Ten Years Ago…

I’m not a sentimental person.  I don’t do flowers or fluffiness.  Yet today is an anniversary I’d like to remember and share with the world.

 

Ten years ago today, mine and Mr GLW’s worlds change forever.

 

It would probably be helpful for you to know Mr GLW’s name is Baggy as I share this part of our story with you.

 

I met Baggy in the year 2000.  My youth group were at Easter People and as a long-time friend of my youth worker Alice, Baggy came to help with our group.  He was old.  I was 16 and he was 29.  I was a crazy Christian teenager who loved Jesus and wanted everyone else to know Him too.

 

Less than a year after Easter People, I found myself in a relationship with an abuser.  It’s a story I’ve told in various ways on this blog and elsewhere.  I was with him for four years.  In that time he destroyed me almost completely.  I had my first child at 18 and was married months later.  I was pregnant again at 20.  Six months into my pregnancy my ex-husband raped me and my son was born three months premature.  He was immediately transferred 50 miles away.  My daughter and I lived in hospitals for five months with our tiny baby.  In that time, I had only two nights away from the hospital when I went to clear my possessions out from the house I had shared with my ex-husband.

 

Two of my greatest supporters throughout the time I was with my ex-husband (and when we lived in hospital) were Alice and Andy Smith who had been my church youth workers.  I would go stay with them when I attempted to leave my ex-husband.  They would visit us in hospital and take my daughter to stay with them for a few days.  It was Andy who I told about being raped.  They took me to the police station and looked after my toddler as I sat for three hours and made a statement about what I had been subjected to.  I don’t know if I would have made it through without them!

 

They were still in regular contact with Baggy, throughout the time I was married and when I was living in hospital.  When my ex-husband and I were both 19 he was convicted of sex offences and placed on the sex offenders register.  At the time, Baggy worked for the police and we had a phone call where I asked him various questions about police processes.  But mainly he was a friend of a friend who was kept informed about what was going on in my hugely complex life.

 

Whilst living in hospital, having lost everything, I found the God Who Is.  Previously to this, He had been the God of my parents and the God I sort of knew.  But in that hospital, He became my God, the God who saw me.  When all else is lost, God becomes real very quickly.  I began to hear God speak to me, audibly.  I know non-Christians reading this probably think it could probably be explained by the stress of life, but it really wasn’t.  He told me to read the Bible, a lot.  I was 21, but I looked about 15.  I had a seriously sick baby.  A toddler.  I had just separated from my husband.  I had no home as I had moved all my possessions into my parents’ garage.  And I was going through a criminal investigation due to being subjected to rape.  And I would sit reading the Bible, telling everyone how much Jesus loves them.

 

When my son was ready to be released from intensive care they were going to transfer him back to our home town.  I knew if I went back I would end up back in the relationship with an abuser.  God told me to move to Gateshead, where lovely Andy and Alice Smith lived.  My son was transferred to a new hospital and we moved with him.  Alice and Andy found a flat for us.  It was still a time when the social security system worked well and we were financially poor, but could survive.

 

One day we had some time away from the hospital visiting Andy and Alice who were having a party.  Baggy was there.  I had rarely seen him since I was sixteen.  As I stood chatting to him, God told me audibly that I was going to marry him.  I soon left the house in shock.  Convinced I had imagined God’s voice.  I told Him that no, I would not be marrying Baggy.  He was still old (34 by this point).  He wasn’t my sort.  In fact, nobody was my sort.  I would remain single for the rest of my life.  Marriage had nearly killed me.  End of.

 

Eventually my son was well enough to leave hospital, after a couple of attempts in which we left hospital and I had to resuscitate him at home when he stopped breathing and went either blue or grey.

 

Soon afterwards Andy and Alice moved to Essex.  I didn’t have a TV or internet and spent most evenings chatting to either God or friends on the phone.  Over the next year or so Baggy and I chatted on the phone regularly.  Whilst on one level I knew I would never want to marry him, on another I knew it was the only outcome for my life.

 

Over the months in Gateshead I attended a course in which I began to recognise that what I had been subjected to was labelled “domestic abuse”.  I accessed counselling.  I went to a large church in which I was vaguely anonymous.  I grew into myself and into God.  It was a beautiful time for me and the two small people God had given to me.  My son grew healthier.  My daughter grew happier.  Miracles of provision and transformation happened.  I learned to drive.  I learned to live alone.  My ex-husband was found not guilty by a jury.  I was prescribed higher and higher dosages of anti-depressants.  I gained some friendships and lost some.  The world was complex and messy, beautiful and desperately awful.  All at once.

 

Eventually I told God that he would have to tell Baggy to marry me.  I certainly wasn’t going to tell him.  And if it really was God, and not my imagination, this would prove it.

 

Then God told me to move to Essex.  I’d visited Andy and Alice, who now lived in the same town as Baggy.  I attended their church and God spoke to me.  They had been praying for our family for months and that Sunday they invited us to the front, to pray with us.  And so I made plans to move to Essex.

