Tuesday, 15 July 2014

It happened...and I'm still alive

Well, I worried and worried and fretted and flapped and chewed my fingers and asked 'What if...?' and the very thing that I feared so much has happened. 

Swimming. Source of endless angst for me as it necessitates getting my out of shape body out of comfy jeans and T shirts and into a garment that's small and tight and doesn't cover anywhere near enough of me. I read articles about how to choose a flattering swimsuit and I can never understand it. If it doesn't cover chin to ankle in dark coloured flowing fabric, preferably bias-cut, then how on earth can it be flattering? 

Anyway. 

I have Big hang-ups about the way I look, and I have started swimming again to try to get a big fitter, and (who knows) a bit thinner. 

I started swimming with the swimming club that my daughters go to, as they have a 'Masters' squad (ha!) that trains twice or three times a week and has in one lane a handful of older people that are closer to my level of fitness than the svelte gods and goddesses in the other five lanes. They sashay out from the changing rooms laughing and joking in their beautiful colourful swimsuits while I sort of skulk in my black one that's intended to make me invisible. 

Despite all this, I have been enjoying it.

I've perfected the art of draping my (large) towel over one shoulder, carrying my kitbag in front of my legs and scurrying between the changing rooms and the pool incognito with my hat and goggles on. You'd be amazed at how quickly I can arrange my things on the poolside and get into the comparative safety of the water if I time it right.

All this time (since February) I've been working on this. I know that it's unlikely that any of the other swimmers are particularly interested in my progress along the side of the pool, and I have repeated to myself over and over that I don't know any of them, and so what they think doesn't matter to me. 

And then. 

And then the devil upped the ante. At least I think it must be the devil's work, because no sooner had I started to get used to the way things were, things turned into a nightmare.

My older daughter swims three times a week with the same club, though at the up-and-coming end of it rather than the gasping for breath end. Sort of like the sublime to the ridiculous. There is one session a week that Elizabeth can't go to as she is committed elsewhere. Many of her swimming friends do attend that session, and it was always on a Monday at 5pm - 6pm.  This never mattered in the least, until they moved that session to 7pm - 8pm. 

This is the hour immediately preceding my swim. These kids, friends of my daughter, would be getting out of the pool just as I was getting in. Only a bunch of kids; eight, nine, ten, eleven year olds. Surely once they'd got over the hilarity of Lizzie's mum in a swimsuit and goggles surely the interest would wane? Maybe so, but the fear of being recognised by anyone made me blanch. 

Then, hot on the heels of that awful thought was another, more sinister concept. If those kids were emerging from the pool at 8pm, then their mums would be waiting in the changing rooms for them, just as I was stuffing my clothes in a locker and trying to sidle past to where the water is. 

The Sunday before this new arrangement started, I couldn't sleep. I worried and worried. I strategised that if I arrived ever so early and got changed in loads of time, I could maybe wait until the kids were just climbing out of the pool, which is the cue for the mums on the viewing balcony to get up and come down the steps to the foyer and changing rooms. In that minute while everyone was in transit, I could take my chance to dive out and down the far end of the pool, walking flattened against the balcony wall where they couldn't see me. This was the best plan I could come up with and hinged on split second timing. 

I worried and worried. I asked God to make me thin overnight (not for the first time). I asked for a mysterious blanket of fog to descend over the pool between 7.55 and 8.05pm.  I asked for courage, for discovery was inevitable.

I even had a dream about it that night; no kidding. I dreamed that I was in exactly this situation and I was so worried, but when I arrived that night at the pool everyone was leaving the building via one door, and I was able to enter through a different entrance at the other end of the building. Perfect! In my dream, my anxiety evaporated. Problem solved. I come in, they go out, and never the twain shall meet.  

In my dream, I said to myself, 'God will make it alright'.

I woke up thinking, 'God will make it alright'.

Of course, even that relief and reassurance, throughout Monday the tension mounted; I was aware on some level that it was unlikely that God would make it alright by changing the fabric of the sports centre in time for my swimming session. I seriously considered giving it all up and not bothering. If things hadn't already been so hard regarding this swimming thing, I might have decided to stop going at this point, but seriously it seemed that there had been one obstacle then another in front of me since I started this latest fitness drive that I am stubbornly convinced that it's the right thing to do. It must be doing me some good. It must. I don't want to be intimidated.

So Monday night came and I put my plan into action, and do you know what? It worked like a charm.

Nobody noticed me. Hallelujah.

If only that were the end of the story. The following week, the stress levels climbed, the same situation, and one of the kids pointed at me and waved. A couple of weeks later and I got cheers and a round of applause from the balcony. Several of the mums have asked me about the swimming; some of them have laughed. One pulled a disbelieving face and said, 'You?!'

Yes, me.

