Stepping into Freedom

Last week I wrote about freedom, which you can find here. Shortly after I’d hit the publish key, it all changed in the UK: our Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, put us into lockdown. Yet, our freedom to choose remains.

Yesterday evening, after a very long day solo-parenting, I went for a walk. More precisely, I put my coat on, grabbed my earphones, plugged them into some loud worship music, shoved my trainers on and ran out of the door. Before too long I reached a railway bridge and walked underneath, just as a train shuddered across above me.

It was strange. Here I was, singing along to the lyrics:

“I am chosen, not forsaken. I am who you say I am.
You are for me, not against me. I am who you say I am.”

(Who You Say I Am, Hillsong Worship)

Yet, I’d reached the evening of a day questioning all of that. You’ve chosen me, God? Really? You’re with me, God? Really? You say who I am, but who even am I? The reply comes:

“I’m a child of God.
Yes I am.”
(Who You Say I Am, Hillsong Worship)

How could I, even for a moment, question all that I know to be true? As I walked under the bridge, with the train juddering across, I didn’t doubt for a moment that the bridge would hold and not crush me as I walked beneath. It struck me, in that moment, that I trust human engineering readily and yet in the last week have not been entirely trusting of God.

Stepping into freedom requires us to let go of whatever we are holding on to, and trusting God to hold it for us. What has struck me since my walk is that I keep saying, “I’m just about clinging on.” Clinging on to what? It certainly isn’t God, in spite of my daily prayer and study of the Bible. Perhaps I am in mourning for the things lost? Clinging on to the what could have beens and what should have beens. Perhaps I am in denial around how little control I actually have over all of this? Clinging on to the control I do have. Perhaps it is something else that I am clinging to.

This week I’ve been on virtual retreat with some friends from college and we’ve been thinking about the idea of coming home with Jesus. One of the threads which has come up for us all is this idea that Jesus breaks all that binds us, in order that we can be free. In this new rhythm of life, I need to spend some time thinking about what it is that I am holding on to. And then I need to let go of it and entrust it to God.

Just as that bridge held as the train rattled across, God’s love for us all holds even as the impact and ripples of Covid-19 are felt in our lives. However you’re feeling right now, know that God is with you and for you.

“No one will be able to stand against you as long as you live. For I will be with you as I was with Moses. I will not fail you or abandon you.”
(Joshua 1: 5, New Living Translation)

Freedom

“Mummy, what does freedom mean?” asked my 4 year old last week.

We then had a good (long) conversation about being free. Free to do what we want. Free from people telling us what to do. Free from things that control us. She had many more questions, like can I wear what I want? Eat what I want? Do what I want?

That’s when the conversation went somewhere a bit deeper. After explaining that mostly mummy and daddy choose her food to make sure she keeps growing big and strong, I reassured her that she could mostly choose her own clothes. I then told her that soon we’d have to not leave the house. We wouldn’t be able to go to nursery, or church, or the park. Her response?

“Why aren’t we free?”

Wow. These questions have stayed with me all week. It’s tricky, isn’t it? Yet, I explained to her that we are still free. Even if we don’t go out of the house. We are free and we have freedom.

  1. Freedom of choice.
    Right now we have freedom to choose how we act as people in a society made up of the vulnerable and invulnerable. We can choose to use our freedom to gather in groups, go to work unnecessarily, travel on public transport for no reason, or spend time with friends in person. Or, we can choose to use our freedom to stay at home, play games, work from home, find ways to keep in touch with people. We can choose to use our freedom to stay at home and keep the vulnerable safe. We can choose to flatten the curve. We can choose to honour those who have no choice but to keep working in our hospitals, schools, police, energy services.

    We have freedom to choose.
  2. Freedom from fear.
    And secondly, regardless of current situation, we have freedom from fear. When he was alive and teaching on this earth, Jesus said: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10:10, NIV) Right now, there is a lot of fear, anxiety and panic across the world. It has seeped into our homes and is the thief which Jesus refers to. This thief will steal, kill, and destroy hope. If we let it.

