‘We Church’ to ‘Me Church’

I grew up in the Church. It was integral to who I was. It was my family. It defined my identify. It was a powerful influence, my moral development, social opportunities, entertainment, and an invitation to regular fellowship.

Church had been my routine and security. A part of my family history and traditions. Somewhere I belonged. A place where others depended on me. A way to love others. A solidifying of my status in the Christian community. A place to connect with others and restore my spiritual focus.

Until my marriage ended. Then I didn’t really fit in, and church became complicated.

Throughout the betrayals within my congregation and my subsequent divorce, singleness and isolation, I clung to my church attendance quite literally like a piece of floating driftwood from a sinking ship. The organisation that had kept me nurtured and safe my entire life, became an unknowing participant in my prolonged suffering.

Regardless of how much my body shook from the traumas I’d encountered, I still marched through the church doors, week to week.

Regardless of how hard it was to keep the tears from rolling down my cheeks during worship, I returned dutifully to ‘my’ seat in the pews and sang while gulping down the lump in my throat.

Regardless of the pain of mingling with people who were probably talking about my scandalous life events, I still socialised with them to fend off some of the loneliness.

Regardless of the isolation I felt after sharing my prayer needs with leaders who found my circumstances awkward, I still made myself vulnerable and left feeling embarrassed.

Regardless of the exhaustion of working full time, caring for children and pursuing divorce proceedings, I continued to serve so that I did not have to admit my limitations.

Regardless of the ignorant one-liners that reopened my wounds, such as ‘God hates divorce’, ‘you’ll find someone else’, ‘God will prosper you’, ‘things could be worse’…I allowed my ears continued exposure.

Regardless of the devastation of not feeling heard or important, when I addressed the messages that had threatened my wellbeing, I kept advocating, and became further estranged.

It was pure stubbornness that kept me hostage to my church habit, despite how at times, extremely detrimental it was.

Then I underwent a season of rest, reflection, and re-construction.

I first gave myself permission to acknowledge that church had been hard. That many times I did not like it. That it was okay not to go if I was not up to it.

Then I discovered something…new.

I took a break from ‘We Church’ and found ‘Me Church’.

‘Me Church’ was just me and Jesus.

At ‘Me Church’, I could come as I was. Slippers, dressing gown, messy hair and all. It had amazing worship. Personal playlists, set on repeat. There were cups of tea and flexible start and end times. ‘Me Church’ had various campuses, in a range of indoor and outdoor venues. I could sing my heart out in joy, or sit silently in tears.

‘Me Church’ did not require interaction with other flawed, sinful humans, which at that point in my life, was just too risky. There was silence, reflection, time for thinking, and staring out at God’s amazing creation. There could be bible reading, YouTube sermons or podcast discussions…or no teaching at all. There was space for a private conversation with God, including how let down I felt by life in general, or how beautiful the sunshine was.

After ‘Me Church’ there was opportunity to bless others, whether that was checking in and calling a friend, doing a nice deed for the family, or preparing for the working week ahead so I was better able to bless others in the community with my gifts. ‘Me Church’ was not concerned with the denomination I followed, whether I had spiritual gifts, the evangelical celebrities I ascribed to, or my stance on moral and political agendas. There was no power hierarchy, shame, guilt trips or abuse.

At ‘Me Church’, you could share your personal testimony, even if it didn’t have a happy ending…or any kind of resolution at all.

There were no expectations and no awkwardness. It was safe and it was healing. It was genuine and it was real. Despite my imperfect, single, state, at ‘Me Church’, I fit in, and I belonged.

I could be a member for as long as I wanted to. I could leave when I was ready. I would be welcomed when I returned.

If ‘We Church’ has been a complicated place for you too, let go of it for a while, and try ‘Me Church’ out for a season as well.

Even if no one else is there, Jesus certainly will be.

Photo by Audrey Badin from Pexels

A Scooter Affair

Photo by Brett Sayles

Don’t you love it when the kids throw a conversational grenade while you’re driving in the car…and have no way to escape?!

“So Mum, why can’t you just forgive?”

Gulp…. silence…and a million thoughts, memories, emotions and traumas ran through my mind within a two second time span. Urggghhh….not that issue. Since the ‘affair monster’ reared its ugly presence in my world, I had wrestled with these issues on a daily and sometimes minute by minute basis. It was hard enough for me to work out my own feelings, let alone to explain them to my children. It had been the bane of my existence the past few years.