Some of the mums have said how brave I am (they don't know the half of it), and one or two have congratulated me. A couple have even confessed to a degree of envy. On the night of the embarrassing applause, one of my fellow swimmers said, 'Take no notice. You're having a go, they're just up there sitting down.'

This week I swam and as I walked onto the poolside half a dozen of the children waved and smiled. I waved and smiled back, and I didn't glance up to the balcony (with my contact lens out I don't see very much, anyway). I had a laugh with a few other swimmers in my lane, learned some things, swam a personal best and I'm starting to master the butterfly.

Yes, me.

So here's the thing that I need to keep hold of.

The thing I feared happened, and I'm still alive. They found out about me, they saw me, they laughed at me (but not all of them; and that's important), and yes, it was pretty much as bad as I thought it'd be, but I'm still here. The world is still turning, and I am still swimming.

Progress-wise, hmm, well, who knows. I scrutinise my body and the scales for signs of a dramatic up-turn in health, but if there are any, they are so gradual as to be imperceptible, but that's alright. I didn't get out of shape in the space of a few months and so getting healthier will be a slow process too, I guess.

I'm thanking God for two amazing things that have happened to me lately.

1.  I am actually enjoying myself.

2.  I am not afraid of being seen any more.

Well, not as afraid as I was. I don't relish the long walk to and from the changing rooms, but if I meet someone I know I no longer feel that I might die. This is a very small thing on one level but on another, for me, a Very Big Thing.

God did indeed make it alright.




Monday, 7 July 2014

Revelation


I feel the need to preface this little moment of insight with apologetic words; I am quite sure that many people have long understood and accepted this simple yet life-changing idea and have built their life on it. If they were to stumble upon this they might shake their head and wonder why I'm making such a big deal of it. Of course God wants us to trust Him with it all. Of course we are of value; Jesus died for us. 


I'm sorry; I never really got it. Not in the 'changes the way you see everything' sense. Head knowledge, not heart knowledge; there's a world of difference.

I'm not sure I've got it yet, to be honest, but I had a glimpse. Like once before, ( The View Looking Backwards - was that really three years ago?!) I think there's a place in my life where there's a kind of viewing platform. There's a mountain range that I'm climbing, and every time I get to a summit it turns out that there are more mountains and I have to descend and climb another one. 

Somewhere beyond this range there's a final mountain, and at the top there's a place where you can stand and turn round, and see how very far you've come; how many mountains you've climbed. 

What's on the other side, I have no idea, but it's better and more beautiful and easier walking than this. 

So here it is. Be gentle.

I was nine, and in the middle of a game of rounders on the school field when I first compared myself with the other girls in their navy blue PE knickers and realized that I was bigger than most of my classmates. 

The realisation came with a sense of shock; I'd never given much thought to my body; it did what it was supposed to do; I was quite good at sports and had plenty of energy. I looked about at the slender and slim one day with different eyes and realised that there was considerably more of me. 

My head filled with static. I can remember it now.

That day was born an acute sense of self-consciousness and shame. 

I longed to be slim, and for thirty-four years my self-esteem has ebbed and flowed in direct correlation with the numbers on the scales.

And then, the slow revelation.

My longing to be slim is a longing to be approved of by other people, to be thought beautiful by the world’s standards. 

By 'the world' I mean 'other people' as a huge homogenous group. 'Them' as opposed to me. I'm aware that world in its entirety has no interest in the size of my thighs, but whether we like it or not the society we live in dictates what is acceptable in terms of beauty, acceptable behaviour, all the social norms and to reject those dictates is practically impossible because of the pervasive, subliminal, insinuating nature of the brainwashing.

In our culture thin is acceptable, fat is not.

It soon became apparent after that day on the rounders field that the world did not find me beautiful; it was not possible. I didn't look like any of the girls or (as time passed) women I saw all around me. I was the wrong shape. I weighed too much. I remember one science project when we were aged eleven where all the class had to be weighed and measured and I cried the night before and I hung back in the hope that the other kids wouldn't notice the number on the scales. They did. One girl came up and read it off the little dial and announced it loudly to the rest. 

I wanted so badly to fit in. I still do. I still don't like what I see in the mirror even though I know how completely I am loved and accepted by my heavenly Father. 

But I am realising that setting so much store by what Other People Think is a lack of trust in the only One whose opinion matters.  My wanting to be loved by the world is a lack of trust that God will meet all my needs, emotional and otherwise, and so I’ve been looking elsewhere for affirmation and security. I put the opinions of others before God’s.

I realise that to court the friendship of the world is a big mistake. If I ever did manage to gain entry to the gang, she'll turn out to be the worst kind of friend. 

