The Harpies were monsters in Greek mythology, having the form of a bird and a human face. They carried evildoers to be punished by the Erinyes. Their name means “snatchers” or “swift robbers”.
I think we all have Harpies. They might be internal voices, ones that whisper we’re not good enough, we’ll never succeed. Voices that taunt us for past mistakes. They may be external: voices of (ahem) friends or family. And they can be swift: a quick dive in from a Harpy’s talons can lay waste to all positivity.
I awoke earlier this week with my least favourite brand of Harpy in my brain: the Shame Harpy. One of the contemporary scholars of shame, Gershen Kaufman says this, “Shame is the most disturbing experience individuals ever have about themselves; no other emotion feels more deeply disturbing because in the moment of shame the self feels wounded from within.”
When you’re wounded from within, you can feel like you never get away from it. It is always with you. With shame, it’s not an action, I’m not writing about anyone actually doing anything wrong. It’s the feeling – the thoughts that we are somehow wrong, defective, inadequate, not good enough, or not strong enough.
Shame is, as Brene Brown writes, the swampland of the soul. Shame is different from guilt. If someone did something to upset me, they would (I hope) be able to say sorry.
Guilt is: “I did something bad, I’m sorry I made a mistake.”
Shame is: “I am bad. I’m sorry. I am a mistake.”
I don’t know why the Shame Harpies took up roost. We’ve been dealing with plenty of emotional stresses as a family. Unpacking past traumas. Plus, when running a business doesn’t go as well as expected, you also have days of doubt.
So there’s never one thing. Nothing to easily explain why this insidious whispering was JUST THERE as I opened my eyes from sleep. However, I have a history that sowed such seeds. And some days they explode without warning, looming large like triffids, and the Shame Harpies can land in their branches and begin.
The first trick is in recognising them and the damage they do as they flap and squawk in my brain. Recovery from trauma is rarely linear and some days can feel more swampland than solid ground. I wanted to stay in bed and pull the covers over my head. The darkness feels more attractive than the harsh light of day. In the dark, no-one can find me and inadvertently scratch my too-raw emotional skin.
But me, myself, and a choir of Shame Harpies alone in the dark do not a great combination make. Brown writes if you put shame in a Petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence and judgment.
So trick number 2: get out in the light, stop being silent, secretive and passing judgment on myself. For years I treated myself with my personal brand of the impatient warrior: harsh, unkind and frustrated with such weakness. It was a poor healing protocol.
Yet, Brown’s research also shows that if you put the same amount of shame in a Petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive. So, instead, I try to be gentle and empathetic towards myself. For that gift, I can only thank the Jesus fella.
You might wonder how serving myself up some Son of God helps. After all, supreme perfection is a difficult yardstick when you’re trying to throttle a Shame Harpie. But it is Jesus, the Son of God in his humanity, in the flesh, who has the ability to understand and share my feelings the best. He who experienced tiredness, pain, and abandonment is the one who pours out empathy.
For her, Jesus is different from all the other men she has come across. Men who might have slept with, used and discarded her. He is different from those who had left her feeling inadequate and shamed. Jesus is different from the townspeople who judge her. He offers her time, pays her attention and speaks to her gently. He offers her what her heart is thirsting for: empathy.
But when he declares to her, “I am he” he goes one better. In that, Jesus moves from empathy, the empathy of his humanity that douses our shame, to something FAR bigger.
Restoration. I am He. The Christ. The Messiah. “Know who I am,” promises Jesus, “and I will restore you to what you are supposed to be. Spotless, perfect, a wonderful child of God, created to be in relationship with our heavenly Father.”
Jesus, as fully human, douses my shame, just as he douses the shame of the Samarian woman, everyone’s shame with empathy. But as fully God, as the Messiah, he sees into our hearts, sees past our veneers, our hurts. And He goes beyond an empathetic fix-up, as wonderful and tender as that is. He doesn’t simply fix-up. He restores.
So if I am restored, why do those damn Shame Harpies come back to roost? Well, I guess because I live between two points: the cross and eternity. The saving grace of Jesus and the work his Holy Spirit is doing in me each day to make me a little more like him is a process – just like recovery. Some days I forget and get in the way, which is often the biggest problem.
But when I draw closer to Jesus, the shame harpies get quieter. It’s simple to write, so often hard to practice. But I know now how he works. You see, in shame we condemn ourselves. But Jesus doesn’t. He came to heal and restore, as I am reminded by Romans 8:
There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ because through Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free.
There’s been a LOT on social media regarding the NSW Health Care Reform Bill 2019.
In NSW, ‘unlawful abortion’ has been a criminal offence in NSW since 1900 under the Crimes Act. In NSW the law allows you to have a ‘lawful’ abortion if the doctor believes your physical or mental health is in serious danger by continuing the pregnancy. The doctor takes your social/family situation, finances and health into consideration when making this decision.
Today, the NSW parliament is set to vote on a bill decriminalizing abortion after an impassioned debate from both sides of the issue.
Is it disturbing that the framework for abortion was still found in the state’s Crimes Act? That in making this major life decision, women and their doctors have to do so with the threat of being charged with a criminal offence?
Some say yes. Others say no.
Those opposing the decriminalization bill say they want to speak “on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves”. Those opposing are concerned that the bill allows abortions to occur in very late stages of pregnancy, in circumstances where there is no medical need, on the advice of two medical practitioners. Those opposing say pregnant people would demand abortion on demand up to the day of birth.
