Saturday, 24 November 2012

How are you?

Morning, God.

I'm here and I'm hoping you and me can have a bit of a discussion.

I had this thought as I lay in bed last night. This thought sort of evolved in a series of jumps from a line in a book by Beth Redman that I'm reading on the subject of women in the church.

Nope, I'm not going to go off on one about female bishops at this point. I promise.

So Beth Redman said this: 
'As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another. 
Proverbs 27:17
'The company we keep affects us, and the person that we are impacts on others. So if we want to sharpen, envision and challenge others, we need first to be iron and then find iron. ... iron is solid, unbendable - a force to be reckoned with.' *
 So, me being me, the first thing I did was unpick Beth's analogy, as I'm not so sure about the iron thing - unbending? I thought we were supposed to be yielding, compassionate, loving and giving; sort of squidgy but in a good Christian way? Solid I can do; I've always been solid when I wanted to be willowy and ethereal but that's another story. Anyway, I reminded myself that these are not Beth's words but yours.

Iron. Strong. Dependable. Purposeful. All those things. Blunts if it's not regularly sharpened.

I was thinking about church, and the relationships we have. Yes, there are a few iron people there and I love to spend time with them. They teach me, encourage me, and yes, challenge me. Sometimes I don't like it when they do the last bit, but I know that accountability and this sort of 'sharpening' is as you want it to be. I'm just wondering how much better we could get at these relationships so that we could all go so much deeper, more real, more use to each other.

Countless times I have walked into church, been met with a bright smiling face and the words, 'Hello! How are you?' and I smile brightly and I say, 'Fine, thanks!' with an exclamation mark in my voice just to be all the more convincing.

Actually, it's been hell on earth getting the children out of the door to church; one of them desperately doesn't want to come in any circumstances and the other has been bribed out of a tantrum with promises of cake after the service.

On the way down the road I've argued with my husband, stepped in something unsavoury and battled with one of my daughters who has forgotten her toy car and will thus moan throughout the opening hymns that she has nothing to play with.

I haven't had a good night's sleep since early May 2005, I have so many minor physical ailments that I have to prioritise when I visit the doctor, and I'm excruciatingly self-conscious in this top because I bought it when I was 2 stone thinner and I look very bulgy, especially from behind, but it was dark when I got dressed and I haven't had a chance to change.

Add to that the background worries of the week, misgivings about meeting an individual that I had a strained Facebook exchange with last Thursday, a painful tooth and a nagging anxiety that I left the gas on in the kitchen, and I am far from fine. Tears are prickling behind my eyes and I start to pray that the opening liturgy or songs would not be remotely moving, and I would not sense the presence of the Holy Spirit lest the floodgates open and my despair and self-pity might come gushing out.

'How are you?'
'I'm fine, thanks!'

So who's sharpening whom?

I am not iron. I am marshmallow. Or cheese, or something. I don't have many relationships where I get close enough to anyone to sharpen or be sharpened because I keep my distance, and so do they. On a day like this, I don't let anyone in. I have a horror of dissolving in front of people; and these are my brothers and sisters. I am in the House of my God and Friend, and I am pretending to be someone else. That can't be good, can it?

So, look from a different angle. I know that you can do that sort of thing much better than we can.

After the service, my husband takes the children for their promised piece of cake, and then they escape outside, because they have excess energy, and the children want to play together. I turn to the woman sitting behind me (maybe).

'How are you?
I'm fine, thanks!'

And what do I do?

I know this lady is struggling a bit. I know she works hard and doesn't see much of her children. I know that she has had health problems. I know that she is a worrier. She looks tired. She looks a bit worn and ragged at the edges. 

What do I do?

I smile, I compliment her on her haircut. I stand, pick up the discarded children's coats and their craft creations and I say something brightly about meeting up for coffee sometime, better go and find the children, got to get back, etc etc, you know how it is.

I know that she's not fine, but I can't keep my family waiting too long. I don't want to get into anything. I don't want to risk her floodgates opening either. If I ask, really ask, she might tell me. And that might not be convenient, and it might get messy.

I'm embarrassed to admit it. I'm not iron, I'm stone. I'm cold and unmoved and ungenerous.