If I get thin enough to meet with her approval, my nose will be too big, or my laugh too loud, my ideas wrong, or my faith unacceptable. I can alter and tinker and edit myself to try to fit in over and over again, but ultimately I'll be rejected because I am just too old to fit her image of perfection. My needy membership request will time out; if indeed it hasn't already. I will never, ever measure up, because the bar will always be raised just out of reach.  

If my daughter at school met a girl who treated her like this, I'd advise her to seek friendship elsewhere. I've said a thousand times, 'A friend should make you feel good about yourself, not bad.' And yet the world made me feel bad for being me, and for decades now I've let her get away with it. She's nothing but a bully.

I feel so sad for those actors and actresses who are defined by their beauty and then feel forced to pursue it relentlessly as it fades; surgery and make up, carrying on a pretence that they still have what was so prized for a fleeting season in their youth. This is not to say that they aren't still breathtakingly beautiful, but the world - she is fickle and demanding. She will always criticise and wrinkle her nose; discard people who no longer fit the mould, even if they were once celebrated and revered. There will always be a new, youthful star with taut skin and pert breasts and full lips, no wrinkles, no stretch marks. 

I never realised that it was a question of trust. I can't trust the world, for she will aways let me down, talk behind my back and find a reason to criticise me.

Well, no more.

God wants me to look only to Him for my value, for only He sees things clearly. Everyone else's opinion is limited and fallible and bound in by what this broken world thinks.

God made me and He doesn’t make mistakes. God is the Good Friend. He is never making impossible demands of me, and when I struggle to meet them, making more. He never asks me to be thin when I'm not, to be young when I'm getting older. God will never make me feel like I'm never picked for the netball team. I am chosen

I am loved beyond what is reasonable, right now, as I am. All of me. I am not too heavy for Him; my heavenly Daddy can lift me onto His shoulders and carry me effortlessly. No matter how much of me there is, the most beautiful part of me is Him. 

I am a daughter of the living God and I make His day. It says so in the Bible. Zephaniah 3:17. This is from the Good News Translation and it's definitely good news. 
The Lord your God is with you;
    his power gives you victory.

The Lord will take delight in you,

    and in his love he will give you new life.
He will sing and be joyful over you...
He is joyful over me. Some translations say He exults over me. He celebrates who I am. He loves me enough to die for me, just as I am. Every wrinkle, every scar, every grey hair, every inch of me.

No wonder God has never granted my prayer to wake up one morning a size ten. If He had done that for me I would still be dependent on the size on the label for my sense of worth. He wants me to trust Him; to trust that I am loved, and to love Him back. 

He wants my heart, and unlike the world, He'll take care of it. 

I trust you, Lord. 



Lord God, take this little glimpse of what might be and turn it into something that I know really down deep in the heart of me. 
Take head knowledge and turn it into heart knowledge. Help me to walk taller because I know that You delight in me.  


I want that to be enough for me. 


That enormous, life changing, gobsmacking revelation to be enough. It amazes me that it isn't; that I still want the people in the swimming pool changing rooms, the mums at the school gates, the people in the clothes shops that only stock clothes in small sizes - those people, whose opinions Do Not Matter - I still want them to approve of me, to accept me. I want to be acceptable. 


And yet, I am acceptable; I am accepted. 


Lord, in that verse from Zephaniah, you said that you'll give me victory. Please give me victory over this. I don't know what life might look like with this victory, but I am longing to find that viewing platform and see both how far I've come, and what the view is over the other side. 


Lord, thank you that you take delight in me, just as I am.

Let that be enough. 


Amen.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Fog in June

June is a busy month. I should really learn to expect it, but it creeps up on me every year.

June is that no-man's-land between Spring and Summer, starting with a half term and ending with the rabbit in the headlights realisation that the Long Summer Holiday is looming. June for me means my husband's birthday, Fathers' Day and my eldest daughter's birthday, as well as some painful anniversaries: my Dad died nine years ago on the day before hubby's birthday, and his funeral was two days before Elizabeth was born. Nine years ago, June changed for me from just another month to an emotional cocktail that seems to pack a more powerful punch every year.

So I should see it coming, perhaps, but I didn't. 

May ended on a bit of a high. A Writers' Weekend in the beautiful Yorkshire Dales, old friends, new friends, time spent laughing, crying and soaking up inspiration. It was one of those minor mountain-top experiences. Not an Everest of mountain-tops, but bigger than Ben Nevis. A Mont Blanc of weekends, maybe. I got some glimpses, scribbled notes and tried to pin down ideas, and came back home itching to explore further some of the things that God had whispered to me.

Some things about who I am/who we are as women of God, something about self-esteem and trusting the One who made us/about another way to live...freedom...peace...healing.

Big things, hey? Exciting! I was excited and energised. I felt as if I was on the edge of clarity. Not finding out the answers to all life's problems, but almost understanding that there was a place that I might get to where things are better than this. Where things I've struggled with for three-quarters of my life might start to be untangled and leave me a freer person; living in that peace that Jesus promised, that I've never been able to find. 

