I was in church this morning with a bunch of strangers. I did not bring my family and my friend who's my connection to the church wasn't there. Though I don't know her personally yet, the gal who spoke before the offering felt like a kindred spirit. She discussed a recent freak out moment she had when she went into her sewing room and saw all the beautiful fabric she had in there. I could hear the voice of unworthiness behind the tears she recounted to us, the feeling of needing to excuse or justify or apologize for such an expense. I know that voice well. It's the voice that tells me I can go longer without journaling, that I don't NEED to write. It sets guilt at my feet when I leave my family on Monday nights to go to my drawing class. It's what justified budgeting more spending money for my husband than for myself for years. I can do fine with less, so I give myself less. In everything.
Somehow I see my needs or wants as something to hit the snooze button on if something "more important" or at least more immediate presents itself. I can wait, I tell myself. Is this just my caretaking thing or does this speak into my experience as a woman? There's no doubt in my mind that we teach women to caretake both in our culture and in the church. We tell women to be less. Less emotional. Less vain. Less sexy (insert long rant about shaming women who wear leggings here!) Less catty. Less jealous. Less frivolous. Less talkative. Less expressive. Less needy. We want women to be quiet. Meek. Skinny. Small. I imagine men have their own struggles and certainly not everything is defined by gender. But do men really struggle with asking permission to be a person? Someone with real, vibrant needs that takes up space and has things to offer? I don't imagine that they do.
Perhaps my editing tendency comes from being a big person by nature. I'm loud, sensitive, emotional and extremely relational. I talk a lot, interrupting people I truly care about. Ironically, I interrupt because what they say resonates with me and I can't help but chime in. In spite of my close friends knowing this about me, I have a real fear of being "too much." That maybe I should just shut up. The more I go through counseling, the more I see how much I have edited myself. I thought I needed to be a lesser version of myself to fit into all the boxes I set up in my life. That my marriage couldn't work if I allowed my wandering spirit to roam. That my conservative church wasn't interested in what I had to say because I'm a woman. That my family couldn't function if I slowed down. How would shit get done if I didn't wear myself out? If I accepted my dirty floor? If I carved out room for myself to be big and small and everything in between, would I lose what matters most to me in the end?
I've found myself unpacking a lot of boxes. Theological ones, personal ones, relational ones. I am not nearly done. I'm grateful because some of that is starting to take shape. I'm attending a church that I don't dare speak of yet (it's too sacred and personal, but I'll get there soon). I'm filled with wonder time and time again when my dear husband steps back to make more room for me every time I let a little more out of the box. I keep thinking he won't want to see or hear something and you know what? He does. Every. Single. Time. He blows my mind.
Turns out, my hang ups are mine. Yes as I change, my long-standing relationships require some adjustment. But I've just got to stop asking permission to live my life. I am a woman. And the female experience is big. I am big. My life is big. And I have to believe that that's intentional. That my gifts and my self, repressed bits and not, are enough, good, valid and needed. That somewhere in the world is someone who benefits from me being me. And even if there isn't, I benefit from being me. And that's enough for now.
This is the third post in my series on personal values. If you missed the first two, you can read my posts about honesty here and kindness here. I'm really excited to talk about sharing. I originally thought of this concept as generosity or giving, but what I really believe in, above all, is sharing. Sharing connotes a certain level of value the sharer assigns to what is being shared. I think generosity (something I also really value) and giving can also include things that the giver may no longer need or assign value to. It can come from excess. Sharing has an elevated meaning to me. When I choose to share, I am offering a resource that I also need.
Let me share an example. I have two severe food intolerances. I have not gotten a chance yet to write about them and how life-altering it's been for me (and my family) to implement the necessary diet changes to keep me healthy and functioning. That being said, just about everything I eat has to be made from scratch. When this process began, I didn't particularly feel confident about my cooking abilities and the idea of cooking EVERY MEAL from scratch (as in, not even using pre-made ingredients) with a 4 month old baby, a traumatized kindergartner and a spouse recovering from a psychotic break felt pretty damn overwhelming. It was also the holiday season, so I missed a lot of the joy of food last year.
Back to the example. Because keeping myself fed requires what feels like hours a day in front of the stove, chopping vegetables and washing dishes, sharing my food is a big deal. If I choose not to share my food, it means I can eat out of that pot longer and I have more free time. And let's face it: most of the people in my life have a lot more food freedom, which means they can eat anything I want to share. When I choose to feed my friends at girls group, invite people over for dinner, give my children and my husband the specially-made food I've prepared, it's an act of love. I'm giving my food, yes, but I'm also giving my time, energy and heart (again, cooking feels vulnerable - have I mentioned I'm a perfectionist yet?!?!) Often my ingredients cost more so there is also a financial ramification (we have a very tight food budget). It means I may go a few days at the end of the month without that particular ingredient.