 

Baggy helped me to move.  Flying to Gateshead and driving the van down to Essex (for non-UK readers, this was an almost 300-mile journey).  Later on he told me that during this journey, God told him the he would marry me.  This came as a complete shock to him.  He’d been single for 13 years.  He was happily single and childfree, doing missionary work in Poland and that’s how he had envisaged life continuing.

 

Over the twelve days that followed from me moving to Essex, neither of us knew the other had been told by God we should get married.  Eventually I had an awkward conversation with Alice about it.  Seemingly, unbeknown to me, Baggy had a similar one with Andy.

 

Eventually on 26th February 2007 we had a conversation.  I mumbled a lot and offered him cups of tea.  And I rarely mumble.  It was very awkward.  But whilst sitting on opposite sofas we mumbled our way to realising that we God had told us to get married and so we agreed to do just that.  10 years ago today.

 

We got married six months later.  And the journey we’ve been on has been amazing and painful and wonderful.  Immediately that I found myself with someone to support me, my brain shut down and I became seriously mentally unwell.  Baggy went from being single to inheriting two children and a seriously crazy wife-to be.  I went from being poor to co-owning a house, two cars and having a super awesome husband-to-be.  We never got engaged or did engagement rings.  I gradually came off high dosage anti-depressants and Baggy described me as transitioning from being Eeyore to Tigger in about a month.  Both children quickly started to call Baggy daddy.  We attended family court to fight my ex-husband getting contact with the children and we succeeded.  Which was (and continues to be) a huge miracle.

 

Life has rarely been easy, but it has been awesome.  My wedding ring is inscribed with Ephesians 3:20, “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us.”  It was also inscribed on Baggy’s first wedding ring, but he lost that one on the honeymoon and is currently on his third wedding ring.

 

I would have never asked or imagined marrying Baggy.  He’s still thirteen years older than me (obviously!).  But I think my life experience packed in about the same levels of maturity as his stable and single adulthood gave him.  He’s absolutely the best person I could have ever married, even though I would never have chosen him.  And as a committed feminist I sit in the tension of having had a divinely arranged marriage whilst holding onto values of bodily autonomy and personal choice fought for by feminists through the years.

 

Having indulged in an uncharacteristic amount of sentimentality, I will end here.  Our relationship is not a model for Christian marriage, it is a rare and complex partnership in the midst of the more conventional romances and proposals that take place in most Christian relationships.  However, it is our story and it continues to be the best one God could write with all of us GLWs.

 

 

This Is My Body

I recently met up with some old college friends that I hadn’t seen for over eight years.  We all have children and partners and lives that have stretched out before us since the last time we saw one another.  I bumped into one of them when visiting my home-town a couple of months ago and we chatted about the eight years that had passed while her children made it clear that they didn’t want to stand around waiting for us to reminisce, so we agreed to meet next time I was visiting.

 

They say that time heals.  I’m not sure it does.  But time creates a distance from hurts that allows us to recalibrate ourselves.  We don’t have to be in denial about what was done to us in order to distance ourselves from it.  It’s been over eleven years since I left my ex-husband and I am far enough along the journey of healing that his impact on my life has become a distant memory and an occasional PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) episode rather than daily torture.  I’m no longer the person he moulded me into.

 

Bodies are often ignored in the healing process[1].  We focus on emotional turmoil or psychological affliction.  In therapy we talk about how we feel.  In understanding what has been done to us, we make cognitive shifts from one level of awareness to another.  Yet, all that is done to us is done while we exist within the same body we take forward throughout life.  Time and therapy can transform our minds and hearts, but our bodies remain the same.  We can’t download ourselves into another physical body.  We’re stuck with this one.

 

I met my ex-husband when I was 17 and at college.  The friends I met up with recently included the woman who introduced me to him.  She sat with us both when I found out I was pregnant.  After being released from hospital following a suicide attempt, it was her who I spent the evening with.  Another of the friends I met up with had seen razor cuts on my stomach when I stretched while wearing a short t-shirt at college.  The shame I felt when she confronted me.  Not being able to explain that he had done that to me.  Cut me with a razor.

 

While travelling to and from meeting with these friends, I was reading Getting Off by Robert Jensen, an excellent book about pornography and masculinity.  Throughout the book it describes in detail the forms of sexualised violence that exist within pornography.

 

I have been married to Mr GLW for nine years and free from my ex-husband for eleven years.  In that time, I have done a whole lot of healing and have discovered that sex can be awesome and life giving.  However, the same body that I inhabit now is the body I had when my ex-husband sexually violated me, and previous to that it is the same body I grew into whilst being sexually abused  by a neighbour.

 

Reading Robert Jensen’s book, I was reminded of the many ways my body was violated.  Of how my ex-husband used pornography to normalise that violation.  And how well that tactic worked.  I was convinced I should want all the degrading things that he forced upon me.

 

I read an article once where the author explained that the body takes seven years to completely renew all its cells.  She was counting down the years, months, days until that meant the man who raped her had never touched any of the cells in her body.