I tried my best to articulate the journey that had changed my boys’ lives, reduced me to a part-time mother, decimated friendships, added a heap of single-parent responsibility, all while still holding my demeanor in check in front of my son. I clenched the steering wheel tighter and strained my jaw.

“Ummm….I have.” I stammered, not at all convincingly.

“No you haven’t…you haven’t forgotten about it.”

“Well…forgiveness and forgetting are different things. I’m doing my best”.

I went blank. How do you explain the complexities of adult relationships to children without scarring the security in their own circumstances?

My other son then joined the intervention.

“Mum, we just don’t get it. Why don’t we see our friends anymore. It’s time you told us.”

I sighed. All those stupid divorce recovery books never touch on all these real life, uncomfortable realities. Where’s the ‘wise counsel’ in this particular situation? Nowhere.

This was one of those moments that was not going to go away and could frame these young men for the rest of their lives. I took a deep breath and mustered up every ounce of energy to come up with a intelligent analogy they could possibly understand.

“You know how much you love your scooter?” I asked son number one.

“How excited you were to buy it from the shop, to choose the colour of the deck, handlebars and wheels. To save up and the upgrade parts to make it look and work better? The fun you have when you ride it at to school and skate park?”

“Yes…”

“You know how for months you would look after it, make sure it didn’t get damaged, even put it close to your bed at night to make sure it was right there in the morning when you woke up? Also, how proud you were to show your friends and meet them at the park to ride and do tricks together? Well, imagine if your best friend took it, even though they knew how much you loved your scooter? How would you feel?”

“Sad”

“What if they started riding it to the park in front of you, even though it had been yours? Doing the cool tricks you used to do, changing the parts you added to it, posting photos of it on social media and telling everyone it was their scooter all along and you were no good anyway. Would that be hard? Would you need to forgive him for lots of little things for a long time?”

“I guess so.”

 “Well that is kind of how it is for me now. I’m doing my best and God is helping me.”

How do you explain the emotional impact of infidelity to children? I am fully aware of all those parenting resources that stress the need to not talk badly about ex-partners, but seriously how do you do that on a day to day basis? Children do not have the capacity to fully comprehend the emotions you as adult, yet still a vulnerable, hurting human being is feeling? At the risk of possibly reducing my ‘fully-sick-ness’, and getting real (which may contradict some of those ideas from the experts of the family-break-up-world…I mean, have they actually lived this?!), here are my own pieces of wisdom with how I’ve learnt to master this!

1.      Chill!

Just like grief is a process, so too is forgiveness, especially when you’ve been betrayed. There are stages of denial, despair, anger, isolation, empowerment, steps backwards…forwards…sideways…spiritual peace, then triggers and regressions where you have to work through the messy process all over again. It is not a ‘one and done’ scenario. It is also important to understand that you can’t pressure and hurry people through this process. Proper healing takes time, don’t rush it and don’t let people tell you to hurry up. Be yourself through all the stages of this recovery.

2.      Create some edits

Create some G or PG video ‘edits’ or scenes in your mind that you can pull out to explain to your children, as needed and in an age appropriate manner. As much as you may be tempted to blurt the soap-opera-messed-up details that continually haunt you, take a breath, pause and choose your examples wisely and allow the facts to speak for themselves. Children deserve to know the ‘real’ circumstances without badmouthing the other parent. Let them make their own judgments over time. Use them as teachable moments, be honest about your own short-comings, the impact of sin and various life choices and focus on how God is able to restore every situation, not matter how unorthodox.

3.      Be wary of the sketchy ones and change your flow

Learn from your journey and make changes to your lifestyle and personal boundaries to model how to cope in adversity. Be discerning about the people in your life and limit unhealthy relationships. If your children are likely to be presented with alternate morals and lifestyles, continue expressing your values and modelling desired actions whenever possible. Be comforted that over time they will observe the differences. Research co-parenting methods, and take out your stress in healthy ways by talking to a trusted friend, family member or counselor, exercise and pursue your own hobbies, interests and career goals.

4.      Don’t worry when you ‘bust your cakes’

This one is the most important! Also, the most unlikely you will be told by anyone!