One of the things I like about sharing is that I don't HAVE to do it. When I'm weary of cooking and my friends are hungry or I want to offer the people in my home something to eat but I'm not in the spirit of sharing, I make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Sharing with healthy boundaries means that I share when I feel compelled to do so. I am under no duty or obligation to share (though this is not what most adults teach their children - what would happen if we actually lived like we expect our children to?) It also means I don't need pats on the back for it. I don't necessarily want the people I love to feel the hours of work I'm giving them by feeding them, unless it feels like a compliment. Because the sharing is not obligatory, there is no guilt in receiving the gift! It's an actual gift! (I think this is more what the Bible intended when encouraging giving without the right hand knowing what your left hand is doing, etc.)
Growing up in church, we were told that we needed to give because we were Christians (ironic, since this is by no means exclusive to Christianity). We were supposed to put money in the giving tray because we needed to pay the light bill. Giving must be thought out, planned and budgeted. It was about self-discipline, duty and obligation. We were giving because there was a need to give, not necessarily a desire to. What we put in that tray was a measure of our faithfulness to God. I learned a lot about what we call "financial stewardship" in church and I think there is some merit to it, especially in our consumer society. Our financial priorities should come out of our budget first. And to me, being a believer in Jesus, does require some sort version of giving, however that may be interpreted. I was on the receiving end in a big way of this giving when I was a missionary for an entire year after college. Writing checks can be really important.
Perhaps the danger in writing a weekly budgeted check is that it makes us feel like we're done giving. When we give because we're supposed to, and not necessarily because we want to, it inhibits our generous spirit. It creates resentment. Sharing feels more personal to me. It can be spontaneous or planned. It can include anything you want to share: money, food, clothing, books, coffee, time, childcare, flowers etc. Sharing requires relationship. When we live out of a spirit of sharing, we learn to share more. We find that our material possessions, whatever our resources, do not own us. We own them and have the freedom to do with them what we want. They don't control us. We learn to do without. We learn to listen to those around us. But here's the beautiful thing: we don't HAVE to share. We see needs and sometimes we feel compelled to share and sometimes we don't for whatever reason. I often find that my sharing spirit goes awry when I'm not taking care of myself. Such an important balance. You must give to yourself first.
One of the most amazing things I've learned from sharing is that things always seem to work out. I'm not in control of my life or my circumstances. Things could change at any time. But holding on to all of my resources doesn't change that at all. Not. One. Bit. Guess what, no matter how much you save, money will eventually run out. What doesn't run out when given love and care? Relationships. When you live in the spirit of sharing, it is also returned to you. It is in no way transaction-oriented. This is not tit for tat. Sometimes our community change as people move, divorce, die, etc. But when you have the back of people in your community, they will have yours as well. I get to share the things that others have shared with me. And it has made my life full. Instead of feeling resentful of "having" to give, I'm setting boundaries on sharing what I have and trusting that me and mine will be just fine. In fact, we might even be great.
Unfortunately, writing a blog about being a perfectionist does not negate the voice in me that wants each post to be complete in my heart and in my head before I post it. While there is something to be said about not just word-vomiting out there for all the world to see, I realize that my perfectionism may just be getting in the way of my writing...about my perfectionism. I'd like to share my story while it's happening, as I'm learning, in the middle of my process. That means that I may change my mind. I may later read my posts and be embarrassed by how unenlightened they may seem to me in the future. All I can say is, this perfectionist is willing to take the risk.
Perhaps that's why my post about no longer going to church created such a wave among the people I know and love, because most of us don't read articles by people who haven't landed on a conclusion yet. We don't speak in the dark night of the soul. We suffer in silence and speak again once we've come out on the other side. And then we do so with authority. It's a lot more vulnerable to put your story on the internet while it's still being written.
But that, my friends, is exactly how my series on my current values began, with honesty. It's not surprising to me that kindness is the necessary follow-up topic. My definition of honesty includes vulnerability and a willingness to be wrong. It's about breaking down walls. But honesty, without being tempered by kindness, can actually have the opposite effect. I've seen many walls being put up in the name of honesty. It comes down to posture.
It's not just about what I say or why I say it, but where is my heart in that moment? Now that I've been through a major job loss and identity crisis, I no longer assume that my life is secure, that the things I have are deserved or permanent. This gives me the humility to be gracious to the people around me. It allows me to share my money, my time, my humanity without being an asshole in the process. I don't assume I'm right, better, or safer than the person next to me.
This is probably my specific church background talking, but I often felt that being right (having the right biblical interpretation and applying it) was way more important than being kind. That kindness meant communicating the truth we had no matter how offensive it may seem to the listener. If we love the people around us, that must mean that we need to tell them how fucked up they are, right? That's what God would have us do.