 

Christian culture loves the redemption narrative.  It loves the bad person who turns good, and the broken person who becomes healed.  Stories of women and girls “rescued” from human traffickers abound.  Stories about how many of those women and girls re-enter the sex industry, there’s not many of those being told.  We are sold the lie of full freedom this side of eternity.  Especially when there is no physical barrier to healing.  If someone has no legs, mostly (though not always) Christians will accept that there are challenges that person will face throughout their life.  With so called “emotional issues” rarely is this partiality of healing acknowledged.

 

Being raped happens to an actual physical body.  No amount of healing is going to undo what men did to me.  All abuse and trauma happens to us in an embodied way and Christian theology (with our Saviour who was born, lived, died and rose again in a physical body) should be much more aware of this than it is.

 

This body that I walk through life in has been raped.  It was degraded for a number of years and has survived my own attempts to kill and cut it.  I may be living in a place of great freedom, no longer constantly dragged down emotionally or psychologically by what was inflicted on me.  Yet, this body is the same body.  I type with the same hands.  I talk with the same mouth.  I walk with the same feet.  This is my body.

 

I don’t have some big revelation to conclude this with.  I felt compelled to write about this because I know that I am not the only one who is on this journey.  And if you’re reading this and are walking a similar path, please know that it is okay to never fully recover.  Living a wonderful life is not dependent on “getting over” the past.  Our bodies stay with us throughout all that we endure and (thankfully) all that we celebrate.  No matter how much physical distance or passing of time there is or renewal of cells our body goes through, we can’t leave it behind, for our body stays with us.  And though the pain and horror is difficult to overcome, it can be okay.  And we can be okay.

 

 

[1] This is changing within PTSD treatment, with practices like Somatic Experiencing.

In The Dead End

Sometimes it’s in the dead ends that we learn the most.

 

This week has not been the easiest of weeks.  About six months ago Mr GLW and I felt God had called him to apply to become a police officer.  He had been a Special Constable (volunteer police officer) with the Met Police for a number of years and for the last two or three he had occasionally suggested that becoming a fulltime officer would solve various problems we kept happening upon, mostly related to our main income being my freelance work and the lack of security that gave us.

 

I’d always been very against this idea as I wondered how I would do all the stuff I’m Meant To Do, if I had to be a full time parent AND police spouse.  However, within the last year as I prayed and journeyed with God I became convinced that Mr GLW should apply, that God was in it and I felt a lot peace about it all.  I didn’t really want to be going down that road, but obedience to God takes priority, always.

 

So I began the rather painful process of accepting that my role was changing.  I’d become so used to being a freelance specialist, with the freedom to work whenever, while Mr GLW stayed at home and looked after the children.  Even when he began part-time work with a local charity a couple of years ago, I could basically work whenever and left many of the caring and household responsibilities to Mr GLW (and he was a lot better at it all and like it a lot more!).

 

I spent a lot of time praying and grappling with my changing role.  Why was I so resistant to becoming “just a mum” when my feminism insists that tasks culturally coded as women’s work are very important?  If everything I did was in obedience to God, why was it so much easier to be obedient to God when I got to do all the stuff I loved?  Even though I spend my life massively critiquing platform, why did it feel so hard giving up a career which presented opportunities to speak and write and have my voice heard?

 

The first day of the summer holidays was also Mr GLW’s first day training as a police officer.  I had spent the weeks previously frantically trying to get all my projects finished up, working long hours and being super busy.  Suddenly I became a fulltime parent in the summer holidays, with three children aged 4, 10 and 13.

 

(I should mention that just over a year ago, God called us to move my niece and her 3-year-old son halfway down the country to live with us, resulting in large upheaval in our life, which you can read about HERE.  Earlier this year it became apparent she couldn’t cope with being a parent and so we supported her to firstly get a job and then, when she couldn’t cope, we miraculously found an amazing Christian safe house for women where she could stay.  All this means that we inherited a four-year-old earlier this year, with all the challenges that brings, alongside having a marvellous ten-year-old with additional behavioural needs and an adorable thirteen-year-old with teenage rantiness.)

 

The summer holidays involved almost constant argument.  “He hit me.”  “He’s lying, I never hit him.”  “YES YOU DID.”  “Shut up arguing you two!  Mum can I go out with my friends…”  On and on and on.  There were also wonderful times.  Friends blessed us with a week’s holiday in their holiday home free of charge.  The kids enjoyed my more spontaneous parenting and things being different every day (except for Smaller GLW who likes everything to be the same every day and has a meltdown when it’s not).  Early on I found Smaller GLW wailing in his bedroom.  “Why has daddy left us all ALOOOOOOONE?” he moaned with tears rolling down his cheeks.  “He hasn’t left you alone, I’m here” I said while patting him.  He howls and informs me, “Well that’s basically the same thing.”