    We have freedom to choose. Freedom to chose hope. Freedom from fear. If we put our trust in Jesus, he will give us life in its fullness. If we put our trust in Jesus, he will give us true freedom. If we put our trust in Jesus, he will give us a hope and a peace which passes all understanding.

The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
(Philippians 4)

Bullying

Short disclaimer: This is a reflection on the effects of bullying, not a witch hunt for blood. It is written about an event that happened at the tail end of 2013.

While at university I was the subject of a misplaced joke. Some might call it bullying, whilst others would just say it was a misplaced joke. I’m not sure what I call it. I want to let you in to how this ‘joke’ made me feel – immediately afterwards, and over the following weeks.

#fugly #slut

These were the words left for me on a board when I came into a study room to do exactly that: study. I had booked the room for 3 hours, with some friends, so we could work together on a presentation. As I walked into that room, I was breathless. I felt winded. And as I turned to look at my friend who was with me, I cried. This was followed by a brief lull in the emotions as we waited for the rest of our group… but when they walked in, I cried again. In fact, the afternoon was not a productive study session. It was interspersed with crying, paranoia, anxiety and great sadness from within me.

That night, at home, I sobbed down the phone to my mum. She was horrified that not only had it happened, but that it could have been written by someone who is training to be a teacher. To her it wasn’t solely about the nature of the words and how hurtful they were, but also about professional conduct. I went to sleep, feeling soothed, thinking ‘tomorrow is a new day!’ And it was. It was a Friday. I wasn’t in university, my housemate was away, I was alone. Or, at least, I felt like I was alone. I spent the entire day watching Geordie Shore (which is atrocious, but highly addictive) and eating rubbish. I just sat and let the waves of sadness, waves of anxiety and waves of inferiority wash over me. I didn’t believe the words they had used to describe me, but I felt insecure. I knew then as I know now, I am not a slut… but I felt dirty and weak.

For me, you see, the story actually began 10 years years ago. 10 years ago, I was a different person. I was insecure and weak. I was paranoid and anxious. I was depressed. Not as a result of bullying, but as a result of having the wrong priorities in my life. I had absolutely hit rock bottom, which included a brief encounter with suicidal thoughts, and an attempt on my own life. Thankfully, because of my ever-loving parents, I was able to move home and begin to fix myself. It was a very long process but, with their love and support, and the love and support of wiser friends, I was able to get back on my feet once more. Recently, I’ve been able to take the final step I need to heal: counselling. I am able to, with a supportive professional, come to terms with my angers and anxieties; my insecurities and paranoias; and start leaving it in the past, where it belongs.

If we now jump back again, into the present, you may now begin to understand why I spent a week feeling sick and crying. It wasn’t all the time. It was, like I said before, waves. I was fine, until I wasn’t. The misplaced ‘joke’ broke me in the immediate aftermath. It brought me back to my teenage years. I was insecure. I definitely didn’t think I was pretty. Those insecurities were never things that I was bullied for at school. But they were insecurities which were never dealt with. And they did control my first few years as a young adult, from 18-21 years old.

I’m done, now, with this incident at university. Obviously, I hoped there would be certain outcomes (there weren’t), but the best outcome for me would have been if the perpetrator realised that it was never about offence. If you take me out of it, it is about what is ok to say, and what isn’t. If you leave me in it, it is about this misguided thought process of the 21st Century. It is about people thinking they can say and/or write what they want, without thinking more deeply about the person they’re talking/writing about.

For me, this is the challenge. Boris Johnson, Priti Patel, Michael Gove, Gavin Williamson, I know you won’t read this… but I wish you would. It isn’t about the facts which we fill children’s heads with. And it isn’t about how well people will contribute to society, economically. It is about working out what each child’s insecurities are, and tackling them. It is about teaching children to have respect and empathy. It is about guiding children and teenagers and young adults away from those feelings of anxiety and paranoia. Finally, it is about how well children today will contribute to society, emotionally and socially.