And wouldn't you think that right there would be the recipe for a period of great productivity, growth, spiritual exploration?

Some really good blog posts? 

Nope.

Just couldn't get going. I have a myriad of excuses; I was very tired by the weekend itself, the drive there and back, the early mornings and late nights, the emotional energy of all the processing, and of being surrounded by people, however engaging... I needed a bit of down time. A few days away from the computer. Too much to do, so little time. 

I find that I work through things best when I write. So often I start a blog post in one state of mind and finish in another; I understand things better when I write. I pick things apart and work out what's really going on and sometimes I surprise myself. I do this in my journal as well as on the computer, and so you'd expect that I'd be scribbling away madly after the high point of the weekend, wouldn't you?  As my computer gathered dust my notebooks would be jumping off the shelf? I'd need more ink? 

Nope.

That seemed impossible, too. Concentrating on anything seemed impossible. It all became terribly complicated until it was just too much.

Enthusiasm and energy leached away into lethargy. I put down my devotionals and started reading an old thriller. When I found out I'd read it before I carried on reading it anyway.

That just about sums up the last few weeks.

'Just too much' characterised June this year. Nine years ago I wept and wept and from a fog of shock and grief begged God not to let me go into labour and miss my Dad's funeral, and this year I've shed tears and begged God to help me fight my way out of another fog. He answered my prayers then, and I believe that in time He'll answer them now.

I don't know what's happening, but I know something is. I guess that sounds very odd.

I know there are lots of people who would advise me to stop thinking so much and get on with the everyday stuff, and I know they're right. I am a Myers' Briggs INFJ and I make heavy weather of everything.

I am not waiting for God to show me what He wants me to do with my life, I should get on with doing the things that He has already shown me I should do with it. I have a family, a home, school stuff, church stuff, writing stuff. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other. Yet I can't shake the feeling that it's a time of waiting, too. Active waiting, as a good friend said to me. Stopping, listening, trying to be still and wait until the swirling thoughts settle into something that I can see. I know He won't let me down.

So I'm trying to put something down, words on a screen, taptaptap on my little keyboard, fully aware that I make very little sense. I know that God won't leave me here. He is doing something - Aslan is on the move! - and perhaps He put His finger into the waters of my mind and heart and stirred them up until the pool is swirling cloudy so that in time something of worth that might rise up to the top.

I need to stop asking 'What? When? Why?' and just focus on who He is. There is peace in His presence, and I should nestle up close. Stop trying, and let Him get on with whatever He's doing. He'll tell me what's going on when He's ready.

I hope so. I do hope that the confusion and frustration of this month hasn't been for nothing; but He said that nothing is wasted. Not even the tears.

Well, there have been plenty of those.





Image credit:  whirlpool.jpg by pippalou
Courtesy of Morguefile.com. Used with permission




Thursday, 29 May 2014

Pulling the buttons off

The power of words has been on my mind a lot lately; words that build up or words that destroy. It's an easy thing to understand that words spoken over someone can encourage or damage them; there have been times in my life when I've been crushed by things said to me, and times when I'd been inspired. 

Words, words, words.

But something else kept nagging at me, and I realised that the power of words also extends to things that are said about someone, when they're not there. And that's a different kettle of fish. 

Everyone knows someone who's constantly running down other people, don't they? Anyone who's ever stood for five minutes in a school playground at pickup time would be able to identify a few people who don't seem to have a good word to say about anyone. Whether it's the shoes, or the hair, the tattoos, or the latest pregnancy, or the frequency that their kids get headlice, or the latest photos on Facebook or...or... anything. We all know people like that. The ones who have sharp nails and rip someone to shreds just for fun. Who seem to love the cut and thrust of the school-run and turn up twenty minutes early to get in some good gossip. 

I'm not like that, you know. If I'm early for the school pick up, I hang about at the end of the road or wait in the car until the children start appearing, and then dive in, deftly scoop up my offspring and scurry off, waving a few times and smiling like a loon. I don't do playground bitchery, so I'm OK, aren't I?

(Interesting note: my computer autocorrect tried to change 'playground bitchery' to 'playground butchery' there. I think that's pretty much the same thing, don't you?

So - it's not my thing. But wait a minute.

An unwelcome thought came to me: I'm no better.  I'm just different.

I think I am much more subtle. When I say, 'I think', what I mean is I haven't really thought about it much at all, until lately. Some things have happened that have made me consider more closely what I say, and how I say it, and I realise that I fall into the same trap as ScaryMum at the school gates, even though I got there by a different route. 