Sydney barrister Larissa Andelman, president of the Women Lawyers’ Association of NSW, said “there is, in fact, more oversight by medical practitioners after 22 weeks” under the proposed law, and “that’s actually more restrictive than it is today”.
In Australia, 0.7 per cent of all terminations take place after 20 weeks. They are usually done due to complications, meaning that the foetus is not compatible with life, or in situations where due to difficult circumstances the pregnant person has not had access to suitable health care earlier in the pregnancy.
I’ve written about my experience with abortion prior to becoming a Christian. Back then, like now, I am concerned about the lack of grace too often displayed in the debate. Back then, like now, I am concerned how churches hold up their doctrine – the sacredness of life – but fail to develop anything useful in practice.
Christian, Muslim and Jewish religious leaders issued a statement that included:
“Abortion does not need to be further encouraged. A pregnant woman requires help and support, not a quick answer which will ultimately harm her. The bill does nothing to provide real choices for women who feel they have no option other than abortion.”
Yes, pregnant women do require help and support. Intimating abortion is a ‘quick answer’ for a pregnant woman – or her family – is graceless. Such decisions weigh heavily and cause harm, grief and pain. But writing that the bill does nothing to provide real choices for women, who feel they have no option other than abortion, mixes contexts. Champion for more choices, please do.
But that’s not what this bill is about. The bill is about decriminalizing this one choice.
Is it a narrow and awful choice for a woman or family? Yes. So, instead of all the noise and ‘thou shalt not!’ how are our churches championing for additional, real, ongoing, supportive choices and programs? How are we touting them as real and vital options? Making pro-life look attractive compared to the “quick answer”?
I don’t have the answers, just observations. Perhaps conversation starters.
Over on the Ministry of Sex, I wrote about the young woman so shamed by her church for falling pregnant outside of marriage – and who chose to keep her child – she attempted suicide. If we are unable to help the parent who is brave enough to honour the sacredness of life, why on earth would we imagine a woman conflicted and overwhelmed by pregnancy – faced with the darkest of choices – would feel secure approaching a pastor for help and advice?
There are highly vocal opinions being displayed in Christian circles. These opinions are being written – in the majority – by men. They appear to very certain of the right and the wrong. The black and the white.
They seem to intimate that if you do not sit clearly in the clear cut choices, you are lacking in Christian conviction. But this is not clear cut. It is not so black and white as they like to write. There is grey.
Tread carefully in the grey, my brothers. Tread carefully.
There is shame and there is sin in the grey.
In the grey, there is also a confusing purity sexual ethic that likely contributes to unexpected pregnancies in Christian unwed couples. Why? Because these couples daren’t think about having pre-meditated sex, which therefore means no contraception, and then, “oops, well his penis just slid into my vagina and, oh no, I’m pregnant” outcomes. Not pre-meditated sexual sin, no siree. An accident.
So then, in the grey, uncertain of the support they’d receive, fearful of the shame if they admit it, abortion becomes an option.
In the grey, behind those 0.7 per cent of all terminations taking place after 20 weeks, are families with rare genetic conditions. Those who are not in a position to care for a child with a genetic or terminal illness. Those without the privilege of secure housing. Or a partner. Without the privilege of a high or stable income, paid maternity leave, long service leave, and pre-existing private health cover.
In the grey, are the negligible adoption rates for children with disabilities, let alone those with a terminal illness.
In the grey, there are women who have been pressured into terminations by abusive spouses.
It’s hard in the grey. So let’s lean into the space and have graceful, loving, challenging, respectful and open-hearted discussions.
What would make the pro-life choice attractive?
You see, I would have sperm-proof contraception and a sex-positive sexual ethic in church, rather than young people hiding in shame over thinking abortion is their only choice.
I would rather see the improved education of our young people about sex. Especially our Christian young people. I had sex before marriage as I wasn’t a Christian back then. But I am not ‘lucky’ that I did not fall unexpectedly pregnant.
I was informed. Not simply due to condoms, pills, diaphragms and spermicide creams. But because I knew my cycle, knew exactly when I ovulated and had a healthy sex-positive awareness of myself, my body and consent. Informing your church youth about sex and how not to get pregnant doesn’t cause a rush of pre-marital sex. In fact, research shows the opposite.
In the grey, think not simply about purity, or impurity. Get everyone understanding the rich theology of absolute purity (blog on its way on this one!).
In the grey, have real conversations in church about what an unwed pregnancy looks like in your community. Would the single mother be loved and supported? Or would she feel shame pushing in the stroller? How would the single Father expect to be treated?
In the grey, a young woman on your youth team turns up in front of you this Sunday, confronted and grieved by all that was on social media this week, admitting through sobs that she’d chosen termination because she had been date-raped – and she’d been so ashamed by the notion she was no longer pure for Christ she couldn’t breathe a word. How would you respond?
In the grey, there is the 15-year-old girl who bravely opts for adoption. The young man who is the father wants no responsibility. She finds out at 22 weeks a terrible in utero genetic condition that means the baby would not be adopted. What would you say to her?
As I wrote in my other blog, there are Christians who make huge decisions to ignore their Doctors and proceed with dangerous, life-threatening pregnancies with uncertain outcomes. Yet, despite that, when they prayed over the other choice – a termination offered by Doctors as ‘kinder’ – they felt unable to share how tempting it was with their pastors.
There is pain and there is doubt in the grey.