 

Weeks three and six were the worst.  By week six I was ready to give up.  The exhaustion.  Never having a minute to myself.  The lack of capacity to think about anything but when to load the dishwasher and put the washing out.  I’d had a weekend away with God in June and “courage” was one of the words God gave me for the year ahead.  At the time I had been mildly concerned about that.  Courage?  I’m usually quite courageous.  Challenging injustice.  Saying the things no-one else wants to (vagina, vagina, clitoris, vulva).  The idea that courage was going to be needed for the year ahead had concerned me slightly.  Week 6 of the summer holidays, enduring bickering, arguing and Never Any Silence had not been what I envisaged as The Courageous Act.  Yet it took all of my energy to keep going.  Courage is the still small voice that says “I will not lock my children in a room and run away, I will cook their dinner and tell them I love them instead.”

 

Last week was back to school and things began to improve.  I began thinking about the MA I’m starting later this month with London School of Theology (I am getting it free and don’t have a first degree so I am calling it the Miracle Masters).  Everything was becoming calmer and I had begun to really embrace my role as primary carer.  I had a system for cleaning, we’ve been doing after school beach trips because of the Global Warming induced hot weather and we’d all basically adapted to this new life.

 

Alas, this was short lived!  Mr GLW had been struggling with the training.  He’s 45 and the training is full of twenty somethings who live at home and can revise and have the headspace for remembering ALL THE LAWS.  Having lived with me for nine years, Mr GLW’s unhealthy power dynamics radar goes off rather quickly and the system and structures were hard to deal with.  He was struggling with the hours, with the lack of time to spend with the children and me.  Everything felt unmanageable.  So he began suggesting that we had a made a mistake.  Clearly God had not called us down this road.  We had got it wrong.

 

I married Mr GLW because God told me to.  I moved house twice to locations God told me to.  I have taken jobs because God told me to.  I have left jobs, because God told me to.  My life belongs to God.  Everything I do is in obedience to God.  And usually Mr GLW is on-board with that.  Not last week though.

 

He wanted to believe that if things were going wrong, it must be that we somehow misheard God, on numerous occasions, in numerous ways and through numerous circumstances.  I have dealt with many painful and horrendous things, and I am able to do that in the full assurance that God loves me, and that through Jesus and in the power of the Holy Spirit I can follow the path He guides me to.

 

If we are fully submitted to God and we live in full obedience to Him, when things go wrong, that doesn’t mean we heard Him wrong.  It means that things are not going how we envisaged they would.

 

Often when things go wrong, “why” is the biggest question.  If we could understand why then we could move on.  Yet why is about gaining control.  If I understand why, I can fix it, change it, move on from it.  But the book of Job suggests “why” doesn’t get us very far with God.  For Mr GLW and I, this journey has yet again taught us that it is not “why” but rather “how” that is the most important thing to ask.  “How do we get through this?”

 

Mr GLW continued to try and make the job work, but on Tuesday morning at 3.30am I found him awake, anxious and having had various nightmares.  Clearly it wasn’t working and he couldn’t cope.  So yesterday he resigned from the training.

 

I currently have hardly any freelance work.  Having not been doing much freelance stuff over the summer (because it’s hard to work when children are arguing about who did what and why and that they are the one who is definitely right) we have very little in the way of next steps for having enough money to live on.

 

I have spent six months adapting to a new life.  Psychologically and emotionally it has been painful and sacrificial.  Practically it has been exhausting and meant me fitting myself into a role I was never made for.  And now it’s all going to change again.  I’m going to go back to being a freelance Gender Justice Specialist and Mr GLW will become the stay at home parent.

 

Sometimes it’s in the dead ends we learn the most.

 

Mr GLW has tried things the way he thought they would work.  And they didn’t.  I have learned a whole lot about myself.  We have discovered that living unconventionally is our call and that is something to embrace.

 

In the last week God has spoken to me in various ways.  Listening to Biffy Clyro on Radio One the other day and one of the band said that his favourite lyric was,

“Take the pieces and build them skyward.”

In the midst of feeling broken by this whole situation, it was a glimmer of hope.

 

I’d randomly bought Stuart Townend’s album “The Journey” after hearing a song from it at a friend’s commissioning service.  While going for runs in the morning, I’ve been listening to it.  From one song came the lines,

“Not what you give, but what you keep, is what the King is counting.  O teach me Lord to walk this road, the road of simple living;  To be content with what I own and generous in giving.  And when I cling to what I have please wrest if quickly from my grasp; I’d rather lose all the things of earth to the gain the things of heaven.”

As I ran and listened, was the truth my heart held to.

 

From another song,

“It is well with my soul when the storms of winter blow, and the cares of this world take their toll.  In the heat of the day there is grace enough to say, it is well, it is well with my soul.”

 

I preached a sermon on Sunday that I wrote late last year for the Sermon of the Year competition.  You can listen to it HERE.  With hindsight I see that it is a sermon I have spent my year living out (the old adage goes “be careful what you wish for” but for preachers perhaps it should be “be careful what you preach on”).  In it I said,

“Sisters and brothers, we have access to a hope that can set the world alight. Yet because of God’s grace, He allows us to contain it. He allows us to hold just enough hope to know we are saved, without forcing it to change us, to make us people of the deficit.