I love words and I use a lot of them. If one day it turns out that there was a quota of words assigned to each of us for use in our entire lifetime, then my last decade or so is going to be pretty quiet. There's nothing I like more than a chat over coffee with a friend, and I think this is where I come unstuck. the more you talk, the more chance you have of using words for the wrong thing.

How easy it is to make someone laugh at someone else's expense, then clap your hand over your mouth and say, 'Oops, shouldn't have said that!'  Easy to boost your own stock in a subtle way by making oblique observations about a person.  Criticise someone's decision, make fun of someone's mannerisms, pull a face when their name is mentioned. Easy even to pass on gossip under the guise of being concerned about someone. There are sophisticated ways of doing what ScaryMum does up front in the playground.

Then there are the occasions where it's not even you doing the talking. How easy it is to sit and listen and sip your coffee while someone else's reputation is chipped away in front of you. To smile and laugh and encourage the other person to offload their bitterness or irritation, legitimate or otherwise. Then place becomes strewn with the metaphorical corpses of all the people whose characters have been assassinated before you've finished your cappuccino.    

I had a dream a while ago that I puzzled over for days before it became clear. 

I was walking down a road near where I live. I passed a crowd of people who were excited and shouting (a bit like they used to do when two people had a fight in the playground, remember?)  As I walked past, I heard a shrill female voice yell, 'There she is! I'm going to kill her!'  I caught the eye of another lady and I grimaced at her. This could be messy.

 I hesitated, but decided that I'd better turn back and see what was going on. I wasn't going to let this woman murder someone. 

The crowd was shouting and screaming but I saw that the aggressive woman had hold of another, smartly dressed lady who looked frightened. The aggressor decided that she wasn't going to kill her after all, just 'rip her to bits'. 

'Ripping her to bits' meant that the angry lady was going to destroy the woman's fine clothes. The victim was wearing a designer outfit and the other woman was determined to ruin it. 

First of all she took her expensive shoes and snapped the heels off. The crowd cheered.

So relieved was I that there was to be no bloodshed that I decided to join in. I reached out for the victim's beautiful silk blouse and pulled it hard. It tore, and all the buttons flew off.

At this moment, I looked down and realised with horror that I was wearing the torn blouse.

And I woke up. 

I think that the dream tells me that when I collude with someone else to damage a person's reputation, I damage myself. When I pick the buttons off someone's life, or cut someone down to size I, too, am diminished. It might not be actual bloodshed, but wounds are inflicted nonetheless. And just as I pulled the buttons off her blouse, I exposed the nasty part of myself as well. 

I decided that I needed to be much more careful with my words. I mustn't score the quick point with a facetious comment at someone else's expense. I need to be careful what I say and what I listen to. I quickly realised how difficult it was. 

The newsreader had a new haircut and it made her look like a nuclear mushroom. A man interviewed in the street on the news had a painfully tenuous grasp of grammar. A politician said something that made my skin crawl and I couldn't resist making an unpleasant and personal remark back at the telly. And that was just in the course of the breakfast news. There was still an awful lot of day left to negotiate.

I have comforted myself by mentally pointing out to God that I'm not the worst. I know there are people who are much more vicious and open about their nastiness and gossip, but I know that it's no defence. If the pass mark for a test is 100% it doesn't matter whether you get 99% or 19%, you've still failed. I know that my sins have been dealt with my Jesus on the cross and that I am pure and forgiven in God's eyes, but the nagging thing for me is twofold:

1.  This is one of those sins that we tend to accommodate. We build it in and excuse it and we just accept that that's day to day life. Everyone does it. 

2. In the Bible, it says this:
'With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God's likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers (and sisters), this should not be.'  James 3:9,10
I don't want to be a person who sings praise to God and then is mean about someone over a coffee half an hour later. I don't want to be a person who writes a blog about living as a Christian and can be overheard in a cafe speculating about someone's private business. I don't want to be but I'm aware that I am sometimes exactly that person. 

We are held to a higher account, those of us that love Jesus and want to be different. We are looking for holiness. Our value comes from being daughters of God, not from other people's opinions of us, and if we need to bolster their view of us at someone else's expense, then we are doubly in trouble.

I was praying about this issue and trying to wriggle off the hook by telling God that it wasn't really a Big Thing, was it?  A picture came to mind of a fog. A swirling, dense, smog-like fog. Greeny-grey, and so impenetrable that when someone walked into the fog, they disappeared from view.

The fog is the business of talking about someone behind their back; using words to pull someone down. The whole gossiping, tale-telling, criticising, condemning malarkey that we all play at to some extent, from time to time. 

When you reach out to touch it, just to see what it's like, it sticks to you. The deeper in you go, the more grubby you get, until being dirty is the norm, and you've forgotten what fresh air feels like. 
You breathe in the toxic air, and if you’ve breathed it in, you’ll be dirty on the inside too and eventually you’ll breathe it out again, infecting those around you.

