Motherhood doesn’t have a manual

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.”

Pretending to be an uber-qualified geologist who worked on the north sea oil rigs. Just so I had a feisty, sea-battling, helicopter-flying, tertiary-qualified female role model to whom I could aspire.

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.

 

 

No victims or survivors here, move along

How does one follow a couple of blogs on family violence (FV) and safe ministry?

Carefully. Nothing-to-see-here-630x286

Before I return to blog posts poking fun at myself on this Christian journey, I wanted to share a couple of lessons that have popped up for me in the responses to both.

I am not a victim. Please let’s stop using that term.

Yes, I may have been harmed or injured as a result of family violence. But I am not a person who has come to feel helpless and passive in the face of misfortune or ill-treatment. Whilst I was physically sick after publishing that post, it wasn’t from any feeling of helplessness. Instead it was because I dreaded someone looking at me differently in the present day. Treating me differently. Like a victim. To be named a victim is to somehow remain stuck in the language of fear.

Nor am I a survivor.

Gloria Gaynor has a lot to answer for. Surviving something feels so limiting. Slightly static. I don’t continue to live or exist in spite of FV. In fact, I rarely think about it. Why survive when you can bust through and grow?

Show compassion, sorrow or anger on my behalf, but, dear God, don’t pity me.

The parents who split messily, the mother who attempted suicide, the step-father who used his fists, all those experiences made me the woman I am. Whom I love. A resilient, strong, sassy, kind, fun, loyal warrior. Sarcastic, dry-humoured, yet compassionate and empathetic. (The latter two are less my default feelings. Thankfully Jesus reminds me to access them more each day). So please don’t pity people for the very experiences that forged them. If they value what they see in the mirror, your pity only devalues the experiences that gave them worth.

Love, forgiveness – ‘turning the other cheek’ – can achieve miracles.

Rosie Batty responded to a hateful, vile act with love. As a result she placed FV far higher on our nation’s agenda and was instrumental in the instigation of a Royal Commission into family violence. It’s early days, and I look forward to seeing how our leaders and our society as a whole tackles it.

There’s more to do, to pray for.

Yes, call for increases to budgets for family violence support services. Safe havens are necessary. But rather than parking the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff as abusees tumble over, let’s start fixing the underlying issue: why men (and some women) perpetrate family violence. What messages are being sent in our culture that perpetrate it? That cause confusion? Such as:

  • We tell our boys it’s never okay to hit a girl. How often do we teach our girls that it’s never ok to hit a boy?
  • Advertising that portrays women as passive objects that any amount of muck can be done to.
  • Porn. Rape porn.
  • Laws that leave Fathers battling for fair access visits to their children, with little recourse. Yes, there are times when that limited access is necessary. But (and I write from personal experience) there are also times when good men, great Dads, are punished by their ex-wives for the relationship breakdown; via making access visits incredibly difficult to secure.

This isn’t going away.

Ending family violence requires massive societal change; results need to be measured across generations. I’m impressed by the many clergy who have been vocal in calling for change and appear willing to shine the light in the dark corners. I’m also hopeful because of another massive societal shift that spread across the world incredibly quickly, back in the first century, and continues to support the weak and stand up for the oppressed today.

2015: My Year Of Living Vulnerably – No bluffing!

I had occasion just before Christmas to have a psychologist dig in my brain. A comms pro who spins words, and a psych who reads words for nuance are always going to make interesting jousting partners. bluffing-300x300

I call it a dislike of navel gazing, he named it denial. Ouch.

I call it independence, he named it an unwillingness to ask for my needs to be met. Ouch again.

I call it creativity, he termed it hiding behind the keyboard and being unwilling to be vulnerable in ‘real life’. Ouch thrice.

I call it dry wit, my nemesis suggested it was avoidance: the chance to take a deep in-breath while i laugh, in order to settle myself rather than cry.

Well, it was an enervating hour, giving me plenty to ponder throughout the Christmas period. In a knee-jerk “how dare he tell me I’m not vulnerable?” response, I also devoured Dr. Brene Brown’s ‘Daring Greatly: How The Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live Parent and Lead.’

By the end of the book, I think my nemesis was half-way wrong and three quarters right. Half-way wrong because I identify with Brown’s vulnerable ‘wholehearted’ people in her book from the perspective of my own resilience. Yet three-quarters right because by the end of the book I had come up with a new diagnosis, one that Brown doesn’t touch on, promoted by my hour with the psychologist. The vulnerability double-bluffer.  I suspect there are lots of us out there.

