You may or may not be fans of Ru Paul’s Drag Race, I kind of am, but not so much for the categories and the clothes, than for the drag queens themselves, the sharing of stories that are sometimes raw, and the sisterhood they find with one another, in spite of the competition. This year the amazing Cheddar Gorgeous is taking part, no need Cheddar, because you are always a winner in the eyes of so many! The thing about Cheddar is that they are posting tributes to all of the queens as they leave the competition, as well as supporting those who are still in. This week Baby left the stage, not with the direction to sashay away, but by choosing to withdraw, to take care of herself. It was such a courageous move, Cheddar had this to say:
Your honesty is raw and it is rare. Don’t change, don’t become hard, always keep that heart open. You are beautiful and you are strong and I know you are only just getting started! You are going to set this world ablaze!
You are going to set this world ablaze, what a tribute, there was more of course, and it showed a real care and empathy alongside applauding Baby’s maturity in declaring her need to take a step away and practice self care! It takes guts to speak out for yourself, especially when you are showing your vulnerability in doing so.
Readers of my blogs ( this is the third incarnation of blogging for me) will know that this is a subject I return to periodically, and that is probably because it is something I struggle with the most. The reflections from the Centre of Action and Contemplation this week include an interview with activist Ruby Sales, she says this:
One of the things that I discovered is that when we think about love, we think about how is it that we love other people? But the first question is how is it that we love ourselves so that we extend [to] other people the love that we feel for ourselves? . . .
It’s hard to love yourself when you follow people who degrade your humanity and teach you to hate other people. It’s hard to love yourself when you’re being used by powerful people to carry out an agenda that buttresses their power but disempowers you. And so I think that the critical question that white people must deal with, and all of us must deal with in the 21st century, is how is it that [we] can love ourselves so that we might extend that love to others? Because I think that we have been taught to hate and despise ourselves. . . .
“I think we have been taught to despise ourselves”, those are powerful words, but just sitting with them for a moment, I must admit that I know the truth of them, and I wonder if you do too, so often I push them away, I can put on all sorts of masks, and act out all sorts of roles, but the truth is that there are so many things that I despise about myself, things that I hold within and hope that others won’t see. The words not enough clamour for attention, always lurking at the back of my mind, right now they are about not doing enough and not being enough, they have been not small enough, not pretty enough, not clever enough, not rich enough, not able, not loving enough, not fit enough, the list goes on, and every now and then another not enough rears its head and demands my attention. They are painful to confront, and difficult to challenge.
They are painful to confront and difficult to challenge, but confront them I must, the superficial ones are easier now, who decides what pretty is, and at 60, I am no longer worried about being pretty anyway, and who decides what is and what isn’t attractive, and why are we so enraptured by outer appearances anyway? As for tall, well I have embraced that, I like being six foot now, but as a teenager I hated it. Not clever enough, well against all the odds I completed a Masters Degree, so that’s plenty! That said I have scars, scars from feeling I wasn’t enough, and having that confirmed by others, scars of not fitting in because my family didn’t have what all of the other middle class families did have, and not being able to provide no matter what. I still struggle with not fit enough, having become quite fit a few years ago, but must let go of comparing myself with where others are, because I can only start where I am.
Recently I am dealing with the sense that I am not good enough and not being enough, add to that certainly not doing enough, I am finding it hard to fit into a new way of being, and a new rhythm of meetings etc, especially as it comes off the back of being ill. The sense of being criticised for not being up to speed is huge, though there is no criticism being offered, I receive questions as a criticism, and know that they aren’t, my own not enough(s )are holding a flees mirror to reality.
So what is reality, reality is that I am enough, I am enough and so are you, my enough at the moment is acknowledging that I am recovering from a difficult time, and that I am not running in full steam ahead mode. I am needing to take time out to rest, to reflect and to be, to discover who I am at this place and in this time. I also ned to acknowledge that I am not here to be a carbon copy of what went before me, I cannot be what previous ministers were because I am not them, I do not have their gifts and graces, I have my own. I have my own, I really do have my own, and they are the unique divine imprint in my heart, mind and spirit.