I don't want to live in the fog, Lord. 


I don't want even to play at the edges where I have the illusion of safety, but keep putting a hand in to find out how it feels. I don't want to be the sort of woman who feels better about herself by belittling others. I don't want to do this, but you have shown me how hard it is, how engrained in our culture, how petty meannesses and jokes at others' expense are considered socially acceptable. 


Father, I want to be different. (In a good way, please). I want to find positive things to say instead of giggling at the gossip. I want to hold my tongue no matter what the newsreader's haircut is doing. I want to bite back the clever remarks, even if they might win me a laugh. 


I want to build up, not destroy.

I want to encourage and inspire, not diminish and criticise.

I want the words that come out of my mouth to bring you glory.


Prayer:

Lord, shine your light to dispel the fog and show it for what it is. Burn it away so that it no longer stops me from seeing. Open my eyes to see it all around me and show me the danger of flirting with it by messing about at the edges. 

Send your Holy Spirit to give me the wisdom and strength to walk away from the fog. Make my words kind and gentle. May I speak your truth and nothing else. 

Amen

Thursday, 22 May 2014

A word fitly spoken


(This is the text of a talk last week at a Ladies' event at church: An Evening of Encouragement)

Have you ever had a moment when you realise something about yourself, something deep inside that’s been hidden for a long time, and it gives you a shock? Sort of like a wake up call from God?  Well, this evening for me is the end point (or maybe it’s not the end point at all!  Who knows what He has planned from here onwards?)  of a thought process that started with a bit of a shock a few years ago. It was one of those moments where the penny drops, and makes quite a thud.

I was surfing the internet, as you do when there’s housework needing doing, and I read a blog post about women and friendship. It was a beautiful post celebrating women and sisterhood and the support and encouragement and sort of connection that is specific to women. The special bond between a group of female friends. Maybe you can imagine that. Maybe you know exactly what the author meant. To illustrate her point, she’d taken photos of women at a local conference that she’d gone to. There were groups of twos, threes, fives, big happy, laughing, hugging ladies having a good time together.

You know what came into my head?

It’s not true.

Emphatically. The voice in my head was loud and angry.

It’s not real.

I surprised myself with my cynicism. It came from somewhere deep inside me that I hadn’t been aware of. These women had done nothing to me except stare at me from the screen looking as if they were having a great time enjoying each others’ company and being the best of friends, and yet I looked at them with a resentful suspicion that unnerved me.  I just didn’t believe any of that picture perfect friendship stuff – in fact it annoyed me. I studied their faces and tried to work out who was faking that happy smile, what they were really thinking beneath what was surely a facade.

I’ve no idea how this is going to sound to you – you might well wonder what’s been wrong with me - but the truth is that until these past few years, I’d never had a close female friend. As I was growing up, I had a few so-called friends, but they weren’t all they should have been. Maybe I picked the wrong girls, or the wrong girls picked me, and I was grateful to have been picked by anybody, but they were full of hurt and betrayal and unhappiness and they sapped a lot of confidence from me.

One day she’d be my friend, the next she wouldn’t talk to me. On the way to school I’d never know what day it would be. On the on-days she’d link arms with me and all would be well. On the off-days she’d tell the other girls mean things and laugh at me.  She’d do mean things, but the worst, it turns out, were the things she said. On the on-days, for my own good, she’d tell me that I was fat and ungainly and she’d advise me on who I should avoid standing next to because they were so much slimmer and prettier than I was. She told me that I’d never get anywhere, be anyone. She criticized the way I walked and the way I laughed.

Another she, years later, my tutor at university. I stood up to her when she made my friend cry, and she took me on one side and told me that my friends had told her bad things about me, but she wouldn’t tell me who, or what. I looked around at the people I shared the lecture room  with in a different way after that. I didn’t trust anyone any more. She told me that I had no integrity, that there was something wrong with me that other people could see.

Sticks and stones may indeed break our bones, but whoever said words can’t hurt was talking rubbish. Words can demolish people. They can chip bits off us and leave us fragile and wounded.

The more chipped-away-at we are, the more closed off we become. If we do recognize what we’re doing - and we might well do it all subconsciously and not think about it at all - we rationalize that we’re becoming more self-sufficient, saving ourselves hurt by keeping people arms length.  It seems a sensible solution, and it even seems to work.  

So I read this article about the wonderful miracle of women and the power we have to build up and I realized that I felt as if I had only really seen the power women have to bring each other down, and this had an escalating effect on my whole life. I would walk into a room, and be immediately intimidated. I have to say, it’s a bit better, now, but it’s still a challenge for me. The voices that tell me the lies about those women are still there, and I have to work hard to shut them up. (I’m a work in progress).