When you stack it in an emotional and parenting sense, don’t be discouraged. Sin sucks. Parents mess up. Nobody’s perfect. Allow yourself to be human.

Apologise, acknowledge your weaknesses to your children, and demonstrate how to get back on track. Practice self-care, be true to yourself and don’t be dismayed. You will get there. Take an emotional day ‘off’ where you don’t try to meet anyone’s needs or have to pretend to be strong. Binge on Netflix, smash stuff at the gym, go for a walk, avoid responsibilities, make yourself comfortable…but set yourself a time or day for when that is over and you are back on the skate ramp of life.

As much as we humans, especially Christians, hate talking about messy stuff like affairs, family break downs and forgiveness, it is time for us to all get real. The ‘let’s not talk about it honestly’ ideal doesn’t work. Children pick up on everything, so it is pointless for us to pretend they shouldn’t understand the issues that ultimately change the course of their day to day lives. The vital part is how we go about it. This will decide how well you all learn to adapt, become resilient, grow in faith and together overcome the adversity.

After all of that, you may well consider yourself ‘totally legit’! Yeah…sorry, it’s so not cool…puns over….

Rocky Forgiveness

Photo by Ir Solyanaya

Six years ago, my life changed forever. Infidelity caused me, married-mother-of-two, to become single-mother-of-two. I was suddenly alone to navigate the world of working, providing, finances and child-custody negotiations. I lost friendships, became disconnected with my community and experienced a deep, piercing grief.

I spun through emotions like a merry-go-round. Over and over I experienced combinations of anger, sadness, depression, stress, fear, and the occasional whiff of hope. There was no logical pattern for this cycle.

Within days of my life turning upside down, I was told to forgive, for ‘my own’ sake. As the months passed this pressure continued from multiple sources. I received well-meaning advice, such as “you need to forgive“, “don’t become bitter”, “it will be okay”, “do it for the kids’ sake” , “you’ll find someone else”, and “you need to move on”.

Unfortunately, the people sending these messages had no idea of the suffering I was enduring, which included regular flashbacks of events where I had been deceived and manipulated. I was still in the process of adjusting my perception of the past and the people I trusted.

The pressure to forgive was enhanced with the expectation that it’s what good Christians do. But I was not allowed to grieve as a widow would. I was not allowed to display my pain about the death of my marriage by wearing black. There was no memorial service for the loss of my friendships. I was not brought meals or flowers. I was expected to carry on as normal and to hide the shame of the situation that had been forced on me.

People gossiped about me. People avoided me. People abandoned me. Some people attacked me. I was told to keep quiet about what had happened. I was then again reminded that I needed to forgive.

The inability for me to do this in the expected time frame, made me feel more of a failure. Why couldn’t I just be at peace with my new lot in life?

How do you forgive when you are constantly living with the daily repercussions of other people’s choices that have negatively impacted your own life?

After years of processing, counselling and healing, I now have my answer. It’s like I have a jar of rocks. Rocks of all different sizes and shapes, each representing a wrong that had been done to me and something that had been stolen from me. Something to forgive.

Just like the rocks in that jar, I needed to start by disposing of the little pebbles that filled the gaps around, under and over the larger rocks. I then needed to grieve them. Put actions in place to prevent them happening again. Then take some more little pebbles. They could represent lost friendships and family, or increased responsibility. I could crush them, skim them into a lake, feel them, grind them, decorate them or make use of them in the garden. Grieve them. Put protections in place. Let them go. Walk away.

The pressure of ‘just forgiving’ was the equivalent of arranging a truck to scoop up the enormous load of rocks and drop them all into the ocean in one, simple movement. Be done with them. Quickly. Forever. Forget they existed. The danger of that process was they could land on me, trip me and control me. I could even be tempted to pick them up and hurl them to cause harm or damage, as an act of retribution.

A sudden deposition might make others around me feel better about the situation, but it would leave me empty and with limited potential at overcoming the pain.

I was unable to do this because I didn’t know what that pile consisted of. What layers, shapes, pieces and materials formed it to make the load so large and heavy? The boulders of betrayal and abandonment would be there a while, maybe forever. It might be simply enough to just look at them, or acknowledge they existed at all. Maybe chisel off a few edges. Sand back a few surfaces. Feel the texture and the weight. Reduce them to smaller pebbles with a hammer. Put them back in the jar. God could mind them until I was ready to deal with them again.