We all need to work out how we can develop children’s emotional and social intelligence; how we can nurture each child’s health and wellbeing. I used to think that began in the classroom. Many are calling for a change in the media, a change in how social media is policed. But none of that matters if we aren’t raising up children who know better and do better. None of that matters if we aren’t raising up children who know what resilience and empathy look like in equal measure. None of that matters if we aren’t raising up children who know their true worth does not lie in economics or physical attraction, but in something greater. I now know that it starts with me: mum.

Fixer Uppers

“So he’s a bit of a fixer upper, so he’s got a few flaws…
We’re not sayin’ you can change him
‘Cause people don’t really change
We’re only saying that love’s a force
That’s powerful and strange.
People make bad choices if they’re mad
Or scared, or stressed.
Throw a little love their way
And you’ll bring out their best
.”
(Fixer Upper, Frozen)

It’s funny, isn’t it? ‘Let It Go’ quickly became the defining memory and feature of Disney’s 2013 film Frozen. Yet this song, ‘Fixer Upper’, is the crux of the story and its morale. It links back to the beginning of the film, when Elsa is told by Grand Pabbie (the chief troll) that fear will be her greatest enemy. Fast forward and Anna is being told by the same trolls that people make bad choices when acting out of anger, fear or stress. On the surface the story at this point is about Anna and her quest for true love to undo the ice in her heart, yet this song points beyond that to the end of the story.

It cleverly, if you’re looking for it, points past the obvious to the underlying problem which needs solving. Above all, Elsa needs releasing from the fear of her powers, in order that she might be truly free to live as she was created. We see this in subtle ways throughout the film (and its sequel). In ‘Let It Go’ Anna delights in her new found freedom, because the truth is out. But truth only does part of the work here; freedom is short-lived because, even though everyone now knows her secret, she still exists in fear. Fear, rather than freedom, control her and her actions.

The film ends with Elsa finally realising that love is the answer. Instead of fear, she controls her power with love, and finally the eternal winter thaws and Arendelle is restored. Frozen 2, without giving too much away for those who are yet to see it, is a continuation of Elsa stepping into the freedom of knowing who you really are. Freedom, it’s safe to say, is a key theme of the Frozen duology.

Where do we find freedom? Some find freedom in exercise, relationships, work, but I’d argue we only find true freedom in Christ.

“Only Christ can get rid of the veil so they can see for themselves that there’s nothing there. Whenever, though, they turn to face God as Moses did, God removes the veil and there they are—face-to-face! They suddenly recognize that God is a living, personal presence, not a piece of chiseled stone. And when God is personally present, a living Spirit, that old, constricting legislation is recognized as obsolete. We’re free of it! All of us! Nothing between us and God, our faces shining with the brightness of his face. And so we are transfigured much like the Messiah, our lives gradually becoming brighter and more beautiful as God enters our lives and we become like him.”
2 Corinthians 3: 15-18 (MSG Version)

Paul makes it clear that it is Jesus alone who can rid people of the veil which previously hid God’s glory from them. Since Jesus’ death and resurrection, there’s nothing behind that veil; God is a living presence, shining in our faces with all of God’s brilliance. Today the veil is all the things which stop us from seeing that Jesus is the one who brings true freedom. The veil is work, family, ambitions and goals. It is thinking that we have it within ourselves to find freedom. Elsa only realises that the solution is love because she witnesses the self-sacrificial love of her sister. So, we too must realise that the solution is love through witnessing the self-sacrificial love of God.

It is only in dropping the veil and allowing God to enter our lives that we find freedom. As God’s spirit enters our lives, we become more like him, our lives transfigured in brightness, we find freedom: “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” (2 Corinthians 3: 17, NIV)

We are all a bit of a fixer upper. We all have something we need to be set free from. We all make bad choices, when we’re angry, stressed or scared. But throw a lot of love our way, and it’ll bring out our best.

Backstage Help Required

“Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results.” James 5: 16

Backstage-Pass

It’s interesting, isn’t it, that so many of us think we are the only ones struggling with something. No-one else could possibly understand. And yet, this verse says otherwise. We are never alone in our falling short; we are never alone in our struggles. It is part of the human condition.

Yet, how many of us allow people into the backstage areas of our lives? Who are we accountable to? Who has permission to ask us those tough questions that require total honesty?