 

We have a hope that could set our lives and our communities ablaze, yet we are sitting too comfortably.

 

Until we are willing for God to disturb us, to take us outside of comfortable, then He won’t. And though we have a reason to hope, we have no need of it. No need of it at all.”

 

God has called us into a dead end and it’s painful and difficult.  But there is no place we’d rather be.

 

 

 

Proudly Working Class

I’ve been having ponderings and Twitter conversations with various people about class over the last week or so.  The big influences in this have been @jo_planet and @siansteans, two awesome, working class women who were sharing their experience of being working class and THIS post by @psycho_claire and something clicked for me.  They were describing various experiences that I have had; being excluded, being patronised, being passed over, yet they were placing those experiences within a context of class based oppression.  It’s been a real lightbulb moment for me, shining a light on something that has niggled at and deeply affected me for my whole adult life.  Suddenly this stuff has a name and a shape.

Until this lightbulb moment, I always saw being working class as something to be proud of.  With no framework to label my negative experiences as class based oppression, I was left assuming that the way I have been disadvantaged were due to my personality, that it was a “me” thing, not a “working class” thing.

I am proud because my working class identity means…

1. Community: Our homes are closer together, we don’t have detached houses.  We don’t get to opt out of each other’s lives, we can hear what’s going on next door, our kids play together and we have to navigate conflict and disagreements, while still having to live close together.

2. Honesty: We don’t have all those “airs and graces”, we say it how it is. You know where you are with each other, if someone’s angry, they tell you.  It doesn’t make for serene lives void of conflict, but your friends are your friends and they’re loyal even if they tell you when you’re being an idiot.

3. Compassion: My brother and I have taken very different paths; he left his working class roots behind as he went to university, becoming a corporate barrister.  He socialises with judges and (I kid you not) celebrates the wonder of Margaret Thatcher.  He is oblivious to the disabling impact of poverty and mocks homeless people suggesting they lack a good work ethic.  His blindness to poverty leads to a compassion deficit.

I’ve always had the vague prejudice against posh people middle class people, assuming they are heartless and unable to get the reality of poverty.  I have had to address that prejudice and have met some awesomely kind and generous posh people.  But there is something about the working class people who’ve come alongside me and known what it was to struggle with poverty and disadvantage.  We’re advantaged in the compassion department because we’ve known what it is to struggle and continue to struggle.

4. Faith: This for me has been the biggest thing.  And it’s not a working class thing per se, but my experience of the intersection between faith and disadvantage.  I became a full-on Jesus follower at the worst time in my life; in a hospital as a single parent with a very sick baby and a traumatised toddler.  I had no home, I had lived on benefits for a number of years, having been raised in a poor working class family with middle class aspirations.  In a place with nothing and nobody I discovered the awesome grace and provision of God, and I haven’t veered from that in the last ten years.  The greatest blessing for me of being working class is I’ve got nothing to rely on but God. Jesus was right, blessed are the poor!

What I’ve discovered in the last week is that these very aspects of my class identity that I’m most proud of, are the things that disadvantage me in middle class contexts (including church).  People see me in this way:

1. Community Too intense: We shouldn’t be THAT involved in each other’s lives.  There should be distance and space.  We need to be independent of each other, there’s boundaries and appropriateness that must be ADHERED to.

2. Honesty Too impolite: I don’t say things gently enough, with enough prefaces or in a way that doesn’t offend.  I say it as it is, and that’s too much for people to manage.  They need it to be POLITE.

3. Compassion Too simplistic: I don’t understand know about complex theories like trickle down economics and so if I’m going to challenge equality, my offering is going to be too simplistic.  When I say that people SHOULDN’T BE POOR, I’m told that it’s much more complicated than that and that my personal experience is always trumped by academic rigour.

4. Faith Too stupid: This year Stephen Fry used the example of a fly that burrows into a child’s eye as justification that God can’t be real.  Yet we find that the children and families who actually have dealt with the burrowing eye fly are more likely to believe in a loving God than Stephen Fry is.  Because when you have nothing, God can become real very quickly.

I read Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” in the summer and in it she ponders this, “I find it interesting that the meanest life, the poorest existence is attributed to God’s will, but as human beings become more affluent, as their living standard and style begin to ascend in material scale, God descends the scale of responsibility at commensurate speed.”

The big difference between middle class and working class people is the Middle Class Cushion. When working class people fall, there is no cushion to catch us.  There’s no spare room in our parent’s house sleep in, no Trust Fund, nothing.  And the lack of that Middle Class Cushion affects all aspects of our life.  The risks we can take, the choices we make, the careers we embark on.  I was talking to Hannah Mudge (who has written THIS great piece about Christian culture and class from a Middle Class perspective) about gap years and ideals of faith that are celebrated from the platform; of young people taking on unpaid internships, of missionaries supported by large financial donations.  But for working class people, even if we get a good job or embark on a career that will give us security, we are still plagued by the risks associated with not having a Middle Class Cushion.

The decisions we make and the risks we do or don’t take, the way we spend our money and the priorities we have are judged as stupid or primitive by people with a Middle Class Cushion.