I have my own gifts, I really do have my own, and they are the unique divine imprint in my heart, mind and spirit. I need to hear this, and I need to acknowledge that, for everything that I am not good at there is another that I am good at, for every fault or flaw there is a corresponding jewel, an expression , a revelation. I know this, but find it hard to dig it out from under the cloud of self condemnation and self doubt. That is why I need to take time out from time to time, to rest, to reflect, and to be, to write like this, even if it is only for myself. To pluck up courage as Baby did on Drag Race, and to say, right now this is what I can give, and this is what I need. I can do no more.
I want an honesty that is raw and rare, I want a heart that is open, and a strength to reveal my beauty, and set the world ablaze. We all have that divine spark within, unique and precious. We are more than enough!
I wonder how good you are at speaking up for yourself, I know I am not particularly good at it, I want to please, so will easily agree to stuff that then begins to play on my mind, I shouldn’t have said yes, I should have asked for time to think about it, then I may have given myself the space to say no, but no, I jump in, being agreeable.
The trouble with being agreeable is that it comes back to bite you, the yes that was so easy to say becomes a dark cloud looming over you and you start to feel resentful, which is very unfair to those who had simply asked you to do something, and took your agreement for genuine agreement, which strangely it probably was at the time. The problem is that that yes should probably have been a no.
Recently I have backed out of an event because the closer it got the more difficult actually attending it became, I finally got up the courage to advocate for myself, and explained my reasons and fears and was met with understanding and acceptance. I was met with understanding and acceptance where I had feared judgement and misunderstanding. My fears were unfounded.
As I step back and take a long look at all of this, I am aware that being agreeable has its roots in my childhood, where appearances were all important. I had taken this into other areas of life, finding the knee jerk reaction of saying yes to everything has landed me in the midst of all sorts of unhelpful situations. It has caused mis-understandings, it’s broken relationships, and it has led to frustrations on both sides. It also has recent roots in a series of very difficult meetings, meetings that made me feel unsafe for a variety of reasons.
So, I have decided to adopt a new strategy, a strategy that gives me space for reflection before making a decision when asked to do something, and that is to put in a let me think about it break, and if my attendance at something is simply required, I am going to ask for the opportunity to withdraw if it feels too much for me. Looking after ourselves can be such a difficult thing to do, especially when it comes with loaded expectations, and when the easier course , at least at first is to simply do the expected.
Doing the expected, at deep personal cost, is however neither sustainable nor honest to speak up may seem costly, but in the long run it will pay off, it is about not only knowing yourself, but loving yourself enough to name your needs. It requires both vulnerability and humility, I wonder how is it that we can learn love ourselves so that we might extend that love to others? Because I think that we have been taught to hate and despise ourselves, to put ourselves down to set ourselves aside, and dare I say that this is particularly true for women, and for any who identify as LGBTQI+, for neuro-diverse people, for people of colour…. well come on let me just say it, for any who aren’t straight white men.
Loving yourself when you have been taught that love need to be earned is tough, when you are expected to be or appear a certain way and you can’t live into the expectation brings in shame, shame begets shame and wants to be hidden, and so slips in the mask of agreeability. The yes person, who is a non-person because they have lost touch with themselves. I do realise that this can affect everybody, including straight white men, so I am not man bashing, just speaking from my own perspective where some of the privileges afforded to some aren’t mine. To take off the mask means encountering shame, which can be powerful, for usually it shouts loudly but has shallow roots, or it can be dealt with by an honest encounter with grace and self-forgiveness.
Perfect love casts out fear, so we are told, but it takes guts at times to put yourself in the way of perfect love, because imperfect love has too often been an imposter in our lives. It’s hard to love yourself when you follow people who degrade your humanity and teach you to hate yourself and to fear other people. It’s hard to love yourself when you’re being used by powerful people to carry out an agenda that buttresses their power but disempowers you. To be told that because of your gender you shouldn’t lead or preach something that still prevails in some corners of the church, or that because of your colour you are of lesser wort, something that still prevails in some corners of society, or that because of your sexuality you are an abomination; as before the list goes on.