For me, it’s always been this fear of being ‘found out’ that has kept me from showing my backstage life to others. Inviting people in might mean they think less of me… but why would that ever have been my concern? People might think less of the me I’ve portrayed, but it isn’t even the real me. It’s just the front stage, polished act I’d grown into playing throughout years of collusion in my mind.

I say ‘I had’ because I’m trying to live this out in the present. I’m having the really tough, sometimes costly conversations. I’m letting people into the backstage who can pray with me, give me advice, or sometimes just hold my hand through it all. And wow do my shoulders feel lighter.

In his book on leadership, Simon Walker writes about the consequences of not letting people into the backstage: inevitably, the backstage starts to leak onto the front stage; or it just completely explodes. He says, “what lies behind the creation of a front and back stage is the sense that we can’t entirely trust our audience, and so we need to manage what they see of us.” And yet, where we trust, where we intentionally let people in to the stuff we are struggling with, where we make ourselves vulnerable, we find relief and freedom.

Though we risk rejection and judgment, it’s only of the false self we have put forward anyway. In reality, vulnerability allows others to be vulnerable; it breeds honesty, acceptance and respect.

Who are you vulnerable with?

Who do you let into your backstage?

A Lifetime of Shame

The first time stress took control I was a teenager. I didn’t even know I was floundering. It wasn’t a case of on the outside I was smiling and putting on a front, hiding the inside sadness. I was happy. I had good friends. But I was anxious. And I was stressed.

I developed alopecia, and tufts of my hair along my centre parting began to fall out. It’s not known exactly what causes your immune system to attack your hair follicles, but it is thought that stress is one of the factors that plays a role. Obviously, having some of my hair fall out as a teenage girl didn’t help my self esteem or amounts of stress.

Ultimately, even though I was generally happy and well liked, I didn’t feel good enough in any part of life. I wasn’t enough for teachers, always handing in my homework late, or just not doing it; I wasn’t enough for any of the boys, always having jokes made about my big nose; I wasn’t enough for anyone. I began to believe, despite many people championing me, that I was not enough. The problem was me. I needed to be different.

When I went to university, I reinvented myself. I was affectionately known as ‘Party Olivia’ and was well known for being the life and soul of the party. In time though, my self esteem plummeted and my anxiety sky rocketed. I patched myself up with nights out and alcopops, seeking affirmation from all the worst places. I remember staring at myself in the mirror and dreaming of being thinner, more toned, prettier.

September 2009 was around the corner, and I should have been heading back to university for my 3rd year. I can’t remember why, but my mum asked me if I actually wanted to go back. Then she said the words which changed the trajectory of my life: “We will be proud of you no matter what.” Within days, I’d dropped out of university, and moved into the house where she was living for her curacy. Life’s problems weren’t solved, but it gave me breathing space and I moved up to Lancaster 2 years later to begin my teacher training.

I arrived and instantly felt at home. Finally, I was in a space where I could begin to deal with my anxiety and accessed counselling via my local NHS trust. I had great housemates and a wonderful church family. I excelled academically for the first time in my life, and enjoyed the challenges of the teacher life. I had a kind and loving boyfriend, who quickly became my chief cheerleader. And then my husband.

But my mental health issues didn’t end there. I longed for a child, and we fell pregnant in the late spring of 2015. I spent 9 months dreaming about motherhood, with people telling me what a natural mother I’d be. I was just, apparently, so maternal. And so, it utterly floored me when this tiny human was born and I felt so utterly helpless. Anxiety and stress crept back in, dark thoughts controlled my brain, and the silence and loneliness were painful. Suddenly, I knew I wasn’t enough once again.

Feelings of unworthiness, anxiety, stress can be crippling. I say ‘can be’ because they no longer control my mind or my life. With the support, love and prayers of those close to me, I exercise conviction and battle those thoughts when they do come. I have a wonderful counsellor who I see regularly, and I can not recommend talking to a professional enough.

I am 31 and I’ve hidden in the shame of mental ill-health for most of my life. But there is no shame. It’s ok to not be ok. It’s ok to be hurting. And it’s ok to talk about it.