The vulnerability double-bluffer does honesty well. We don’t anxiously overshare, thanks to resilience, and due to independence we do not seek to to drag others into our story. But here’s the double-bluff: we give out our ‘medal’ vulnerability stories, the ones we have won over and made peace with, made acceptable, and we shine them up like medals pinned to the chest of our soul. We double-bluff ourselves that we have been vulnerable, when instead we have merely shared the echo of vulnerability. Yet that echo is enough for our audience, our friends, our loved ones, and, dangerously, often ourselves – sucked into the double-bluff. If it walks like a dog, looks like a dog, barks like a dog, then, yes, it’s probably a dog.

Vulnerability double-bluffers are good at it too. We can spit out vulnerability medal stories to you face to face, across an audience of hundreds, or via a blog and receive compliments about how raw and open and honest and vulnerable we are being. Yet to share only the medal vulnerabilities whilst telling ourselves we’ve just been truly vulnerable? What are we cheating ourselves out of?

Back to Dr. Brown’s book. She challenges the cultural myth that vulnerability is weakness and argues that it is, in truth, our most accurate measure of courage.

Brown explains how vulnerability is both the core of difficult emotions like fear, grief and disappointment, and the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, empathy, innovation, and creativity. She writes, “When we shut ourselves off from vulnerability, we distance ourselves from the experiences that bring purpose and meaning to our lives and our work.”

The danger being a vulnerability double-bluffer means we think we are being brave, we think we are displaying courage – and to all intents and purposes we are –  but we’re actually not digging deep enough to truly feel it. Imagine dipping a bucket into a well and it coming up half empty. Double-bluffers need to dig deeper. To get the full bucket of love, belonging, joy, empathy, innovation, and creativity that vulnerability delivers. Double-bluffers have to admit they are only sending the bucket down halfway.

The only person I am truly vulnerable in front of is God. With Him there are no shiny vulnerability stories to hide behind. As I have walked along this new Christian path I have learnt the more vulnerable I become with Him, the closer He draws. To paraphrase Augustine, God made me for himself. And the more He gets of me, the more vulnerable I become in front of Him, the stronger our relationship grows.

“Those who love their life in this world will lose it. Those who care nothing for their life in this world will keep it for eternity.”  John 12:25.  Jesus is talking about a life in which we make ourselves vulnerable – to God and others, even to those who reject us. Pouring out ourselves for others unconditionally, and trusting God to fill us back up.

So if I can have this incredibly close, personal, awe-inspiring, miraculous relationship with the flipping creator of galaxies beyond my imagining, whose love for me is immeasurable and I receive all this stunning amazingness by being vulnerable – well, imagine what being vulnerable can do to my small, contained life and the relationships within it?

Which is why 2015 is my year of living vulnerably. No bluffing. No folding. No matter the cards.

Grace Holds.

This post starts after the Lindt cafe Sydney siege and the breaking news today that eight children have been stabbed to death in Queensland. One as young as 18 months.

It starts less than 24 hours after our quiet, leafy suburb was teeming with police and their dogs, searching for the person who chose to hold up our local liquor store, threatening the young bloke behind the till with a needle injury.

Yesterday I suggested on social media that our local community buy a case from the local bottle shop today. Small scale #Illridewithyou. Today I went in and my heart was gladdened to hear the owner say how busy she was. Thank you community.

Today I sat in our local cafe next to our Como institution. Close to 90 years old, Mrs R lives independently – my family first got to know her almost ten years ago when I walked past her house with my newborn son. She had a quiet tear today thinking about how long she has lived in this peaceful suburb and how distressing it was to hear the news of yesterday’s robbery. After she left, the cafe regulars worked out how to make sure she was tended, to offer her love and comfort, without intruding on her independence. Thank you community.

It would be easy for me to say, after the events of the past week, that it appears God has turned his back and shut the door on our bewildering world. But then I see Jesus in each person who bought a case of wine or beer from our local bottle shop today. In the compassion that strews Martin Place with flowers. In the love that tends to a 90 year old woman to ensure she is held safely in our small community.

Grace holds.

Grace

The SAP Gets A Name Change For A Day

Unknown
The SAP turned into a poker-face Larry Emdur. But kept his shirt on. Thank God.

I had to upgrade the SAP to a TBP the other week.  He did something that sent me veering straight back into limbic lunacy, the same day I’d shared my decision to be ‘Lipton’d’. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

You know those targets they use in fundraising? Large themometer-type displays that tally the amount of cash people have donated? Well, I wonder if churches have similar for souls saved. And if there’s a percentage conversion rate that they reverse-engineer a target out of, gauging how many they need in the soul-saving funnel (SSF) at any one time.