I would walk in, and assume that everyone was looking at me and criticizing me. What I was wearing, my make up, my face, my words. They would noticing every flaw that I’d tried so hard to conceal, physical and emotional. My bad hair day, the spot on my chin, the fact that my jeans were a little bit tighter than they were last month, my confusion and lack of confidence. They'd look at me when I walked in and talked scathingly about me when I left. Something inside me was programmed to believe that this is what other women do. To each other.  My default position was one of apology and defensiveness. All that because of words spoken to me years earlier.

If I’m honest, I was afraid of other women. I was fully aware of their power. Women can destroy each other with a look, a remark, an expression. We can crush. We may not do it with our muscles, but the devastation is complete.

The thing is, God can do amazing things. However, it’s a bit uncomfortable when He starts operating on an area of your life that you never knew needed surgery. The wake up call for me was when I saw this article, but He’d already been working lots before that. I do know what friendship is, now. It’s taken me this long. I know what it’s like to have friends who are gifts from God.  People who know me and stick with me, keep my secrets, comfort, inspire and encourage me, and talk sense into me when I don’t have any of my own. People who speak truth to me.

People who’ve helped God counteract the lies spoken to me over the years.

Words from my childhood and university days had caused fairly deep damage to my fragile self-worth, my image of what friendship could be, and even my view of other women.

It comes down to the power we have and how we use it.   We have the power to change people’s lives, and we need to realize that and use it to change them for the better, and not for the worse. You can chip away and undermine, or you can do quite the reverse. The girls and women I’ve been talking about used their power deliberately to damage, but we can learn how to use that same potential to build someone up, and the results can be just as dramatic.

Encouragement is a wonderful term that has inside it a whole host of possibilities.

It means to inspire with courage, spirit or confidence – to help someone needing courage to find some. You can do it. I believe in you.

It means to stimulate by assistance, approval – to boost someone, to give them something that they can use to find more inside themselves. To let them know that you’re on their side, that you’re cheering for them. To lift someone up, to take them higher, to remind them of how far they’ve come, how well they’re doing. To embolden, hearten, reassure, urge, support, help.

Aren’t they wonderful words?

Words are endlessly powerful, and a personal word of encouragement in the right place can have a huge effect.

It can make the difference between someone giving up or carrying on. The difference between winning and losing, hoping and despairing.  Something you say might be just the confirmation someone needs to make a decision, or try something new, or make a change. It could simply something that makes them feel a little better about things.

Encouragement comes in all shapes and sizes, and we shouldn’t dismiss the things that seem insignificant. Something that seems quite small can be quite powerful in God’s hands. A while ago I was walking up Chatsworth Road behind a lady. It was one of those awkward situations where you find yourself walking at just the same speed as someone in front and so it looks a bit as if you’re a stalker – you have this dilemma - do you speed up and overtake, thus having to continue to walk at a faster than normal pace all the way up a straight road, or do you hang back and dawdle, only to catch up again… maybe that sort of thing just happens to me.

Anyway, I was walking behind this lady, and I admired her haircut.  Is that familiar? You stand in a queue at the post office or somewhere, and admire someone’s jacket, or outfit or shoes or anything,  but you never say anything for fear of being thought odd or invading personal space. Well, I was walking up Chatsworth Road, staring at this lady’s hair, and it came into my head that on this occasion I should tell her how nice it looked.

Seriously?

I decided that if she turned right up Quarry Lane, I’d say nothing. 

She didn’t. 

If she turned up Vincent Crescent, I would say nothing. If she carried on, I’d say something.

We got to the junction with Vincent Crescent, and she didn’t turn off.  So, as we approached my turn onto Chatsworth Avenue, I accelerated slightly, drew alongside and said to her, ‘This might sound a bit silly, but I’ve been walking up the road behind you, and I’ve been thinking how nice your hair looks.’

I smiled at her, and made to walk away, and she stopped me. She said,

‘Do you really think so? Oh, thank you so much. I’ve just had it done at a different hairdresser, and I wasn’t too sure if it suited me. I’ve been worrying. I don’t think my daughter will like it. She liked it how it was, but I fancied a change. Thank you so much.’

It made a difference to her. I don’t kid myself that I did anything profound, but I believe that God nudged me to tell that lady that she had nice hair. He knew she was feeling anxious and insecure and through my words He helped her with that. She walked off a little straighter. 

I hope it helped her face her daughter with a bit of confidence, but even if her daughter didn’t like it, at least she knew that there was a strange woman stalker on Chatsworth Road who did.

God is in the business of encouraging. He cares about details like angst over haircuts, and He cares about the big whopping life choices that won't grow out in four weeks. He doesn’t want us to be closed off solitary individuals struggling alone in a crowd with our own neuroses and problems. He never meant it to be that way. He told us that we’re family, and we should be caring for one another. Helping each other with battles. Cheering for each other. Willing to be honest with each other about life and pick each other up when necessary, in a big way or a little way.