But remember, one day you will smile again. And that will be ok too.

Invitation

Isn’t an invitation wonderful? Come with me. Let’s spend time together. Let’s eat. Dance. Drink. Celebrate. Mourn. Play. Or party.

Whatever the invitation, we can be sure that receiving it is a fabulous thing. It means we have been thought of; that someone wants to spend time with us. Isn’t that wondrous in a world where, despite apparent connectedness through social networking sites, 1 in 10 of us feels lonely often? In fact, Britain was voted the loneliness capital of Europe, by the Office of National Statistics. 

The last 12 months have been lonely for me. I’ve become a mum and, whilst much of it has been wonderful, I have struggled with the lack of business and noise around me, as I had when teaching full-time. Not only that, but we (my husband and I) have had to turn down many invitations either as a couple or as an individual. Many of the things we are invited to are in the evening, so one or both of us has to stay home and look after our little girl. We’ve been so blessed to have had a couple of nights out together, courtesy of good friends babysitting.

That being said, I’ve met lots of wonderful women, their babies and their partners in the past 12 months. I’ve been to birthdays, baptisms, and even have a wedding in the diary. We’ve been for tea and cake at people’s houses, caught up in coffee shops and taken up invitations for bumbling round town.

Invitations may have to be declined, or plans altered to fit in with this new life, but it is good for the soul to think of someone else first. But it doesn’t really matter whether I get to go out or not, because that isn’t necessarily what helps us to feel connected.

It is the imple invitation – knowing you were thought of and wanted, knowing you were included – that has a transformative power. The power to overcome even the most loneliest of feelings.

To feel connected.

To feel loved.

Early Memories

When I was 10, I was privileged enough to start boarding at Casterton School. My dad was an Army chaplain, and it was sensible to be at one school so my education wasn’t interrupted. One of my earliest memories was of my first piano lesson.

I arrived up at the senior school, ready for my first lesson with Mrs Wightman, a lady I’d not met. All I’d heard about music was that Mr Chapman, the head of music was ferocious and strict. Anyway, I walked down to Mrs Wightman’s room and she wasn’t there. 

Nervously, I crept up the corridor, stood outside the Director of Music’s office and tried to pick up the courage to knock. Just in time, a lady opened the door and came out laughing sunnily. Mrs Wightman. She marched me off to pay the piano, and Mr Chapman gave me a wink and a smile.

Many years passed – well, 6. But when you’re a child, 6 years is a long time – and I had many more wonderful memories with Mrs Wightman and Mr Chapman. The music shed (it actually was a shed; a ‘temporary’ building) became a safe home for me in my time at Casterton. Not because I was particularly talented, but because it was a place I could be me. Music didn’t care that I was disorganised, or didn’t hand my homework in on time. Music didn’t care if I was late. Music was so comforting for me, especially in those years when my outward face shouted happiness, but my inward self was so lacking in esteem; so desperately wanting to be someone else.

I am certain that my time singing in the school choir, with Mr Chapman at the helm, is the reason I still find such joy in singing today.

Mr Chapman, you were an incredible teacher. You gave me something which is really priceless: an opportunity to escape and be myself.

Thank you, I’m eternally grateful.

The Imperfect Mum

Sometimes, I wish I could wear a badge saying, “Hello! Lovely to meet you. My name is Olivia and I am an imperfect mum.” I would wear this badge to all places where I might meet other imperfect mums: baby groups, sensory play, cafés, church, soft play etc. The list is probably quite endless.

As I wear this badge, I would find the conversations around me different. Perhaps instead of ever so slightly competitive chatter about where our children are on the development milestone scale, I would start to hear more honest conversations. The kind of conversations that deep, lasting friendships are built on. Conversations that are honest and don’t sell an image of motherhood as unachievable as unicorns and rainbows.

Perhaps I would sit with a group of mums I’ve never met before, and one might speak openly and daringly about how they are struggling with their thoughts and emotions. They might say, “Oh I’m so glad that you feel the same way as I do. I LOVE my child, but I am so tired. I feel broken. I wonder if I’m good enough.”