It’s obviously not quite as clinical as that. Love, empathy, compassion, the SAP patiently persists in reminding me, are all important strengths one has to display in the soul-saving business way of life. As my approach to compassion is quite often from the school of swallow some concrete and harden up, I’m amazed the SAP is not yet sick of sounding like a broken record. I’d have smacked me round the back of my head by now. Yet, I do notice some softening in my compassion bone. I receive small reminders to breathe into it: You who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Galatians 6:1.

Anyway, back to the SSF.  All the souls in it have to accept Jesus freely. No matter how much support and guidance you get on your way through the funnel, at some point you have to make a personal, final call.

Which is why, as soon as river baptism appeared on my horizon, the SAP went all Switzerland on me. Mr Neutral. If it were a game show, with the ultimate prize all stacked behind the one door, the SAP was a poker-face Larry Emdur. Getting to know the SAP as you have through these blogs (and perhaps social media if you are SA detectives), poker face and Switzerland are not qualities one would ascribe to this (scarily) forthright man of faith.

First, my flight reflex went: “Oh. Maybe I shouldn’t get baptised. He’s possibly being too polite to say how soooo not ready my soul is for this.” Swiftly followed by: “The SAP, polite? Heaven forbid.” Then comprehension: at this point before a baptism, it must be like getting ready for a public float (boom-tish) on the heavenly stock exchange. No insider-trading. Having read the prospectus and gained advice from your spiritual advisor to talk to God, any decision you then make must be of your own accord.

Once I’d reached my decision, the SAP returned to form. Switzerland was ditched in favour of a far more celebratory nation. Facebook Messenger crashed with all the emoticons of smiley faces, party poppers and those blasted things that unfurl when you blow into them.

“Absolutely fantastic,” he said. “It’ll be flippin’ awesome,” he added. “I just need your testimony, the before and after bit about how you got to here with Jesus and God. Then I’ll get you up on stage at church and you can share it. Ten minutes or so should do it.”

Hang on. What did he just say? On stage? Ten minutes?

So, just for a day, the SAP up-levelled to TBP. Had I spotted live, on-stage testimony required in the baptism prospectus it would have muddied my decision-making around being Lipton’d. Which had to be reached freely, without positive or negative influence.

Tricky bastard. But I have to hand it to him. Still smart.

It’s a, it’s a, it’s a… it’s a sin

Disclaimer: This video was chosen ONLY because of the catchy tune and title for creative purposes. The use of this video and the subject of this blog should not be construed as any commentary on the sexual preferences of Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe. Or monks in chains. So no-one get your knickers in a twist.

That I have to write the disclaimer above shows just how explosive this small, three letter word is. In a second disclaimer, I’m wandering around the reservation on my own here. Possibly going off-piste. This blog is what I’ve pieced together since this began. I didn’t ask the SAP to do a sense-edit before I published because I wanted it to be a bit raw and messy. And to be as close as possible to how I – as a newbie – have uncovered it. All the errors here are my own.

Sin.

Straight away, all those notions of heinous wrong doings. I think this is why Christianity is so confronting because no-one likes to be told they are sinful, which is essentially what Jesus is recorded as saying in The Bible. I remember hearing it in church and immediately my back went up. “Here we go again,” I thought.

Fire and brimstone preaching and bible thumping has caused the church a serious image problem when it comes to sin. It either offends the non-Christians (NCs) (“I’m no rapist/murderer/thief” – insert your preferred style of sinner here) or causes Christians all sorts of comparison problems (“Well, I’m not as bad as her!”). It also contributes to why so many NCs think they are going to be judged by Christians and be found lacking.

I think most of us have got the idea of sin all wrong. 

Sin, as defined in the original translations of the Bible, means “to miss the mark.” The mark, in this case, is the standard of perfection established by God and evidenced by Jesus.

So, based on that, the ‘equation’ I came up with is:

I’m not God or Jesus. The only way to NOT miss the mark is to BE God or Jesus. I am patently neither. Then I have to conclude: I’m a sinner.

Say that line a few times. It gets easier. Imagine it’s like an AA meeting.

(Sorry, SAP, if you are now pulling out your remaining grey hairs. I’ll give you a blog post to set the record straight if required. A really small one. Like one of those ‘notices of retraction’ that no-one ever spots in the newspaper).

Now, get ready for the next twist.

No matter what we do, we’re still sinners. Whether you give to charity and go to church each Sunday, or whether you go out on a megalomanic serial killer spree. There is no difference.