I have much more to say about this, but time is limited with our family circumstances having changed, so part 2 will have to wait for now…

Supermarket Christianity

After doing a one-woman protest at the Hillsong Conference last week, Christian Today writer Mark Woods interviewed me. He asked whether I thought the protest had been a success. It got me thinking about what “success” is.

The Christian model of success seems to mirror the world’s view; it’s numerical… The more people that buy into your brand, attend your event, buy your books. That’s how you know you’re successful. There are Christian courses about building your online platform, growing your personal brand and blogging for success.

By those standards, my protest wasn’t very successful. It was me. On my own. By numerical standards it was 8000 (or more) to 1. By those standards, it was a failure.

However, Christian culture’s valuing of things isn’t God’s valuing of it. The kingdom of God is in the weeds that push through the pavement cracks, in the birth of a human child over 2000 years ago, in the smallness and in the whisper.

It seems in the Bible there is something significant about numerical growth. In Acts we hear of people joining the faith constantly, of meetings where thousands were added to their number. We hear of Jesus feeding the five thousand and the crowds that followed Him wherever He went. Yet, within Christian culture it seems success is measured solely in numerical terms.

I’ve been pondering Christian culture’s tendency towards numerical success. It’s led me to thinking about mega-churches and Christian brands. Hillsong, HTB, Bethel, New Wine, Soul Survivor, Spring Harvest. And the human brands within the wider brands; Osteen, Meyer, Houston, Hybels, Warren, Dollar, Driscoll, Gumbel.

It seems we currently have a dominant Christian model of “Supermarket Christianity”. Everything is pre-packaged. Shiny and new. Every taste is catered for. You can go to one church and have all your needs met. Supermarkets aren’t fundamentally evil, they meet the needs of people with busy lives. People who don’t have the time or skills to grow their own food or milk their own cow (if the even have a cow at home any way…).

In the same way, most mega-churches (and even a lot of regular churches) aren’t evil. They provide for people who don’t have the time or skills to take on their own spiritual growth. In a church where there are few creative people, an Alpha Course is a great package to begin conversations with non-Christians about God. Many amazing ministries have been birthed out of events like Spring Harvest and Soul Survivor. Supermarket Christianity is not evil.

However, though supermarkets are not evil. They are perpetuating injustice. There has been an enormous increase in food insecurity as supermarkets buy food overseas and have it shipped over to the UK. They don’t pay staff a Living Wage. They prioritise profits over ethics. And now we are all reliant on them. We can’t live without them. We are dependent on them. I don’t know how to grow vegetables. I can just about keep children alive, but give me a plant and it will be dead with a week.

In the same way, it seems that Christian culture has become reliant on Supermarket Christianity. Rather than learning to hear God’s voice for ourselves, we seek out another book/sermon/worship song to tell us what God thinks.   We read more words about the Bible than the Bible itself. We expect Supermarket Christianity to meet our needs. With pre-packaged courses and sermons for every situation. Instead of considering the needs in our community and how best to represent Jesus to those who don’t yet know Him, we simply put on an Alpha Course. Supermarket Christianity isn’t wrong. Supermarket Christianity as the default is.

I’ve been part of Christian culture long enough to have seen Supermarket Christianity as the answer. Growing up in a medium sized Anglican church, I was attracted to the idea of thousands of people in one place, cool preachers and the general largeness of Christian youth events. I thought that’s where people grew in their faith. And for some people, large events are where growth is found. Yet, there’s something slightly off kilter about our relationship with God being reliant on things that aren’t God. That aren’t local church or the Bible. That are branded and shiny and new.

I knew a guy who would always start to lose his connection to God in September. “But don’t worry!” He told me, “This always happens around this time, then I’ll go to Spring Harvest at Easter and I’ll get time with God and everything will be okay again.”

Maybe it’s partly that my faith didn’t grow large at an event or through a popular Christian book. Maybe it’s just my experience that makes me sure that Supermarket Christianity is not that way. And if so, then I’ll just keep walking the road that God has placed me on. But it feels like more than just my experience.

It seems that Supermarket Christianity allows us to vicariously live faithful lives through the testimonies of people who give up everything for Jesus. Just as the Tesco aisle invites us to have a “taste of India”, believing we have become more exotic for eating a pre-packaged meal made somewhere in Milton Keynes, so we hear the stories of people who are doing amazing things for God and we feel filled with a sort of confidence that Christians are doing good things.

We can now donate to a food bank and buy fairtrade produce on our way round the supermarket; either ignorant or avoiding the many ways supermarkets contribute to the need for food banks and fairly traded goods. In Supermarket Christianity we can donate to projects or even set projects up, while still living our lives in ways that exploit the most vulnerable.

My faith was founded in the crucible of suffering and through learning to be obedient. I have learned that the measure of my faith is not the amount I am on the church rota nor the number of people who stand with me in that which God has called me to. Not everyone has the “opportunity” to find God in losing everything, so maybe this is my truth and not The Truth.