Or they might comment, “I feel confused. Yes, I love my child, but am I being selfish if I want to go out on my own every now and again? Does that make me a bad mum?”

They may even say, “I hate being a mum right now. I don’t know what I’m doing, and I wonder if I’ll ever feel ‘good’ again.”

These are hard things to talk about, especially if we consider that: 

  1. Most of us mums have only known each other as long as our child’s life span… we can feel like relative strangers;
  2. We are British, and have stiffer up lips that don’t talk about feelings and emotions.

But with these honest conversations, the façade of perfection can be wiped away, much like makeup the morning after the night before. It may have to be scrubbed off, depending on how much of an image we have put on, but it will come off if we wipe hard enough.

Motherhood is hard, and tiring. Sure, there is great joy in having a child, but that doesn’t mean you have to love being a mum all of the time. Yes, you can love your child, and yet struggle with the lack of independence suddenly thrust upon you. You can even wonder if you made a mistake having a baby… that doesn’t mean you’re a bad mum. It means you’re a normal human being, struggling with a complex mix of emotions, hormones, sleep deprivation and an enormous life altering shift of lifestyle that no one and nothing can ever prepare you for.

None of us are perfect. We all have failings and feelings; we all struggle with things from time to time, so why are we putting up a front? Let’s embrace our imperfections, our vulnerabilities; they can make us strong. We can be strong together.

Stronger friendships we can rely on.

Stronger minds that know imperfection isn’t just normal, it’s expected, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of.

Stronger mums who live honestly with the people around them.

Let’s start a new conversation…
“Hello! Lovely to meet you. My name’s Olivia, and I’m an imperfect mum.”

A Letter to My Church

Dear friends,

I want to start out by saying how unbelievably grateful I am for everything you have done for me and my new family: hot meals; offers of laundry and ironing; kind cards and gifts; and such generous prayers. It hurts me to write this, but it needs to be written and said aloud.

You’ve been kind, and generous. But I feel quite alone. I feel forgotten.

If I’m honest, I wish I’d picked a different congregation to belong to. That is, to be connected to, and be a part of. You would think that if a part of you was missing, you would notice. I’m pretty certain, however, that if I deleted Facebook and never went to your service again, most wouldn’t notice. These were people I sat next to, have served alongside, have worshipped and prayed with, and yet I feel forgotten in the wilderness. 

It is hard being a new mum. I am tired. So tired, in fact, that sometimes I don’t go to church on a Sunday morning because it is an opportunity for me to catch up on a few extra hours. Instead, I will go midweek or to the evening service. When I’m there, though, within the congregation of which I used to belong, I feel strange. I don’t feel connected. I don’t feel a sense of belonging. I can’t come every week, so I don’t get the in-joke you’re telling which refers to last week’s sermon. I feel like a spare part, separate from everyone else. Even when I’m there, in the midst of you all, I feel alone.

I don’t know what I thought it would be like. I guess I thought people would still care about me after I had a baby, or that they’d be interested in my baby at least. I thought that, after 5 years of discipleship together, I would still feel connected to a group of people I love.

I do not write this letter to shame, or to bring about offers of catch up and coffee. I write this letter to let you know that just because someone might not be physically there, it doesn’t mean they’re not a part of you. I write this letter to let you know why I arrive late and leave early; why I seem quieter around you than normal. I write this letter because I don’t think you realise that you have a problem.

Everything changes when you have a baby. It robs you of yourself, steals your sleep, and hides your freedom. Motherhood denies you the right to do what you want, when you want, and it changes every relationship. Even my relationship with God has changed… My planned quiet times are so much less than before, but they’re unexplicably more profound and rewarding than before. My prayer life is much more sporadic, but more interesting and exciting.

It is heartbreaking that, at a time when my faith has come to life in a way I never could have imagined, I feel excluded from the people I want to share that with.

Look out for one another, especially those who aren’t in your immediate friendship group. The problem with cliques is that if you’re in one, you won’t know it. The beauty of church is that Jesus welcomes all in, and all should feel welcome. Take a step back. Are you welcoming? Are you inclusive, truly? Or are you part of the problem?