We're just not real. We pretend all the time, until just now and again the dam really does burst and we have no choice. I'm not saying that we should walk into church and announce to everyone each minor domestic nightmare we've had since we last met, and I know that we come to church to worship, not offload. But what did you say?
'A new command I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.'
John 13:34-35
Three short sentences, three times you said it; I think you probably meant it.

Love one another.

Rick Warren identified this problem.
'Authenticity is the exact opposite of what you find in many churches. Instead of an atmosphere of honesty and humility, there is pretending, role-playing, politicking, superficial politeness, and shallow conversation.' **
Do we love one another, then, if we're pretending and role-playing, all superficial and shallow? We have social activities where we have fun together, we talk about trivia on Facebook, we chat... but we dissemble and we hide who we are behind a mask of who we think other people think we should be , without knowing what they think at all.

You love me how I am.

Everyone thinks that I'm alright and sorted out because I smile and say, 'I'm fine, thanks!' regularly enough. Maybe we're all happier like that because if I was always honest they might feel obliged to be honest too. Or maybe I might just be seen as far too needy and too much hard work, and that would be terrible. And maybe it's more comfortable for us all to be like this.

People don't think that I shout at my children because I don't shout at them in church. You know the truth, don't you? People don't think that I can be so angry that I throw soft toys across the room (unless they talk to Katy. She hasn't forgiven me for that occasion in May 2011 when I came over all stampy and flung Barney at the was not my finest hour). People don't think that there are Big Things in my life that I struggle with day in day out because I don't tell them. I don't want anyone to know. I squash it all down and I do my best to present a picture of a woman who knows which way is up.

And when I do that, I project invulnerability. Who is going to open up to someone who is invulnerable? I certainly wouldn't admit that I'm struggling to someone who appears to sail through life on a sunny pond with no ripples. It's too risky. They'd be disgusted, horrified. They might make their excuses and back away, or at least look at me with pity.

If people don't think that I might now and again let rip at my small children, they're not going to reveal to me their problem with anger so that we can help each other. If people think that I'm completely at ease with the state of my life and my walk with you then they're never going to compare notes to see where we can support each other in the process of change, are they?

And so we hide our own problems from the vast majority of people and perpetuate the myth that we're all 'Fine, thanks!'

It's tidier that way, isn't it? Less messy. Deflecting is easier than allowing something to penetrate; it's safer to keep people at arm's length. I am a master at evading the personal question and laughing off the painful ones. We wound each other without knowing simply because we're not honest. We isolate ourselves, ironically by trying to fit in. Our camouflage weighs us down.

And so, we don't know each other. I have known some people for years and I don't know them at all. I'd like to - but it's hard and I'm fragile and it takes time and lots of things get in the way. Does that sound like an excuse? Don't answer that.

A friend said to me recently that when people ask in the church foyer, 'How are you?' she smiles brightly and answers, 'Do you want the short, medium or long answer?' I forgot to ask her what most people say, but I bet it isn't, 'Give me the long one. I want all the details.'

I know, there's a time and a place. I don't have any answers about what time, and what place; sometimes it's right now, or never. I sometimes can't control myself when something is lurking so close to the surface that a friendly word might set me off. But if I do come undone, it's much more likely that I'd excuse myself and dash to the ladies' with a hanky than start to offload the heap of inadequacy and anxiety and unworthiness and self-consciousness and disappointment and who knows what else that's cluttering up my head and my heart.

This time we're together, it should be a safe place to be ourselves. A place where we grow, upwards and downwards and closer together. No man is an island....

Lord, what, then? I am overwhelmed by how strongly I feel that we need to be honest. Not crudely so, perhaps, but honest. Not brandishing our hurts like a stick, but not hiding them so deep down beneath layers of pretence that we intimidate people.

I don't want to intimidate people. I want to reassure them. I want to encourage, not discourage. And if I can do that by admitting that I am a work in progress, then amen; let it be. I am a work in progress; we all are. I want to be able to share the triumphs and disasters and I'd like people to share theirs with me, I think.

Lord, I don't want to be fake. I don't want people only to see the facade, assume all is well, and not care about me, and I don't want to do that to other people. We should love one another, as you taught us to - somewhat emphatically - and that means sharing our lives on a deeper level than 'Fine, thanks'.