All that said, the message of the gospel is one of perfect love, a perfect love that shines through the life of Jesus as he accepts the unacceptable and blesses the outcast, a love that challenges the systems political and religious, a love that can and longs to set us free. The Samaritan woman found that love when she encountered Jesus at a well in the middle of the day, neither of them should have been there, mid-day was not a good time for drawing water, and good Jewish men don’t hang around wells in Samaria! But, there they were, and as their conversation went on he revealed that he knew all about her, and offered her a new life, living water welling up from within, her true self set free to flow with a freshness that had long been stoppered up by fear and shame. Something must have utterly transformed her, because when she returned to the village where she had previously been shunned, the villagers receive her message with joy and flock out to see Jesus for themselves.
I need that transformation, I know that, and while I often preach , that, that love is possible, I fail to receive it because I am hiding behind my agreeable mask. The surprise is, that when I took that mask off, and stated my need, which required both vulnerability and humility, then I was met by love and grace, it was worth the risk.
I remember the time when I began formal studies and training to become a minister, setting me on the path to ordination, coming across the word hermeneutics. I spent ages learning how to spell it, and possibly longer trying to fathom out what it meant! It is worth 19 points in scrabble, and the oxford dictionary definition is this: “the branch of knowledge that deals with interpretation, particularly of Biblical or literary texts.”. This wonderful word came up in the context of a discussion yesterday, when I challenged someone’s interpretation he countered ” I was only using hermeneutics. He was, but so was I, I was bringing a feminist hermeneutic of suspicion to his interpretation. He didn’t like that very much.
I decided not to push things on this occasion, I am new to the team, and felt I had made enough of a point, but as I went for a walk in the afternoon, I had to ask myself why I withdrew, why I backed down. The text we had been looking at was John 8: 1-11, so often titled, “The woman caught in adultery”, as such she becomes the focus of the text. I have decided that I want to give it another title, I want to name it “The morality police”, and to shift the focus of the story from the woman to the accusers. It is a month since Masha Amini died in the custody of the morality police in Iran, her crime, not wearing her hijab correctly in their eyes. In the ensuing month reports are that at least 185 people, including 19 minors, have been killed, hundreds injured and thousands have been arrested by security forces, according to rights groups. The Iranian government says more than 20 security forces have been killed. Masha Amini’s death has become a focus for the rage of not only women, but people all over Iran who have declared that this is unacceptable.
I think my question when looking at the the John 8 text, would be to the woman’s accusers, is this acceptable? Is it acceptable that they bring only the woman to be accused? Where was the man, for surely she had not committed adultery on her own? Why do we throw all of the focus upon the woman when Jesus challenges the baying accusers with their sin, to the point that confronted with it they left one by one, dropping their rocks and slinking away, his first concern was dealing with them and not with her, his first concern is their hypocrisy not her sin, but theirs. When he does turn to her, it is to point out that her accusers have all disappeared, the words that follow are these:
“Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.
Neither do I condemn you, Jesus is not in the mood for condemnation, and while he does leave the challenge “do not sin again”, her sin is still not his main point. The energy has gone out of the whole situation, a situation that was at first charged with anger and fear, the poor woman must have been terrified, she knew that she was likely to be stoned, but in the space and time that Jesus creates, bending down to write in the earth while the “morality police” hurled their accusations, and demanded that he interpret the law, probably frustrating them by his silence, maybe he was writing one of the ten commandments, maybe “thou shall not kill/ murder”, but in truth we don’t know, but when he stands, we do know that his focus is firmly upon them.
“Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.“
There is no-one to be found, and the woman is sent on her way, we don’t know her story, she may have been a widow, one with no family to rely upon, doing what she could to get by. She may have been a divorced wife, a victim of the laws that allowed a husband to divorce his wife for trivial reasons, leaving her struggling with shame and stigma. She may have been conducting an affair, having taken a lover, letting love and lust blind her to the possibilities of being caught, we don’t know. What we do know is that this is a very human story, a story of the strong oppressing the weak, it is also a woman’s story, the woman stands accused, the woman is seen as the seductress, the woman for historical and cultural reasons is seen as the one in whom evil resides. We can trace this right back to the creation myth, and the treatment that Eve has been given hermeneutically through the ages. So when I began to wonder why I had backed down, I think I can trace it back to a deep seated instinct, and even belief that somehow my thinking is lesser, that I shouldn’t be confrontational, and that any articulate argument I make is somehow less valid. I don’t believe that of course, my ordination is valid ( though I have had those who declare it isn’t), but not only that, for I cannot hide behind a collar, my personhood is valid, it is not less because I am female. I am well educated and well read, and that is a privilege I don’t receive lightly, but even that can be something to hide behind. Masha Amini’s life was valid, she died because there were those more powerful who thought that she needed correcting. Today I heard the story of a 9 year old girl whose video of herself reciting a poem in defence of Masha, was beaten to death because in it she was not wearing a headscarf.