Now all the NCs (and possibly Cs) are up in arms. “How dare you compare me to a serial killer?” you yell. Build a bridge and get over it with me. Because much as I hate it (ego, ego, ego), God doesn’t have a sin barometer. Sin just is. There’s no measurement of it. 

If this was a poker game, it’d be feeling like a pretty crap hand, wouldn’t it? Which is why I need to get to the Christian equivalent of a Royal Flush.

Jesus. The lightening rod. The uber-blog post. The central tenet of Christianity.

Distilled down, if you trust in Jesus then all your sin is taken away, all thanks to his crucifixion, resurrection and grace.

Mind-blowing. Rather than try to rationalise it (nigh on impossible) I had to surrender, run with it,  and see where it led. Because of that commitment I made at 3am to God, to step up to the plate and sort out my ‘baggage’ around Christianity. Otherwise I’d still be stuck unhelpfully stereotyping ‘religion’, ‘church’, and ‘sin’.

Rather than being a struggle, accepting the gift of forgiveness and grace is meant to be easy. But I had to put all that ‘Christianity’ baggage down first, so I could free my hands to grasp it.

“We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.” – Timothy Keller.

Seeking a cure for my religious hangover – Lesson One

Being told by a ‘psychic’ smart alec pastor (SAP) that he knew how this would end, firmly shoved a Christian stereotype of mine right back where the sun doesn’t shine. Over-confident, much?

So much for gently, gently, softly, softly. Yet it was just what I needed to hear, given my history of ‘insipid Christianity’. I suspect many of us have been treated to this ‘watered-down’ approach that treds carefully for fear of offending people. I was delighted to encounter someone who grabbed his Christianity by the throat and, instead of ramming it down mine, held it up and fearlessly examined it with me.

I’m writing some different posts on what I’ve learnt during the past months seeking a cure for my religious hangover, a big one being:

Stop confusing church and religion with God and Jesus.

images-2
Martin Shaw (left) who, as Doyle from The Professionals, occupied my thoughts during chapel service at school.

Church for me, from school, was a staid, serious affair where we knelt on hard kneeling mats, bowed our heads and were told sternly to ‘keep quiet’. The vicar/pastor/father/priest was as far removed from me as I could ever imagine. What would he know of my teenage dreams? Ahem, in fact, I would have been mortified if he did know about them. Whilst he was quoting Psalms I was imagining myself with Martin Shaw in a souped-up Ford Capri. But I digress…

And religious people? I was either worried about offending them with my hard-living, foul-mouthed ways, or expecting to be judged. Like the fire & brimstone, “Oh, so you had sex before marriage, shame on you, harlot temptress” stuff. Or the more pious exhale from those who live a ‘Victorious Christian Life!’ (VCL, yes, exclaim!) who are so darned good I would never have a conversation with them for fear of saying something desperately uncharitable.

How could little ol’ me ever aspire to Christianity if that was the benchmark?

What I had to learn was that truly Christian people are just like little ol’ me, trying to be charitable, humble and caring, with zero desire to thump and wave Bibles at you. All they want to do is love us. Because that is what Jesus taught. Love. No matter what. No matter what car you drive, whether you are rich, poor, prostitute or podiatrist, truly Christian people want to offer kindness and compassion. Yes, they also want you to get to know Jesus – He’s another uber-blog post – but before you get freaked out about the J-man, just hold onto this spark: it all boils down to unconditional love.

Yet some religious people who call themselves Christians, don’t act especially Christian. A painful, personal example. When I was young, my Mum attempted to take her life. I remember so called Christian friends and a Catholic Priest muttering about sin. There’s a major chunk of my religious hangover, right there. The SAP responded:

“Sometimes people end up in dark places emotionally.  Sometimes depression can be so overwhelming that one attempts suicide.  The Catholic church teaches that this is a sin that is unforgivable.  The Bible doesn’t – Jesus doesn’t.  Sure it’s unwise – but God knows our pain and understands it.  Churches aren’t finishing schools for the nearly perfect – they are hospitals for the broken.  The ‘religious’ friends who castigated and judged your family have probably never understood Jesus – otherwise they would have responded with love, grace, compassion and a meal or four brought ‘round to help your family in one of its darkest weeks.  I’m sorry people who call themselves Christians don’t behave like it very often.”

In those few lines, with grace and compassion, a pastor I had yet to meet in person managed to sweep away a blot that ‘church’ and ‘religion’ had left on my soul. It moved me that he would apologise for the behaviour of certain Christians around such a significant moment in my life. It hadn’t been him, after all, standing there when I was six.