Category Archives: Women

Reader question: When do we sabbath?

Every so often, I get a reader who sends me a message with a subject they’d like me to talk about. One recent question was when do women sabbath? You’ll see a bit later why I’ve broadened it to include women and men. But I appreciate why she asked the question of women particularly. On the face of it, it’s an easy answer. We roll our eyes and look at each other and acknowledge that women never sabbath. There’s always something to do – groceries, cooking, cleaning, gardening, laundry, kids, kids activities and sports, birthday parties, homework….the “sabbath” seems to have become the day that’s left over to do all the jobs we don’t have time to do in the rest of the week.

BUT it’s actually a really good question and it’s not an obvious answer.

There are several bits of the question we need to unpack. One is what exactly is the sabbath and what do we mean when we say that? The second is why women particularly?

Modern Christians talk about the sabbath as Sunday, and as a day of rest. But this is not biblically or historically correct. Let’s dig into the past a little…..

The sabbath is a peculiarly Israelite rite observed on the seventh day – Saturday – linked to God’s rest after he had completed his work of creation. For the Jews it’s the fourth commandment: “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, not your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” (Exodus 20:8-11).

It is a day to honour God and the work of his hands in creation. It is to be holy – that is, consecrated, set apart for God’s use – so it’s not a day of rest for rest’s sake.

By Jewish reckoning (who calculated days from sundown to sundown), the sabbath lasted from Friday night to Saturday night. When Jesus was crucified, the earliest Christians focussed their attention, not on this seventh day of the week (Friday to Saturday), but on the first day of the week (for the Jews that was Saturday night to Sunday night) in remembrance of the day of Christ’s resurrection.

Some early Christians, coming from the Jewish tradition, still observed the sabbath, but focussed on Sunday as of key importance. Other early Christians, converted Greeks, disliked the keeping of the sabbath as too “Jewish” for the new Christian tradition.

At no point though, was the Jewish sabbath of the seventh day, the day or rest, equated by the Christians with the first day of the week, Sunday, a day of celebration of the resurrection.

So when did “sabbath” come to mean what we modern Christians commonly think it means? Well, the Roman Emperor Constantine (who made Christianity an official religion of the Empire), in the year 321AD, ruled that the first day of the week was to be a day of rest. This is the first conflation of the sabbath rest concept with the first day of the week. And, now that Sunday was an official day of rest, Christians had the luxury of time and their meetings and liturgies became longer and more elaborate.

Gradually, over hundreds of years, the sabbath concept became attached to Sunday rather than Saturday. In addition, as the mystery of the Eucharist became centralised in the Catholic tradition, Sunday rites and practices became more somber and focussed on the body and blood of Christ, rather than rejoicing in the resurrection.

The world was also moving on. The Reformation gave people God’s word in their own language again. This assisted the rise of personal piety outside of convents and monasteries as people connected with Jesus in a way they had not been able to before. This gave Sundays a particular significance for devotion and reflection for some groups. It’s possibly this is what we’re thinking of when we say “when do we sabbath”.

In our modern world, our barrier to “sabbathing” is not language and tradition, but busy-ness and a lack of a cultural tradition. As I said above, Sunday is commonly seen as a day to catch up on chores. We go to church, we might even seek hospitality and fellowship for lunch. But by and large, we get the laundry done, clean the house, put the bins out and get the uniforms and lunches ready for the coming week. Do we rest? Possibly, by snatching some Netflix time or playing with the kids in the garden.

But when do we sabbath? The answer is, I think, never. Not in the Jewish way, but that’s ok because we’re not Jewish. Do our Sundays reflect those of the early church? Possibly in part. Those early Christians met before dawn because most had employers and owners that required their work. Their time was not their own. So they met and broke bread and worshipped and rejoiced in the risen Lord. And then they went to work. In one way, our Sunday is similar – we meet and then we go about our business. In another way our Sunday is not similar – we sit through our church services, but do we rejoice and celebrate the resurrection? Possibly not. Or possibly a bit.

This presents a conundrum. What are we supposed to do on our sabbath? Do we try and follow a Jewish tradition (but on a Sunday rather than Saturday), mixed with some early church rejoicing and fellowship? Or should we be like the Puritans of the 17th century? Being holy and spending time in reflection and consecrating our time to God?

The simple answer is that we’re not supposed to do anything. Jesus was the Lord of the sabbath (Matthew 12:1-8) and he changed the Jewish understanding of the day. But Jesus made no comment on keeping “the Lord’s day” (ie Sunday) because he hadn’t died yet.

A full answer would take a whole book, but I think there are some important take-aways. First, Jesus was a Jew and while he came to fulfil the prophets, he still set aside time for prayer and worship. This is a key element in consecrating time to God. There must be set time(s) that we keep holy at church and at home.

Second, rest is important. The prophets and Jesus himself had a lot to say about it. So it seems to me that this remains an important element of the time we set aside.

Third, personal piety and devotions are also really important. It shows obedience, but it also feeds our faith and grows our relationship with our God. It’s part of time that we keep holy and set aside and offer up to God. Giving time is a worthy sacrifice to God.

Fourth, when we talk about sabbathing, I suspect we often think of it as an individual thing. From the beginning, the sabbath and then Sunday observance was a communal thing. And, from the Reformation, piety enveloped the family. I can highly recommend reading about the Puritans. They were pretty amazing and have been given some bad press. But they were the Reformed Evangelicals of their day and their focus on family devotion and godly growth together is amazing.