The “morality police” were in the wrong in Jesus day, they still are, and if we take any words from this story perhaps they should be these: ” neither do I condemn you”. You are not condemned, go on your way, let nothing in life separate you from God’s love.
I saw a photograph of myself today. I instantly hated it, it showed my as over-weight, I am over-weight, but the angle highlighted it. It was a photo of me welcoming nursery aged children to talk about what baptism is, it was a lovely morning, I got down to their level and talked about God’s love then I “baptised” all of the dolls and cuddly animals they had brought, including the genderfluid “Daniel Annabelle” who had changed her name and gender on the way across the road. It was a lovely morning, it is a lovely memory, but when I look at the photo I don’t see the loveliness, I see me, fat and unattractive, and I enter into my spiral of self criticism again. How could I have let myself get this way again, especially after loosing all of that weight just three years before. I know the answer, Covid, Long-Covid and depression, all of these led to inactivity, and then to comfort eating, because I am a comfort eater- why of why can’t I be someone who can’t bear to eat when depressed, why do I want chips and cheese and crisps????? I think I know the comfort eating answer, it lies back in my childhood.
I have never been comfortable in my own skin, or at least I can’t remember being so, not for any length of time. Although I was a prem baby I soon grew, tall and big-boned I take after my dad in that, and I remember worries about my weight from the age of six or seven, if there were treats I was restricted because I was fat, or getting fat, though looking back at photos that really isn’t true, I was big, but not fat. I was also fit, we swam every day after school, and I was good, at the age of 9 I was training, and was swimming 100 lengths in a training session. I loved swimming, I still love swimming, it felt good, immersed in the water my body can move with a fluidity that I could never achieve on land, I would be hidden at the back of my ballet class, and of school photos, and would always be re-cast as a boy in country dancing because I was tall. I was not comfortable in my own skin.
I was not comfortable in my own skin, that fact dogged me right through my socially awkward teenage years, by this point, my parents had taken the decision to move from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, the home I knew, to England, the swimming after school was lost to me. I hated school and struggled to fit in, not helped by the fact that we moved 4 times, for me between the ages of 11 and 18 this was totally confusing, and disorientating. I retreated into my own alternative reality, and learned a new way of being, living behind a wall of protection, but it was protecting a disintegrating and self-hating person within! I remember being desperate to fit in, and to find a relationship with a significant other like many of my less socially awkward peers, this if course meant finding a boyfriend, but that is not what I really wanted, I remember being very attracted to a girl in my form room, she had amazing blond hair, but I soon pushed those thoughts away, and like many teens utterly confused love with sex, which led to me hating myself even more.
The result of mixing love and sex was I guess inevitable, and I found myself pregnant at the age of 19, my mum wanted me to have an abortion, his mum wanted to adopt the baby, so we did the right thing and got married! He is a good man, I was going to say was, but is , is the right word, because although we are no longer married he is still very much alive. We have 5 amazing children, and 4 amazing grandchildren. There were many good times, and many good memories…
The trouble is when you are hiding behind a wall of self protection and self hatred, and never being yourself, burying your true self so deep that you loose sight of her, and when you are desperately trying to fit into the mould of good person, good wife, good mother, and feel that you are failing at every turn, the only thing you can do is add another brick to the wall. I had coping mechanisms, and they included eating, drinking and spending, anything to plug the inadequacy and unhappiness I felt. This went on for 32 years!
In the meantime God had found me, as a teenager, my efforts to be good had led me to church, a small Anglican Church on a hill top, with traditional liturgy and stained glass windows, there was comfort in repeating the words of the creed, and the Lord’s Prayer, there was comfort in the body of Christ, even before I was confirmed.
A move, due to the afore mentioned pregnancy took me to another Anglican Church, more modern than the first, and it seemed more demanding somehow, if marriages were to take place and babies were to be baptised then certain expectations had to be met. Somehow I managed the outer appearance despite the inner hatred.