Forgiveness is not an end result. It is a continuous process; one which acknowledgement of the wrong that has occurred, grief and time plays a large role in the success of it.

Ecclesiastes describes this concept as there being a ‘time for everything’, especially in verse 5, there is “a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them, a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing”.

In this chapter of the bible there is permission for people to take time with the seasons of life. God does not give our healing an expiry date. He is patient, loving and kind. He understands how painful grief is and would not look down on us for mindfully and spiritually processing our pain.

To those of you who have suffered greatly as a result of the choices of others, allow yourself space to grieve and heal as you feel able. Forgiveness should not be controlled by the expectations of others and does not reflect the strength of your faith. As long as you are moving along the road of forgiveness with God in a forwards direction of some sort, that is all that matters.

The jar of rocks is yours and God will willingly help with that burden as you need Him to.

When your personal life requires a quarantine lock down

Yesterday I went to my local shopping centre to grab some groceries. This would normally be classified as nothing out of the ordinary, however amid the new social distancing, isolation and COVID-19 requirements, it was anything but that.

The vibe was different. I felt slightly anxious. My senses were over functioning, making mental note of every surface I was touching…the shop looks and feels different…where IS the toilet paper isle now, who is around me…am I too close to that person…do they have the virus…could I have the virus…who can I trust…don’t give eye contact…where is my hand sanitizer…what’s in the air I’m breathing! Get me outta here and back home!

I reflected on this on my drive home and couldn’t help but initially be amused at my overreaction, and then it dawned on me. I have been here before!

Following a season of relationship breakdowns in my life, venturing out to do a grocery shop has at times been a similar, if not more traumatic experience than what I had just felt. The anxiety of having contact with people, constantly being wary of who was there, who could be there, what people thought of me, how I was going to present myself and ensure my emotional safety; meant that doing daily tasks such as grocery shopping, was torture. It would not be uncommon for me to return to the car with my shopping bags, as well as a complimentary dose of body shakes.

Betrayal and rejection have a knack of getting under people’s skin, causing them to question every aspect of their life, just like living in a pandemic. Victims over-analyse every interaction, trying to deem whether they are trustworthy and safe. They’ve often seen the best in others, given them the benefit of the doubt, missed red flags, and they do not want to end up there again. They construct an imaginary crown of shame that adorns their heads wherever they go and whatever they do. In these circumstances one method of dealing with this is to quarantine people out of their lives until it is safe enough to venture into the realm of relationships again.

For me, I describe these times as ‘going into my fortress’ where I miminise contact with others, stay home, drink cups of tea, stare out the window for hours at a time and process events. Here I am safe from threats to my well being and I can practice self-care. I make decisions about things I can control, even if they are as little as not checking emails for a certain time or responding in my normal, ‘people pleasing’ manner. I wear my sparkly slippers and play worship music. In these times it is just God and I. God will not betray or reject me, instead he builds me up, tear by tear, worry by worry, weakness by weakness.

Over the years my need for ‘quarantine time’ has reduced. I am now strong enough to recreate that experience mentally when I am not physically at home. I have restructured many of my personal relationships so that the fortress is not needed as often. My social circles are smaller, but more enriching as I learn to draw more on my faith for my needs, than people themselves.

The social distancing requirements we are all facing right now replicate much of the above. We must put actions in place that minimise threats to our safety, we must build our own fortresses and change our lifestyle in to get us through. We can focus on the little things such as hand washing and coughing into our elbows, to make us feel somewhat in control of the uncontrollable. However at the end of the day, we will all need to dig deeper on a personal level to get our needs met, and perhaps this is the time to rely less on people and the busyness of life, and more on our Almighty Saviour God who understands our suffering and uncertainty. He will sit with us in it. He will care for us. He will provide us with the comfort that no matter what happens, if we love Him, we will be saved. 1 Peter 5:7 says “Give all your worries and cares to God, for he cares about you” (NLT).

Although quarantining ourselves over the coming months is not exactly an exciting prospect, can I ask you to spare a thought (or a text or phone call) for those have been isolated due to circumstances in their personal relationships too, and to use this as a valuable time to reconnect yourself with God who is the ultimate companion and support.

Photo by Tatyana Nekrasova