I am trying to live a “Smallholding Christianity”. One which relies on the weather that God sends, that involves taking full responsibility for my walk with Him. Learning to grow my own spiritual food and not rely on the pre-packaged kinds. It’s a lonely road as most people are still living out Supermarket Christianity. I think I might be allergic to Christian events now. The last event I went to I cried all the way home. Just as people who re-enter the UK after a prolonged time in the majority world experience culture shock going into a supermarket, with the choice and shininess. So I think I have developed Christian culture shock.

Someone sent me this quote the other day,

“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.” Mark Twain

I responded to Mark Woods by saying that I thought the protest was successful. God has taught me that success isn’t found in the numbers of people by your side, the number of books you sell, the size of an event. It is found in being fully obedient to God’s call. And we can only become obedient to God’s call if we learn to hear Him above all the other voices in our lives. Success is not found in this life, but in hearing, “Good and faithful servant” on the other side of eternity.

So you’re welcome to join me in discovering “Smallholding Christianity”, but I don’t mind if you don’t, I’m okay over here on my own…

Always Broken.

Content Note: This blog talks about self-harm.  

Today was difficult. It was one of those days where my brokenness presented itself to me, stark and true. Fissures in my soul, opening.

There’s been some challenges recently. My mum died in January and my grief is the sometimes realisations that comes with my mum’s terminal illness being less than four months from diagnosis to death. Personal and professional challenges collide in me, not big enough to be a crisis, not small enough to shrug off.

I’ve written before about my ex-husband; about what male violence does to the soul, about the reality of PTSD.

I hated myself. From age eight through twenty-two I was subjected to abuse. There’s specific ways men’s choice to sexually abuse destroys the soul. Shame and self-hatred reign. The feeling of being less than, of being impure and defiled drill deep into a person’s core. I began cutting my wrists when I was sixteen. I legitimised it the first time by making the shape of a cross on my skin. I’d been in church long enough to know “my body was a temple” and that cutting myself was a sin. I’d poured out my feelings on pages and in poems, yet in self-harm I found a coping mechanism that “worked”.

It’s been years since I cut myself, at first because of my children then through my experience of Jesus. Yet, no one tells you there’s no such thing as being an ex-self-harmer. When life is challenging, the desire to cut rises unbidden.

I was shaving my legs today and the razor twisted, an inch long cut, bright red blood. The need rose within me. I panicked. Alone in the house I knew it would be easy to go back to that place. I gathered the razors and rushed to lock them in the car

Out of the house. Out of harms way.

I rarely swear, but the f word forced itself out of my mouth as my brokenness rose from within me. Tears flowed. I wailed. Still broken. Always broken.

My twelve-year-old daughter and I went to the cinema to watch Pitch Perfect 2 this evening. It was wonderful. I left the cinema delighted vaginas had been mentioned, touched by the film’s primary focus on women’s relationships and lives. A scene towards the end with women of different generations singing together left me weepy. As we stood up to leave I was so pleased to have such films for my children’s generation. For me, Ten Things I Hate About You and Cruel Intentions were the most popular movies; the messages within them about gender and relationships are appalling.

My warm feeling didn’t last long. As we left the cinema, a drunk teenage boy and his friends were walking past. He asked me for a cigarette. I explained that I didn’t smoke. As I walked away, arm in arm with my precious pre-teen daughter, this young man shouted, “I bet you those two are twins. I would so bang them.”

Pitch Perfect immediately became a drop in the ocean. A momentary lapse within patriarchy. I drove home hiding the terror rising within me after witnessing one of the many ways my amazing girl is going to be objectified and diminished. In a space where boys have been raised on pornographies and girls are “banged”.

Yesterday my son’s six-year-old friend began objectifying the teenage girl who delivers papers. A little boy shouting after a teenage girl, displaying his understanding that girls are for looking good and being shouted at by boys.

It’s easy to see three isolated incidents. My personal struggles. An offensive teenage boy. A shouting little boy.

Yet the personal is political. The isolated incidents follow a pattern. I am broken because men broke me. They chose to break me. Men who started out as little boys believing that girls are for looking good and being shouted grow into young men who comment on how much they’d like to “bang” a twelve year old and her presumed sister.

Self-harm is very often a symptom of male violence. The man may not be pulling a razor across skin, but he rips her soul into so many pieces that it becomes logical to tear her skin into pieces too.

As we travelled to the cinema today, my daughter placed herself In Charge Of The Tunes. “Clean” by Taylor Swift came on. I’d never heard it before. She sang:

You’re still all over me like a wine-stained dress I can’t wear anymore

Hung my head as I lost the war, and the sky turned black like a perfect storm

Rain came pouring down when I was drowning

That’s when I could finally breathe

And by morning

Gone was any trace of you

I think I am finally clean

The Bible declares that Jesus died for our sins. That we are washed clean by His choice to give up all power, coming to earth, living a life of Truth and dying on a cross. We are “washed clean” because of Him.

This teaching has been warped by many. Responses to the Hillsong/Mark Driscoll petition have told me we should be forgiving him, not petitioning against him. Wiping the slate clean.