Rick Warren has something to say on this. He says that people connect when they are 'authentic':
'It happens when people get honest about who they are and what is happening in their lives. They share their hurts, reveal their feelings, confess their failures, disclose their doubts, admit their fears, acknowledge their weaknesses, and ask for help and prayer.'
Am I likely to do those things? Maybe with one or two. Largely, no, I'm not, because I'm scared of what people think. I'm afraid that they really are as perfectly sorted as they seem and they'll be shocked at my inadequacy. And because I don't open up, maybe other people don't. Could it be that we're all sitting there, rows of people battling feelings of anxiety and shame but assuming everyone else is more than up to the job?

Maybe there's someone I sit a few seats along from every Sunday who is struggling with the same thing as me, keeps messing up in the same way as me, is afraid of the same things as me and neither of us know that we could be so helpful to each other. Maybe if I was honest that sometimes, I find it hard work being a mum of small children and want my old life back, or that I read the whole of the Lent course book and didn't understand a word, maybe that would bring intense relief to someone riddled with guilt and inferiority who's thinking, 'I'm the only one...'

If it were the other way round and someone opened up like this to me relief would roll from me in waves. I'd be over there straight away. 'I thought I was the only one...!'

Lord, give me the courage and humility I need to be me. You made me like this; you don't want me to pretend to be someone else. You don't want me to dissemble and try to impress or give a false impression. You don't want me to walk into church with a rictus smile and announce that 'I'm fine, thanks!' when it isn't so. You want me to connect with other people. To grow into that iron-woman and sharpen other iron-women. You want so much more for your children.

Wouldn't it be amazing if we could come clean? If we could support each other instead of scaring the pants off each other? We could be honest instead of wary. Straightforward, instead of complicated.

We could love one another.

We could do life together.

I'm not sure how to go about doing this, Father God. I don't think I should walk to the front of church next week and make a spectacular confession. (I definitely don't). I know that it takes a lot of time to change the dynamic of a relationship. But I can't help thinking that we should work towards it. We could be so much closer. So much more loyal, so much more supportive. We could do life together, and not just a superficial hour on Sunday; safety in numbers, company for each other. Sharpening each other.

Loving one another. And then by this, people would know that we are your disciples. Because we love one another.

Amen, Lord. Let it be.

* Beth Redman, 'I wanna be a Woman of God' 2005, Hodder & Stoughton, London
** Rick Warren, 'The Daily Hope' The Purpose Driven Connection email devotional


  1. I need to read the Beth Redman book. Right there with you, sister. It's hard to be honest, yet we are dying for it. Over and over I've thought that women's ministry in our church is struggling because on some level we are afraid of one another. I'm praying that He pierces our hearts for one another one person at a time.

    1. Thanks Ginger. I think so too. I know I am often completely intimidated by other women who would be aghast if they knew.
      Amen - I pray that He does.

  2. Your writing is heart wrenching because it is so honest and so true, the reality of church face is something I was talking to my husband about last week, I say hello to so many and none really know me! I've been studying purity and John Stott says "the pure in heart are the utterly sincere. Their whole life, public and private is transparent before God and men" (Christian Counter Culture). Scary thought! I'll load up the full study soon :)

    1. I like that John Stott quote. That's what we should aim towards, I reckon, and then the relationships would follow. Thanks for the encouraging comment. Means a lot.

  3. Hi Helena...another amazing post from you. I was doing the Bible Study "Brave," by Angela Thomas this morning and the question was something about "what does the flesh tell you to do," and I wrote down something I have been thinking about lately...judging something about someone when I do the same thing myself. Then the question was, "what does the Spirit tell you to do?" and I wrote, "be humble around not think more highly of yourself then you ought." I have been purposely revealing my faults and trying not to offer advice when it's not asked for lately. It's hard! We all want others to think highly of us. I was a revealing mess during my first years as a Christian and now I get to be on the other side at times...but that's not being iron. Great post...loved it!

    1. Thanks Linda. It's that 'work in progress' thing again I think. How do you pray for humility? I once asked God for patience and then He furnished me with opportunity after opportunity to be patient.... so I'm concerned about doing the same for humility!
      Thankyou for your honesty. Those 'me too' moments keep me going.