As this bill is debated, focus not only on the black and white. Focus also on the grey. How can you offer compassion and pro-life choices hand-in-hand and do it beautifully?
As we do, let there be forgiveness in our churches and demonstration of the Gospel of grace. Come up with wild and radical plans to challenge the “easy choice”. Host mass teen sleepovers with robot babies in your churches to show just how much work a young baby is. When young people are venturing into unprotected sex early, seeking love and affection in all the wrong places, can we show them a more loving, fulfilling way?
Like Jesus, let us lean into the grey spaces with love and compassion, not judgment. Let us all take the time to listen.
This is not a space for extremes – from either side. Our media and culture are quick to trumpet that an unplanned pregnancy equals your life is over! That is not the case.
Certain church messaging about abortion drowns Jesus and compassion in religiosity. That ought not to be the case either.
Termination is not the only option. But if it has been your experience, know Jesus offers acceptance, love, forgiveness and hope.
If you are facing an unplanned pregnancy and wish to talk to someone about your choices with compassion and without judgement, contact http://www.diamondpregnancy.com/ or call them on (02) 8003 4990.
11-month old Nate is son and grandson of local business owners I know, with whom I’ve worked for a couple of years.
Nate is battling a rare disease called Langerhans Cell Histiocytosis (LCH), which affects only 1 in 200,000 children. Nate has tumours in all his organs and bone marrow. In order to fight the disease that is in so many parts of his body, Nate is currently undergoing chemotherapy 4 times a day. He has already had 12 blood transfusions.
Baby Nate has been hospitalised for three months now and the Doctors have not given any end date to his hospitalisation. He is one of three children and for his parents Alan and Kristy, maintaining a mortgage, providing food, paying for general bills and maintaining ‘normal’ for the other children has been very hard.
So, yesterday, a group of local businesses got together to host a fundraiser. A fast week of planning had resulted in an event location being secured, significant prizes being donated, the fundraiser being promoted and a wonderful show of support. A local photographer donated his services to take Santa photos. We found a jolly man, a red suit…and we needed a chair.
If you’ve been into a shopping centre lately for Santa photos, you’ll know a desk chair on castors or bistro club chair just doesn’t cut it. We needed something a little more substantial. Oddly enough, just four days out from Christmas, most of the Santa chairs were in use.
I know churches have an array of fancy looking wooden chairs. Surely I could track one down that would suit? Most of the churches I know have switched to a more comfortable seating-style for worship, but maybe there was something gathering dust in an storeroom? After a few calls, one church offered a lovely wooden Bishop’s chair.
Now, I’ve only met one Bishop and he didn’t strike me as the type of chap who worried overmuch upon the sort of chair he perched his bottom. So, by extension, given this was a cause to help a little child, I didn’t worry over much about any ‘religious’ connotations (or blasphemy) attached to plonking a fat, red-velvet-clad bottom onto a Bishop’s chair either.
Until I shared this photo (below) expressing my thanks to the church that had given the chair, saying we had raised nearly $8000 in two-hours for Baby Nate and his family, and how popular the Santa photos had been as part of the fundraising.
“Please, please do not say where you got the chair if anyone asks,” was the fast reply.
Huh? You see, for me, a church isn’t a chair. Yes, this chair may indeed be a symbol of the bishop’s teaching authority but it’s a symbol. Cathedra is the Latin word for a chair with armrests, and it appears in early Christian literature in the phrase “cathedrae apostolorum”, indicating authority derived directly from the apostles.
Remember when Jesus rebuked the disciples for turning away children? If he was sitting on some fancy big chair at the time, he’d have let them clamber all over it. If the prostitute wanted to drape herself across the same chair while she washed his feet with perfume, Jesus would have shifted over to make room. So let’s not freak out about protecting the symbolism of a beautifully-carved chair if – in a community example of loving their neighbour – a sexy santa and bloke holding a beer have given their time and money to have their photo taken to perch atop it.
The image above is a great metaphor for the church and modern society right now. This community rallied together to help a suffering family. It was a little bit beery, yes we played into the stereotype of blonde Mrs Santa, but the underlying reason – the motivation upon which we all perched – was that a bloke who walked the earth two-thousand years ago taught something counter-cultural. To pray for enemies, to turn the other cheek, to love your neighbour as yourself.
The church may feel hidden underneath modern day secularism. It may feel the pressure of offering something different. But this sort of image gives me great hope. Because – whether you love Jesus or dismiss him – it is from his teachings 2000 years ago that creates our heart-pull to help others.
Jesus started the love thy neighbour movement. The chair upon which these people sit is a larger rock. It may get hidden, it may be worrying to see it draped in red velvet, exposed flesh and holding a beer, but delight in the fact that it is there. Amongst it.
I didn’t tell people where the chair had come from, exactly. But I did share it had come from a church. And, without fail, everyone I told had the same type of reply:
“That’s brilliant! A churchlet us use this sort of special chair for this?! Wow. That’s really cool they’d let us do that.”
You see, out there in ‘secular’ world, too many people still think churches are stuffy, pompous places containing fun police. Caught up in symbolism and right use of furniture. Hushed reverence. They’d never imagine a church would give a Bishop’s chair for such a use.
And yet a church did. The wobbly, freaking-out moment seeing the photo had nothing to do with how the chair had been used and everything to do with what other Christians may think about how it was used.
Let’s not turn it into that. Let’s not be a community that judges how the hands and feet of Christ offer help and puts Jesus’ teachings into a well-carved, ornate structure that is removed from the real world. Instead let’s just keep pointing back to Him.