The Duggars talk of their son’s abuse being resolved in him finding Jesus. Wiping the slate clean.

Yoder’s sex offences are a gap between aspiration and behaviour, his important teaching is more significant than his choice to sexually abuse. He is a “well-known pacifist” despite violating over 100 women. Wiping the slate clean.

Women are not slates.

We are not slates that are wiped clean when an abuser repents, or purports to have. A woman’s healing is not linked to an abuser’s redemption. It simply does not work like that.

As I listened to the Taylor Swift lyrics I realised no amount of standing in the rain is going to make me clean. Jesus can stand with me in the brokenness, but He can’t wipe away the abuse and violation. It’s not Men In Black. There’s no zapping and the memories are gone. Women live with the consequences of men’s violence for the whole of our lives.

I’ll move beyond this day. Life will become joyous again. I will be okay. But the patriarchy continues. Little boys objectify teenage girls. Teenage men want to “bang” girls. Adult men rape, violate and decimate women in every country in the world. And the church colludes. And Jesus weeps.

The truth after the storm

On Friday I wrote a piece articulating my struggles with PTSD.  I’ve only recently begun writing about the ongoing consequences of my ex-husband’s choice to abuse me, mainly because I had this fear of people judging me as incompetent to do the work I do.  That somehow the ongoing impact of male violence on me would preclude me from contributing fully to addressing it.  I guess it revealed to me some of my own fears and prejudices.  That even though I work full time on ending violence against women and wider issues of gender injustice and though I would be the first to challenge language and attitudes which blame women for the abuse men have chosen to perpetrate, deep down the truth has been that I believed I needed to be fixed, no longer affected, in order to offer myself to the cause.

 

I regularly stand up and share my story.  A few years ago I spent time working at a few large Christian conferences for men.  More recently I have begun working with perpetrators.  And in all of those spaces, either telling my story, spending time within all-male spaces or working with perpetrators, I feel a responsibility to represent women well.  To not perpetuate the issues which lead to stereotyping of women, to challenge the misrepresentation of women, and when telling my story, to do it in a way that will challenge misconceptions, preventing anyone leaving after hearing me thinking that abuse happens to “those women, out there”.

 

I once spoke at a conference where I had been billed as “THE VICTIM PERSPECTIVE”.  I walked into the building with some other people attending the same event.  As we chatted about the day ahead, one woman said to me, “I’m very interested to hear the victim perspective.”  I responded, “Oh yes, it will be very interesting won’t it?”

 

After the event that same woman came over to talk with me, she told me I had shocked her, she would never have expected me to be a victim, that she would never hold those same views again.

 

Yet perhaps by sharing a story of being okay I have misled those who have heard me speak.  Perhaps those who are currently dealing with the impact of male violence or those with family and friends who have been hurt, I have suggested that there will come a day when everything is sorted, that being fixed is the aim.  Yet there is a sense that no matter how far we come, how good life gets; the pain of male violence doesn’t end.

 

This is why we must prevent it, why addressing the root causes of male violence; ownership, entitlement and inequality are so important.  Because once the damage is done, life will never be the same.

 

I attended an event called “Woman at the well” run by an organisation called Transformation Powerhouse a while ago.  During the evening one of the women leading the event said she had a word from God for me (I know those of you reading this without a faith may be a bit like “okay…” at this point, but bear with me).  She basically said that God had told her I have so so much love to give, but that fear is getting in the way of me offering it.  She (and God) are right.  My fear of being honest, of being judged too broken, of being patronised or disparaged has prevented me from offering my all.  Thinking that by telling of the pain as well as the victory would diminish me.  And yet the story shrinks if it is not told fully.  The ending of being fixed denies the truth of being broken.

 

I attended a session with a Human Givens therapist on Friday. I only needed one session in which she did something called the Rewind Technique.  It is an effective treatment for PTSD symptoms and basically resets the brain to factory settings and moves the trauma that has led to a serious episode from the lower brain (which deals with trauma) to the upper and then mid-brain which sees the trauma as a memory rather than an ongoing, current event.

 

I arrived at the session unable to communicate much, numb, exhausted and incapable of making decisions (anyone who knows me will realise that’s basically me losing my entire personality).  After the session I was back, my brain worked, I decided to go for food (both deciding and eating were impossible for me to do ninety minutes earlier) and I was able to think, laugh and generally be myself again.

 

Over the weekend I’ve felt quite fragile.  Although I’m back, social interaction is tiring and I’m vaguely subdued.  But I’m on way back to being normal.

 

So many people have offered their love, prayers and kindnesses over the weekend.  Texts, tweets, emails, direct messages, cake and offers drive miles just to sit with me.  Even when I felt unable to respond, the love and care has been much appreciated, so thank you if you are one of the many who have loved me!

 

I’m still the same person I was before I began sharing the downs as well as the ups, the feelings as well as the doings, but hopefully now I’m over the fear of being so vulnerable, I will bring more of the truth to this battle and as we know, it is the truth that sets us free.