 Anxiety in a man's heart weighs him down, but a good word makes him glad.
Proverbs 12:25


Small encouragements are all about the pleasure of being noticed, thought about. That someone cared enough to consider me.  We all long to be approved of, affirmed. I have had several compliments about a particular shoulderbag of mine and I love it when someone says something. I always say, ‘Thank you. A friend made it for me.’  It gives me pleasure that someone shares my impeccable taste in accessories, but also that I have a friend who is so skilled and also that cared enough to make me something so beautiful.

There are big things, too.  Just now and again we get an opportunity to speak simple words into a person’s life, even if we might never know that that’s what we did. I think God gives the gift of prophecy to some people, but I think that much more widely He gives opportunities to speak words that find a home deep inside someone’s heart.

A few people did this for me: they spoke into the dreams that I have for my life, and I have never forgotten their words.  When I was nine, a teacher at junior school wrote in my autograph book, 

To the Daphne Du Maurier of tomorrow: keep on writing!’ 

My Dad had several books published and we were so proud of him. He inscribed one of them to me with the words, 

To Helen: may she write more and better books than this.’  

There are people in this room who have encouraged me who have no idea how precious their words were – and are – to me. I filed these things away in my heart and they continue comfort and motivate and inspire me.  I dream of writing something one day and these encouragements keep me going when the little voices in my head tell me that it’s been said already and said better than I could say it and I should just give up and open a packet of biscuits.

These are raw things; to reveal your dream to someone is a scary thing because they might tear it down. Again, it reminds me of the girl at school in whom I confided the same dream. She laughed and said, ‘Dream on, Helen.’ It hurt, but that's exactly what I did. I dreamed on. Because on that occasion the positive words of my teacher were more powerful than her bitter ones. Without that specific encouragement like a stake holding steady a vulnerable sapling, she might have uprooted my dream. 

 Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body.
Proverbs 16:24


Someone believed in me. Some days I feel able to take on the world, others completely defeated, but those words stay solid for me. When my teacher wrote that lovely line in my autograph book, I bet he had no idea of the impact it would have on me.

We have no way of knowing what God might do in the future to join up the dots and make our innocuous comment into something huge and powerful for someone.  The thing we say, the little tiny dot that we add – might be just one in a long chain that God is adding to a person’s life that will one day join up and become something amazing.

 A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.
Proverbs 25:11


Encouragement counteracts the vulnerability that we all feel when we fall prey to comparisons. Someone noticed something positive and affirming and bothered to tell me. My self worth takes a little boost. Someone once said that we are like buckets and life punches holes all over the buckets and our self-esteem pours out of the holes. When we encourage each other, we fix some of those holes, and we refill a little of the self-esteem that leaked out.

I think we’re doing a vital part of God’s work in encouraging each other. Encouragement is listed by St Paul in Romans 12 as one of the separate gifts in the Body of Christ, and maybe it’s true that some people have a special ability to discern an opportunity for encouraging someone, but I think there’s no doubt that each one of us is able to do it. It's what God told us to do.

Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.
1 Thessalonians 5:11


Prayer: 

Father God

Thank you that you care about every detail of our lives. There’s nothing too small or too big for you to be interested in and there is no wound too deep for you to heal.

Maybe there is someone in this room who feels that they have more experience with cold and painful words spoken over them in their lives and not so much hope and encouragement. Lord, we know that it’s not too late. We know that you can heal and make new. Reach into the depths of us, will you, and mend the bits that are broken?

We know that you are the Healer. That we don’t have to settle for wounds that won’t heal even if we’re used to them being there. We don’t have to tell the story of the way those wounds were inflicted and shrug and say, ‘That’s just how I am.’ Thank you that you are a God of restoration. That you want far more for us than this.

Teach us how to be encouragers, Father. To listen for your voice when you prompt us and be obedient to speak if you ask us to. To notice people, really notice them. To take opportunities to build up and point people to you, for you are the answer, whatever the question.

Teach us to want the best for each other, and always be on the lookout as to how we can encourage each other to keep going in pursuit of your best for us.

Lord, teach us more about the power that we have to change each others lives, and teach us how to use it wisely. Let us only bless, and never harm. Let us love, inspire, nurture, comfort and encourage each other.

In the name of Jesus Christ

Amen.


After this we made 'Encouragement boxes' where we decorated our own little box, and then wrote on small cards words of encouragement for each other. People were encouraged to pray for an individual and wait on God to see if there was anything specific that He wanted to say. We used scripture, wrote prayers, told anecdotes and gave thanks for each other. Everyone went home with a box of cards to read through and be encouraged by. 




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