If you read this and feel moved to donate funds to baby Nate and his family, you can do so at: https://www.gofundme.com/saving-baby-nate. If you’re the praying type, please throw words heavenward for this family.
It never ceases to amaze me that people manage to sell (and get sold on) the prosperity gospel. God may refer to pouring out His blessings, Jesus mentions how the Father clothes the birds and flowers, so how much more will He will do for us etc. but there’s nowhere in the Bible about life being easy, rolling around on piles of dollars, strewn on satin sheets, all because God desperately loves us so much He wants us to be uber-wealthy.
Prosperity gospel reminds me of law of attraction /universal manifestation teachings. Whereby the believer is told to use God/ the universe as a power to achieve whatever the believer wills. Thought creates. Think a million dollars strongly enough and it will appear in your life.
Whilst the truth of biblical Christianity is just the opposite: God uses me, the believer, not the other way round. Rather than the Holy Spirit (HS) being my magical manifestation magnet, instead the HS resides within to help me do God’s will. Because, heaven knows, I’d be up the proverbial creek without a paddle trying to carry out God’s will without it!
Yet the most hilarious bit about the prosperity gospel is, well…. does no-one read the fine print nowadays? I have many joyous phrases to describe my journey with GJ&HS, but “winning lotto” and “gee, isn’t it a smooth road without hiccups?” aren’t ones that spring to mind.
God has His crucibles. His ways of achieving the growth of those who love Him:
The crucible for silver and the furnace for gold, but the Lord tests the heart. – Proverbs 17:3
He will sit as a smelter and purifier of silver, and He will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, so that they may present to the Lord offerings in righteousness. – Malachi 3:3
The crucible metaphor being how heat purifies metal to its purest form, just as times of trial, tribulation and suffering refine our faith.
It sounds so lovely, doesn’t it, precious metals and crucibles? Conjures up images of tastefully-crafted jewellery at the end. But let’s not forget the sweaty, burning, eyes closed against the furnace heat part.
I refer to such times as God’s blowtorches. Personally, the last few months? They have not been the simmering sense of a frog warming up in a pot, but a blasting heat that requires an asbestos grip on Jesus’ divinity because…wow…so You think I need that much refining, Lord? Ouch.
After a series of intense weeks, the SAP picked a shift in my tone from: “Yes, just little bit of testing, but, oh, such joy to be embraced in the trials. I’m totally meditating on James 1 2-4, whilst colouring-in a mindfulness page I’ve designed based on the same Bible passage..” …to something darker. Think Steven Seagal meets Jason Statham.
The SAP suggested it was all part of God’s refining rather than one isolated lesson for me to grasp. So refining is a lesson in itself. Yet it was fairly obvious I’d reached flash point when I began slanging back at God with blackmail threats:
“You know those awesome gifts of engagement, communication, and ‘sell ice to Eskimos’ You gifted me with, Lord? Well (through gritted teeth), you really don’t want me using them against You rather than for You. I reckon the atheists would love me on their team…and I’m feeling just pissed-off enough right now to do a really awesome job. Ease up on the damn blow torch!”
Thank heaven for answered prayer. I suspect God answered The SAP’s respectful one – “I’ll pray the blowtorch turns off,” he kindly offered me – over my full-frontal tactical assault.
And in His constant, loving, amazing, God-only way, the next day His gentle Yellow Post-It notes of care began to appear or, rather, I was able to see them more clearly. Perhaps the SAP added in something about scales from my eyes in his prayer too?
Like the meeting – after a time of attempting to introduce more prayer into a Christian workplace and feeling a resisting silence to change – when a team member, without prompting, suggested prayers directly afterwards.
Or – in the middle of my worst blowtorched stresses, as that voice in my head began to ask how seriously I had got this wrong, that God really was a spaghetti monster in the sky and wasn’t this just a freakin’ mess and why not go back to how it used to be, because surely it was easier then? – sitting with two Christian women who demonstrated total commitment in their faith, an unwavering certainty that prayers would be answered, that God’s hand was in everything. Intelligent, Godly women, one older, one younger, who through shared prayer reminded me that their faith in Jesus’ sacrifice came not through spaghetti monsters but seeing God work in their lives over and over.
They didn’t even know, those two women, as they sat across the table from me, how close my fingertips had come to breaking point hanging off my blowtorched cliff. But listening to them talk, hearing the clarity of their certainty, was my chance to draw faith from their faith.
There’s a lesson for us all. You never know who is listening and watching, how God is using you in one moment, and the unexpected encouragement that moment can bring to someone else. Salt and light.
The same day, God drew me back to the longer passage in James 1:
Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do.
I realised I had missed a major point on perseverance. There I had been, with ground teeth and bleeding fingernails, grittily persevering. “Just hang on,” I would grind out to myself. “You can do this.”
I had been focused on the wrong two verses: the ‘most famous’ first two, the ones held up as the lights to be guided by in testing times. “Just hang on, Phil, because, on the other side of this, you’ll be whole and complete. That’s the deal.”
Trouble is, the harder I hung on, the more effort I put into this back-breaking perseverance, the more sweat-drenched and slippy my grip became.
No-where in the passage does it say enduring in the sense of being ground down. No. James’ emotion is pure joy. As for the work of perseverance so I could be mature and complete? James doesn’t write that I’m the one having to do the work. The elegant solution, the best approach, the one that would take the pressure off my clamped jaw and anguished, exhausted brain? Verses 5 and 6 leapt out at me:
If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.