But let's face it. It's not "good news" to tell the world around us that they aren't enough; they need to do more, be more, be better. That their choices are wrong, their political beliefs are against God and they're going to hell.
I'm not saying that truth has no value or that there doesn't come a time when we have to say hard things (nor am I saying I still believe the aforementioned ideologies). Real relationship includes conflict. I just think our priorities are wrong. If our goal was mercy, the love and grace of God would pour out of us and I am CONFIDENT that it would change the world.
So many problems in our world would go away if we spoke and acted with kindness as the goal. Often, I find our conversations and actions are motivated by pride (needing to be right or prove a point), fear (needing to be in control), or ignorance (an unwillingness to learn from others). What would happen if we looked at others as equally deserving as us? How would we treat the people around us if we knew what it was really like to be them? What thoughts would run through our minds when we witness a young mother with multiple snot-nosed kids in the grocery line cashing WIC checks or using food stamps? Would we think about how they're such a drain on the system? How they need to get it together? Or would we instead think for a moment about what it would be like to be that woman? How hard it must be to not have enough money for food? Or even more radical, admitting to ourselves that THAT COULD BE ME. We are all one moment away from being that lady. So, don't be annoyed when her multiple transactions take longer. Smile and be patient.
The people around us need grace, not grief. The world needs more kindness, more mercy, more listening. And when I say "the people around us", I mean US. We've got to stop being so hard on ourselves so that we can extend grace to the people around us. Be kind to yourself. Be kind to your neighbor. This is the work of God.
I've hesitated to write this post for awhile, though I think my ministry posts elude to a lot of what I have to say already. In my former life, the church was a big part of my identity and my faith process. I knew that my love affair with ministry fueled my own issues (my need for approval, my comfort zone of only being with fellow Christians, my need to be above reproach [this is Bible-speak for looking like a good person all the time], my need to be on the top of the heap [church is a hierarchy], and more) but I also knew that those ugly truths were in bed with the good stuff too (I honest to goodness cannot fake anything, so all appearances of commitment, love of God, goodness, belief in others, boundless energy for service were real). I didn't know how to separate my love for God with my love for ministry. Many people cannot see the absolute need to do such. I think we want to justify good behavior that comes from our own sinking holes of need because we think good behavior leads to good things regardless of motive. There's even something in the Bible to that effect (something about Paul saying that preaching Christ has value even if it's coming from a bad source). Plus, when we put all our hopes (and more importantly, the church's future) into our ability to do good things, how else can we move forward, knowing that all of us have coexisting good and bad motives?
It's hard for me to admit publicly that I'm not going to church. I fear, as all of us with ministry baggage do, that my story may serve as a discouragement or may be used as endorsement for all choices remotely similar to mine. I have secret fears of how this will affect my children. (I also simultaneously fear what the church would teach my child if she were there). I expect that some (many) will write me off as someone who has fallen away (lost their faith) or who does not keep my commitments (something I really disrespect). I want to clarify that within myself, I am really proud of my choices and am open to telling my story to certain people who I trust and respect, knowing that it's largely possible that they will understand where I'm coming from. But to admit this publicly, ONLINE, is a totally different thing.
I've worked hard to protect my "sacred space" (which oddly, sounds sexual, but not what I'm referring to). I define this as my soul, my theology, my self-concept, my heart. I am impressionable. I cannot be a part of a group and not identify with its larger story. Some of the lessons I am working to undo from my lifetime in church are essential to my personal faith process (saying no, embracing my humanity, putting myself in the shoes of the downtrodden versus the saviors, listening to my voice, taking risks, focusing on what I have in common with "the world", relinquishing anything that reeks of entitlement or consumerism, refusing to believe that everything has a solution or one "right" answer and that I know those things). This makes the church environment a great source of temptation for me. I immediately fill my calendar, gain approval, show my niceness, and find incriminating things in my heart to feel guilty and shameful about and set to work on self-improvement.
I live in hope that one day, when I'm MUCH less bitter and able to set firm boundaries in said environment, I will be able to be a part of a church. I have no idea what my future church looks like. For the last 3 years, my church has looked like my living room and my fellow parishoners are my female friends. I am very selective about who I allow into that sacred space now. I look for women who are open, honest and actively struggling in some shape or form. I am a big fan of people who are "in process."
I imagine some people would read this and roll their eyes. Like, what is the big deal? So you don't go to church. Most people don't. Why is this shameful or embarrassing? But with my background, this is a big deal. Is it possible that the church sound system is so loud that we can't hear God? Could it be true that the group mentality is speaking in direct contradiction to what I personally need to be doing in my life? I'm learning to set better boundaries to where the church may one day be a safe place for me to share my soul again. But for now, this sojourner is keeping company with just a few.