  4. Great post. You really made this more clear to me. I found your webaite from another friend.

    1. Thankyou so much for coming, Angie, and for your encouraging words. That means a lot. Hx

  5. Helen, I love this article!! Such insight and a timely reminder that we were created for community, not looking at the backs of heads on Sundays, but real life interactions and transparencies. We cannot speak into anyones life or expect them to care about ours until we have true community with them. Where 2 or 3 of us meet, since we are the church, there He is in our midst. Then we can laugh, cry, share, grieve or pray together because we really know each other...and He is in our midst. Thank you for your honesty and transparency!!!

    1. Thanks Dixie. I'm trying to work out how to work towards the 'true community' that you mention. I think that if we started to get it right things might be transformed.
      Thanks for kind words.

  6. Ah yes, 'Love your neighbor as you LOVE YOURSELF'. Sometimes people find it hard to LOVE others because they really don't LOVE themselves. Maybe JESUS wouldn't mind if we paraphrased His words a little and said, 'LOVE yourself first, then you will find LOVING others a natural response...' Many times the questions we ask in church settings are noting but 'lip-service'. We really don't want...they really don't want an answer. Really listening to the response and reacting in LOVE is correct response. A hug, a pat on the shoulder, may a few kind ans soft answer: "How about you and I getting together this next week and talk." The reason for the church meeting regularly is to encourage one another. If that's not happening--why meet at all? Your conversation Dixie is a topic all too close to my spirit.

    1. Thanks Mel. I think you're exactly right. I'm thinking it's all about finding a safe, spacious place to get to know one another where there's time and opportunity to reach out further.
      Thanks so much for your encouraging words.

  7. This is powerful, Helen. You are touching a chord with many in the desire to be real. Authenticity should be the hallmark of Christian believers. Yes, even if it means admitting to a life less perfect than the one we want to portray. There may initially be only one or two people we feel comfortable opening up to at first, but that can grow as sharing our struggles, pains, sorrows and bad days means sharing our common humanity as the imperfect 'Works in Progress' people we really are. Then we can begin to offer hope, help, support, prayer and healing to one another as God designed us to. Thank you for your honesty. Great stuff! I welcome it and know I am far from alone. God bless you :)

    1. Thanks Joy. I think I have many more questions than answers but we're trying to work out what shape a women's ministry might take in our church and I think that a safe place to get to know one another properly might be key.
      Thankyou for your kind words.

  8. Another great work Helen! I honestly think that there are so many people in church who feel the same. Do you risk having a deep conversation with someone you hardly know? What happens if they break down & cry & tell you stuff you'd really rather not know? But God knows what people need & a quick arrow prayer seems appropriate when the girls are clambering to go home. But perhaps following up on a coffee does bring results. Mine's a herbal tea next time we meet!

  9. Val, yes please! I have 'pink citrus' or 'cherry and cinnamon' in the cupboard. I'll put the kettle on, shall I? :-)

  10. You are so honest and insightful. Another excellent blog. You bless us and challenge us in equal measure :) Thank you x

    1. Thanks Emma. Don't know what I'd do without your wise and encouraging words when I'm having a panic.

  11. Wow, Helen, This is unfortunately very true. We are NOT vulnerable and we DO blithely say "fine" when asked how we are. But more importantly, sadly, we want to slink away when we are faced with someone at church who just might need to share their hurts with us. Your "getaway" paragraph was so poignant and truthful. Thanks for sharing. Yes, we do need to truly love and to truly do life together. Last night I heard our pastor say that being members of the body of the Christ means that we are all connected together - not that we are a pile of unassembled parts. Very thought-provoking. Blessings, Amy

    1. Thanks Amy. No man is an island...and so on. Thankyou for your kind words and encouragement. Of course, it's alright writing about it, just got to try to do things differently...
      Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  12. Love your authenticity here. I think that question, "How are you?", is meant as a greeting in our society. What I like to do is actually meet people for coffee and ask them, "How can I pray for you?".

  13. Thanks Cheryl. I'm sure you're right about the greeting.
    Do you know - I've had coffee with three new people since this post! I shall take a leaf out of your book. :-)
    Thankyou for coming and for commenting!


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