I didn’t need bleary perseverance and gritted teeth. I needed wisdom – God’s. And I needed to get my head back into His game so I could draw on His wisdom without doubts. Otherwise I was going to be swamped.
Finally, it filtered through. “I’m so sorry. I’ve been unstable, haven’t I? I don’t have the wisdom here. I need Yours. Please.” Even better, after all my slanging, all my challenging ungratefulness, I could hold onto His promise through Jesus: that He would give it to me generously, without finding fault.
The wisdom He whispered made me smile and hiccup, and get a little snot-monstery. “Count your blessings, dear heart. The way through the blowtorches are to count your blessings.”
I am recognising God’s methods with me: Pressure, pressure, blowtorch, refine, okay so now you’re hanging on by your fingertips, dear heart, so… pause. You’ve taken too much on yourself. Here’s a hint. Why not lean on Me? Ask Me? Let me encourage you? Ah, yes, there you go. See, look, you’re still here, now get your breath back, get the growth, rumble with the joy and get back out there and FLY.
So I am back to swigging grace like Guinness, chomping humble pills like Smarties and remembering the one with all the wisdom. Whilst holding onto the greatest lesson of all. Crucibles refine and the way through my blowtorches are to count my blessings, because blessings are our paths to pure joy:
Children who are heathy and nourished
A husband who never fails to make me laugh: from impersonating a Cath and Kim power walker to being a doofus over helping me stretch a hamsting when I’m taking life too seriously
A job that not only delivers regular income to our household, but challenges, stretches, satisfies and allows me to contribute to something bigger than myself
A business. With fun-loving clients who trust me and let me have fun too
A house. With a room for each child and more to spare
A roof that does not leak
Running water. Electricity. WiFi!
Friends. Whose doorsteps I could turn up on at 3am knowing they would help
Faith. That God has my back. That Jesus has it covered
Access to healthcare
The ability to worship in public. Read the Bible in plain sight
Shops without food shortages
Blog posts that are read, shared and commented on across the globe
Being Loved. Crazy, radical, God-driven, let me lay down My son’s life because I want to be right next to you always, loved.
Just wow. So many blessings. So many joys. Plus, after the blowtorches? Growth. Always growth.
Today my mum, Veronica, would have celebrated her 70th birthday. A long-term disabling illness, followed by cancer, took her in her 66th year. On the eve of Mother’s Day, she deserves some attention.
If you’ve spent anytime in these blogs, you’ll know she lived with emotional pain. How she dealt with it wasn’t wise – but who amongst us are? What I have written about my childhood has generated comments of compassion – plus sorrow that I had not been mothered and tended to as society expects.
Yet you tend from what you know. Your nurture of others stems from what you are taught.
My mum was not taught how to parent under stress, during a marriage breakdown, in the early 1970s in the UK when getting divorced was not the ‘done’ thing. Her own Mum – a fairly controlling woman I’m told by all accounts, who liked things just so, to the point of serving the same meals on the same day each week – died before Veronica’s 30th birthday. Her mother-in-law died even earlier. So when it came to navigating a marriage breakdown, she had no maternal help to seek.
I am certain she adored me. She was ridiculously proud of me. But – with too few figures around to offer counsel – as a single mum she gave her daughter the roles of confidant, care-giver, sounding board and, yes, in times of stress, emotional baggage attendant.
Yet, in the overall timeline of her life and mine, the low points still don’t outweigh how much she loved. So, as a communicator who tells every pastor off when they fail to offset any negative in a sermon with three positives, it is time for me to take my own advice. Please meet my Mum as she ought to be remembered:
Driving along in a sky-blue Volkswagen Beetle, picking me up from school and pretending the car was a bird that we ‘flew’ along english hedge-rowed lanes.
Walking on a snow-covered road, collecting money for charity, glamorous in high heeled red wellington (gum) boots and a fur coat that she told me was ‘Sasquatch’. I only just discovered, by googling it to write this blog, that she was having me on. Good one, Mum.
Taking a hump-back bridge at speed in the same Volkswagen Beetle, on another English country lane, getting wheels off the tarmac like we were Herbie racing at Monte Carlo. Myself and my cousins giggling like loons in the backseat as we bounced and hit our heads on the car roof.
During the 1980s AIDS campaigns, calmly helping me water-fill condoms, tie them up, stick on eyes, and perch them around the house. She also got in on the practice game with carrots and bananas. For awareness. Thankfully I didn’t whip out some stick-on eyes when I first rolled one on a penis…
Happily having tribes of my friends to camp on our lounge-room floor. She loved guessing who had slept over based on the lines of squashed and battered school shoes in the front hall.
Working two jobs in the 80s – when UK interest rates jumped from eight to 13% in six month – to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table.
Sitting with me, 16, in a small english pub drinking blackberry wine. Giggling together as we wove our way unsteadily back up the hill to the place where we were staying. “I don’t think that was alcohol-free, ” she whispered. Maybe not legal. But the closeness, the peek into adulthood, the memory? Perfect.
Waking me up with a jolt the morning my A-level (HSC) exam results were due by vacuuming out her stress at some unearthly hour. When I called her with the results later she managed an english understated, “jolly good, Philly” – but the hug on the driveway as she raced home during her lunch-hour spoke volumes. Even though, all the way through, as other Mothers stressed and fretted, she simply said, “Oh, so what. You can always sit the exams again next year if you need.”