Another move, then another, and a church in a village that welcomed families, we were a family by now, but once again I was adding more bricks to my outer façade while sinking inwardly, the feeling of not being good enough deepened, oddly as my faith in God grew, and somehow God meat me in the depths of the secret place I had constructed for myself, but I was living a double life, and barely coping. Another move, this time to Texas, and an awful course that I was talked into going on by Marriage Ministries International, who had definite ideas of how mew and women should be and the place they should take in the family. I almost had a break down, in fact I think I did have a breakdown, but somehow managed to rebuild the wall again if somewhat shakily.
Time passed, back in England now and a move from Essex to Norfolk, working for the Methodist Church, where a call to ministry became evident, alongside this, the cracks in our marriage were beginning to be obvious. Where on earth was God in this, where is the healing when you need it? The trouble is the healing I was seeking at that point, wasn’t really healing but the restoration of an illusion, a happy family, a happy marriage, a happily ever after story! Roses around the door etc, etc….
I have learned that God is not so concerned with how things appear, nor with roses around the door, God is concerned with the heart, and with the true soul, not the one trying so hard to be something else. The odd thing is I know, and have always known ( I think) my true self to be loved, maybe that is what has kept me from the edge of the abyss, because when I get there I find myself enveloped in love and grace, this is what I preach week after week, this is what I know, even when I am trying to appear different, and thankfully, when I put myself forward for ordained ministry this is what the church saw. The authentic self called out, was calling my whole self into being. There are no roses around the door.
God is not concerned with roses around the door, God is concerned with reality, and while the photo I dislike so much shows me that I am overweight, it also shows me that I can speak to little ones about a depth of love that is real, and holds them before they ever knew it, and I pray that they will come to know it, in a deep way, and before they begin to feel the full force of the demands that society can place upon them. It also reminds me of the grace that holds me, because the baptism liturgy contains my favourite words ” All this for you, before you could know anything of it”..
This Sunday the Gospel reading from the lectionary concerns the ten lepers who are made well by Jesus, all 10 are cured of their leprosy, but only one comes back, had they all gone and shown themselves to the priests, had they all been declared clean? We don’t know, but what we do know is one came back to Jesus, and he was a Samaritan, an outcast, an outsider, he came back, and he gave thanks. Could it be somehow, that it wasn’t simply his leprosy that received healing that day, but also something in his deeper identity, did he know himself seen and loved by God for the first time, had the stigma of his race fallen away, revealing to him that he too was fearfully and wonderfully made. Had he received a deeper healing?
A deeper healing is what I needed, despite ordination I did not feel the worthiness that was declared over me by Conference ( a part of the ordination service), I continued to feel inadequate, and to look for the roses around the door. Divorce shattered that false expectation, and sent me seeking again, I tried to add a few more bricks to my very wobbly wall, but being both shaky and wobbly now, and built with no foundations it came crashing down. I needed to find myself, my God created self, the self that I could take back to Jesus, just as the leper did, the self I could give thanks for. This is a daily task, sometimes a moment by moment task. I am slowly beginning to own my queer self, but that can be difficult in a new room when you don’t know how the room will react, will there be more trauma, because there has been plenty of that, that is why I hid in the first place… when building a wall keep adding bricks…
Today I painted a picture, its working title is through turmoil and trauma, it sort of explains my experience of the last few years, maybe the last 10, of my wall falling, and working through allowing myself to be seen, it depicts some of the trauma of the God in Love Unites Us discussions, which have wonderfully led to the decision of the Methodist Church to celebrate same sex marriages. But it wasn’t without cost. It is scattered with gold leaf, amongst the mess and the explosions. It is how life still feels at times. I know my wall building and turmoil have affected others, and I am sorry for any hurt I have caused, or illusions I have projected.
This I know, I like many am on a road from brokenness to wholeness, I like many and piecing together the fragments of an unlived life, from amongst the debris of a lived one, and in all there are blessings. My children and grandchildren are blessings, and I am thankful for them.
This I also know, the promise of God is that all will be well, that walls and roses around doors and a bit of extra weight will one day be reconciled in ultimate healing, all will be well, not only for me, but for all of us who are walking the road of life, taking one step at a time, for those who are in hiding, and for those who aren’t, all this is for you, all will be well….