Pray for that justice and pray for all those involved. Because they all need God’s intervention.