Turning up at airports, alone, in her wheelchair, ready for long-haul flights to Sydney. Doing the same at Circular Quay one day. I had left her sight-seeing and was returning to fetch her after helping my cousin unpack her new flat. But no, that wouldn’t do. Too much fuss: “Oh, don’t worry about me, Philly. I’ll get the ferry over to where you are and you can pick me up the other end.”
She disembarked full of tales of the adventures of being winched – winched! – in her wheelchair up the side of the ferry because navigating the gangplank proved a bit tricky.
When I asked about the quality of the lift, she flicked her hand airily and said, “Oh, Philly, it was two planks of wood, these lovely ferry men lifted me onto it in my wheelchair, then they tied ropes at each end and pulled me up. I just had to make sure the brakes were on!”
Tracing her finger on her young grand-children’s palms, singing “round and round the garden” as they wriggled and giggled at her. Driving them along in her electric scooter. Letting them drive the electric scooter. Unsupervised.
Dancing with my husband to a Beatnicks Beatles cover band one night at a Mudgee winery. Her in her wheelchair, Big T tipping her up and back on two-wheels and spinning her about. “Oh, Tones!” she would admonish, holding onto the sides for dear life, whilst loving every minute.
Packing up her flat in the UK after she died. “Did you ever get the Baby Alive doll?” Big T called from the other room. “What? ” I questioned. He appeared in the doorway, his hands full of my childhood letters to Santa, ‘What I did in the holidays’ kindy essays and school art Mother’s Day Cards.
So, you see? Not a bad mother. Simply a mother. Human. Tending to her life and mine with the love she had and the tools she understood. Patient and loving one day, impatient and upset another. Just like me. And you.
Happy Mothers’ Day for this weekend. Please hug your Mum if you can reach her. Send up a prayer in her absence if you can’t. Also, if you ever take a ride on a Sydney ferry, please think of Veronica, being winched up the side, sitting in her wheelchair tied to two planks of wood. She’d get a kick out of that.
Anyone look around their church and think they’re the only one doing it tough in their faith walk? Watched a charismatic preacher ‘in the groove’ and haven’t left inspired but flat because, dear God, it feels like tumbleweed in my soul at the moment?
The hymns start and everyone around is doing the clap, the sway, the hands in the air downloading the holy spirit like it’s on super-speed broadband and me….me? Well, God, my faith has got so much lactic acid pressing down right now I can barely lift a finger to turn a bible page.
The SAP calls it time in the desert. A testing drought. When you’re going through a dry spell, turning up to church is more than necessary, it’s essential. Trouble is, unless you are really clear about the space you are in, it can be more isolating than uplifting. It’s like a depressive being told to cheer up and get over it.
I’m naturally a fairly optimistic person. I have been hugely blessed with a fast faith metabolism. I sort of dive in, try some freestyle, get bored with the synchronised stuff, throw myself at a few big waves, and then attempt to float in the shallows with God at the end of it all. Recently, a new Christian friend prayed for me quite beautifully, during which she thanked God for my amazing faith. Was she nuts? My faith isn’t amazing. It’s quirky, a little off-kilter, and beset and bedevilled just like anyone else’s.
Take the other day. I was done. Slanging at God that I was ready to get my Sundays back. I was muttering around the house like I was pursuing my own, personal Spanish Inquisition.
At such times, his ‘n’ her prayer is a massive blessing. Big T and I are new to praying together as a couple. We stall like learners at the lights most often, with good intentions sliding away in the busyness of life. Yet when we are praying together, life reflects a better order. Putting God and time for prayer first delivers a better order? Well, duh.
So with me slanging and stumbling around the desert, barely able to vocalise to my husband my own arid confusion, it was a great blessing to have Big T pray for us as a family and for me as his wife. I couldn’t gather the mental wherewithal to even stutter the Lord’s Prayer. So Big T especially prayed to God for me to receive clarity. As he closed, I added a feeble ‘Amen’ and fell asleep. Bah humbug.
Once again, God has to be glorified and thanked because, let’s be frank, if someone treated me the way I’d ranted at God last week? I’d likely have punched them. Or, at the very least, turned my back, deleted them from my phone, and dismissed them as a whiny so and so who was being incredibly ungrateful.
Yet He doesn’t. Nor does Jesus. Nor the Holy Spirit that resides within and prods me with prevenient grace whenever I spit the dummy.
The following day, God delivered me a series of beautiful, bespoke gifts. The totally humbling part was I hadn’t even said, “I’m sorry.”
I would have done – eventually. Yet He still sweetly answered Big T’s prayers for clarity on my behalf and reminded me – again – just how patient He is, how much love He is willing to pour out, how much He glories in me – all of us – being back in the fold. There was I behaving like a tough, gnarly bit of mutton and He’s ensuring I remember the lamb.
I can’t ever get over those times when I’m sooo frustrated and stomping off ready to be all secular and independent…. and God slings an arm around me and says, “Hang on, look what I’ve got here for you.”
So I walked up the main street of a busy Sydney suburb in grateful tears getting odd looks. Thank you, God. I’m so sorry I was slanging and petulantly stomping yesterday saying I couldn’t be bothered to pray or read the bible. I’ll return to trusting whatever You are up to and slug down the grace like an irishman on Guinness… Just wow.
The SAP, of course, in his supportive pastoral way had a good laugh at my antics. “Did that whole, ‘I freaked out a day too early’ thing, didn’t you?” he chortled. Smart alec.
Yet something even funnier and humbling happened, that shows how ridiculously we can behave in our relationship with God. As soon as the SAP suggested I’d freaked out a day too early, my immediate response was this:
Blame God. He wired me for a million miles an hour. What does He expect? Oops. Sorry God, I will try harder to slow my processing speed at such future junctures.
Which then left me giggling at my imagination of Jesus shaking his head at me saying, “No, Phil, no, no. You don’t get to tell God to keep up.”
Yet the beautiful thing is, God gets me. He knows I know, deep down, that I can never keep up. And that my mostly optimistic, cheeky, quirky and somewhat off-kilter faith is my way of trying to keep Him entertained. Most days I begin with praying, “So, God, what can I do today to make you smile?”
Sometimes it is slapstick. Other times I may even take a step closer to emulating a Jesus moment.
Either way, at speed or faltering, forward is forward. Whether it is through a lush field strewn with wildflowers or across dry desert, God tells me He’s there, He’s got me, and to just keep aiming forward.
Her Mummy clicked on the bedroom light and burst crying through the doorway. The little girl sat up groggily in bed, rubbing her eyes against the brightness, squinting.
Dragged out of sleep, she stared bewildered. She had gone to bed early the night before after vomiting all afternoon. It wasn’t – as all assumed – the odd banana flavoured chocolate she’d eaten at the six-year old birthday party she had attended. It was something in the air of their home yesterday afternoon. Her Daddy had gotten really upset at the lunch table about the lid being left off the toothpaste. Why was he so angry over toothpaste? And the invisible crows had come back, pecking at her, flying in currents of the adults’ wake that she could feel but couldn’t see to navigate.
It made her confused. Her head ached and the paracetamol tablet her mummy gave her sat dizzily in her tummy. She had run out of the ‘Pass the Parcel’ game at the party, vomiting into the bowl of the downstairs toilet. She had felt miserable and alone but hadn’t told the mother of the birthday girl because she didn’t want to go home yet. She dreaded stepping back into those unseen currents that bit and buffeted her invisibly; she worried they would again flare into rapids of angry, bitter words between her parents that made her head hurt and clogged up the words in her own throat. Staying quiet might mean the currents would stay quiet too.
“He’s leaving us,” her mother sobbed. The child stared up from her bed. Her mother added: “Daddy has met another woman and he’s leaving us for her.”
The child sat in front of the TV eating her supper from a small table in front of her. The lounge room door was shoved open suddenly and her mother appeared, in nightdress and dressing gown, Daddy just behind. Her mother’s clothes fluttered behind her as she half ran, half stumbled across the room. She thrust a buff A6 envelope onto the little girl’s lap, where it caught between the underside of the table and her knees. “This is for you, don’t read it yet,” her mother said, sounding angry.
Her Daddy left the room, saying he was calling an ambulance. Her mother chased after him, sobbing hysterically. Small egg-shaped, yellow tablets scattered on the floor. The child stood to follow them out, the envelope falling onto the carpet. She waited in the lounge doorway, staring up the hall. Her Daddy was on the phone, trying to call, but her Mummy kept slapping her hand over the cradle so it disconnected. He ran out the front door saying something about the public telephone box. The child didn’t want him to leave her alone with this strange version of her mother, collapsed at an odd angle up the stairs. Nor did she want to get any closer. So she stood at a distance, watching her through the slats of the wooden bannisters, feeling a little scared but mostly removed.
The ambulance man with dark hair wore a dark navy jumper with patches at the elbows. Proper patches, not ones to cover holes. He helped stretcher her mother into the ambulance. “She bit my hand,” said her Daddy, over and over. “I tried to get my fingers in her mouth to get the tablets out, and she bit my hand.”
“He didn’t even bring me clothes to the hospital,” her mother told her bitterly. “The nurses thought it was awful of him. I had to come home in a hospital blanket over my nightdress.”
“Wake-up, get up, you have to get up,” her mother cried, snapping on the bedroom light. The child woke up quickly, a pit of dread in her stomach, clamping her muscles against the panic drops of urine that wanted to escape as she sat up. “You have to call him, come on, get up. I’ve got her phone number. Call her. Tell her he has to come home.”
But I can’t, thought the little girl. I’m too scared to call her. You’ve told me how awful she is. How nasty. She is dark-haired and so much bigger than me, you’ve told me. You told me she works opposite my school and is watching me. You told me she might steal me. I’m too scared to call her.
But then the little girl remembers the small, egg-shaped yellow tablets. The ones she had quietly picked up from the floor. The ones with the tiny black writing that matched the title on the paper sheet she had found in her mother’s bedside drawer. She was a very good reader for her age. Everyone told her.
If she didn’t make the phone calls, then her Mummy might take more of those yellow tablets. And if she didn’t wake up this time, if they didn’t pump her stomach the way her Mummy had told her they’d done in the hospital, then she’d have to live with her Daddy and the big, dark-haired lady who was waiting to steal her.
She sat on the stairs and dialled the number her Mummy told her. But Mummy hadn’t given her a chance to do her morning bathroom pee. It was wet and uncomfortable, her nightdress sticking to her bottom. Her mother stood at the top of the stairs, making sure she called, listening to her cry and sob and ask for her Daddy to come home. The next morning was the same. And the next. And the next…
When she was 11-years old, her mum went out to an evening meeting. The man who had moved in, who would eventually marry her mother, jovial, tall, always smiling and clapping his hands, told her to climb into bed for a bedtime cuddle. “I’ll keep my hands clasped under my chin,” he whispered. “No need to worry. No need to tell anyone.” He kept his hands clasped but the 11-year old never quite relaxed around him again. If there was nothing to worry about, why did it have to be kept a secret?
Before she was fourteen, she had defended herself with a knife against the same man who now liked to use his fists in places it didn’t show. He wasn’t so jovial now. She had watched a tea-tray thrown from the top of a three-storey house because his cup was not placed on it – and it wasn’t a leap of her imagination to suppose he would push her mother out too. His son, who lived with them, watched with empty eyes. She watched where he put his hands too.
That girl today is 44-years old. She has written about domestic violence, but never about the personal damage of divorce, emotional blackmail and abuse. Never. It was locked away.
She is me. And, finally, she is happy to own her story.
I can only thank God, Jesus and Holy Spirit for the work they have activated in the past two weeks. For a SAP, with whom I became irrationally angry for prompting me to read Psalm 139.
Why was I angry? Anger is a secondary emotion. The real response was fear. Psalm 139 was calling me to look at something beautiful about myself and all I wanted was to run away as fast as I could.
Because, oh my God, hadn’t I already done this? Hadn’t I built something of myself? All that history, it had built me. It gave me the guts and resilience to move on and through. In a fiery, fiesty, flicking-the-bird, sort of way, I had overcome. With so many benefits, not least knowing myself intensely as a result. I know:
I can over-read and internally over-react to emotional cues. Not externally. Externally I am poker-face solid
Silent tension in a house is my absolute undoing because of what it heralded
I hate confrontation – when your childhood is soaked with echoes of suicide and violence, keeping quiet is a great thing
I will go a long way to avoid asking anyone to meet my needs. I’ll meet them all myself, thanks, way safer.
I don’t do vulnerable easily. Emotional independence is, literally, in my make-up. S*&t happens when you are emotionally dependent
Deep down struggling with being deserving of love, no matter how many achievements I could list, how much value I could attach to my life because if your mum attempts suicide the childish synapse locks onto her not loving you enough to want to live and be your mother; and then your dad has left…and then the next husband liked to use his fists…
So I know why I have certain behaviours. I acknowledge them and have checks and strategies to manage them all healthily. I had therapied myself to self-awareness – which brought forgiveness and insight. You may read the above and judge my Mum. How could she do that to a child? Why didn’t she leave her second husband? But take a step in her shoes. Imagine how lost, how raw, how broken her internal life must have been. So I can forgive her all of it because of how she had been taught to love and be in relationship. My lesson has been not to repeat hers.
So why was Psalm 139 so gut-wrenchingly confronting?
Because of what God wanted me desperately to see. He didn’t want me to look at who I had created in response to life’s circumstances. But at who He had created. Who was incredibly different.
Yet I couldn’t see her because it meant I had to look closely at the experiences that forged the current me; to look back past them to who He created. And I really didn’t want to. It made me sob and hiccup and be vulnerable. To get back to what He created meant I had to walk back through the car-crash.
“No,” I raged. “I’m not looking. Not there. Not when I have to walk back through that. Leave me alone. I’ve done more than ok despite it all. Let me be. I’m going back to my cave.” I may even have pouted that I was ‘magnificent enough’ to the Lord.
The irony? The SAP had done a sermon series on Jonah as irrational prophet just a few weeks before. As I raged, pouted and refused to do what God asked, I couldn’t help but think of Jonah, stinking of fish guts and sulking under his plant.
My surrender took less than 20 hours, with low to no eye-rolling. A record. “Whatever I need to learn, whatever I need to let go, over to You. And if am wading back through that, be ready for my fingernail imprints in Your palm because I’ll be gripping real tight.”
“Like your fingernails bother me,” replied God: “Did you look at Jesus’ hands lately?”
It took less than five minutes for God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit to answer my prayer and do Their business.
Directly with Psalm 139, verse 6, to how intimately God loves and knows me, that is ‘too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.’
“Look,” He kept whispered to me. “Look at how fearfully and wonderfully I made you. Before. Before you had to create yourself on top. Because until you see that, you can’t do what I want you to do next. My works are wonderful. You know that full well. And you are one of my works. Look.”
So I sat in my car, in a Sydney suburban side street, had a purging, fast, howl for the teen and for the child, and came out the other side . That the Holy Spirit is so often referred to as fire does not surprise me. Bushfire regeneration before growth. Cauterising and cleansing. G, J & the HS did in less than 30 minutes what many hours of talking with professionals had not delivered. Integrated peace.
God sees me as He sees His son. Holy without blemish. My job now is to live out who I already am.
Footnote/Disclaimer: I am not waving my hands in the air, yelling “Praise the Lord, I am healed, cancel all your therapy appointments and give your life to Jesus.” No.
Keep the therapy. Keep the meds if you take them. Keep loving and being kind to yourself. For me, I have simply found it much easier to love and be kind to myself with God and Jesus as the lens and accepting the gift of grace. For me.
For you, there may be psychologists, psychiatrists, counsellors, medications and help lines. Abuse – whatever its type – leaves a scar. You may have been abused at the hands of the church, for which I am deeply sorry and wish more people who say they are Christians behave like it more often.
All I know from my experience is this: you can’t ever heal by yourself. Tucking the last little remnants away deep inside, whilst congratulating yourself on how well you are doing, rarely works. Those remnants have a pesky way of jabbing to the surface when you least expect it.