Given all this, the one to set the pattern for your sabbath is you. If you are a family unit, I would recommend having a full conversation and pray about it. But be clear about what it is you want to achieve. Is it time for personal piety? Is it a family observance? If you are single, the same decisions apply. What time are you going to consecrate and how are you going to use it to honour God?

This observance will take some discipline. As a family you’ll need to work together to make sure it happens. As a single, we’ll also need some self-control to stick to our decisions. This is a man and woman thing.

But for women, this is of particular emphasis. If we are seeking a sabbath because we crave rest, there is a conversation to be had. Maybe Sundays need to look a little different. Remember, rest is super important and wanting it is OK!

If we are seeking communion with God, we must look to creating time and space for devotional time – and sometimes we need help to do that. At the very least, we should carve out time for retreats and conferences. This gives us a solid chunk of time to commune with God and shut out the noise of the world for a little while.

We also need to give ourselves a bit of a talking to. Because a sabbath is not about the blessed relief and quietness of a cloister. And it’s not about walking slow motion on a beach while we listen to the Bible on audible. We are not in a fantasy. We are in the real world and we can be our own worst enemy. There is always something to do and something that needs to be cleaned or cooked or folded. We need to be tougher with ourselves. We need to choose to be ok with some chaos if it means taking some sabbath time.

Above all, grace. We don’t have to do anything. Jesus has already done it all. Be kind to yourself. Build your sabbath on God’s grace.

Dissecting emotional abuse and why it’s so easy to let it happen

Some things sound like a cop-out or an excuse. Emotional abuse is one of those. Physical abuse we can see. Psychological abuse we can understand. But emotional abuse seems a bit wish-washy. Doesn’t everyone say mean things from time to time? Does that make everyone an abuser? It feels like a blanket “men are mean” accusation, a large net that scoops up everyone and devalues real abuse,

This is why I feel moved to dissect this. Because it is real abuse. And there are people around us suffering from this right now, or suffering with post-trauma. If we can understand it, we can help them. So let’s get into it.

It’s hard for people to understand emotional abuse. First, much of the abuse is unseen so when abuse is declared, people can only judge by the behaviours they have seen and what they are hearing doesn’t seem to match what they’ve witnessed.

Second, people judge the behaviour by how they would feel, and if they wouldn’t feel abused by it, the behaviour is not judged to be inappropriate. The feelings of the victim are judged in comparison to the feelings of someone who is not in that situation.

Third, it’s hard to explain. A popular perception is that emotional abuse is just saying mean things or calling names. It can be those things, but it is so much more. It is the gradual compression of the spirit (more on this below).

Fourth, the victim is subject to the behaviour for years and so it is their “normal”. I’ve written before about the surprising number of women who don’t realise they are in an abusive situation (you can read it here). Think the mythical frog in a pot of boiling water. If you drop a frog into boiling water, it will jump straight out. If you put the frog in cold water, it will keep swimming while it gradually heats up. It grows accustomed to the increasing temperature – until it’s too late.

It is a subtle but tectonic shift over many years. But there is a process. Which means there are red flags you can look out for – flags by which you can protect yourself, or, flags to help you can recognise if someone you know is in a situation like this. I’ve summarised it in the diagram below and then talked through what those steps mean.

“Abuse” is a strong word. Not many people think they are “an abuser”. That’s because people tend to judge themselves by their intentions and other people by their actual behaviour. The majority of abusers intentions are not to abuse. But their behaviour is abusive. Let’s look at the process.

At the beginning of an abusive relationship, there may be some bullish behaviour and subtle control and manipulation. But two things blind the victim to their presence:

  1. The victim’s own confidence, self-esteem, coping mechanisms and support network are sufficient to override any disquiet or cope confidently with any shortcomings in the spirit of compromise within a new relationship; and
  2. Lovebombing” is a real technical team that describes an abusers modus operandi. Here are the main red flags – they will hook up quickly after the last relationship; they will isolate their new partner, shut out friends and so on and place all attention and affection on the partner (and themselves) so they are deeply and exclusively connected. Even if the victim has a large social network, there is an emotional interdependence created, an exclusive bubble; they will likely engage in repeated romantic gestures, extravagant attention and usually will co-habit and/or propose quickly. The reason this is so effective is that the victim is the subject of a Hollywood style level of affection. This behaviour covers over a multitude of subtle manipulation, coercion and power playing.

The next step occurs after some time of diminishing. The victim’s confidence gradually diminishes, their support networks might diminish as they are isolated, or their feeling of being able to talk to those networks diminishes. At the same time, the grand romance diminishes.

Over time, the victim has become more and more vulnerable to bullying, manipulation, control and coercion. But, in the style of the frog in the water, the victim might not know they are in boiling water. They might not know that their partner’s behaviour is not acceptable. It has become their normal.

The victim at this point may be soldiering on in their public life but inside feeling gradually crushed. At some point, as the capacity to cope dips below the level of adverse behaviour experienced, the wheels will fall off. If you’re interested, I’ve written before about the relationship between coping and trauma here.

This can be where the point of recognition occurs – the recognition of being in boiling water.

When the point of recognition occurs, the victim’s responses to the abuser will change as they realise what is happening to them. This is a critical juncture. Because as the victim’s behaviour changes, so does the abuser’s. The bullying and control and manipulation will begin to escalate. Volatility will become greater and more frequent, as will mood swings and the unpredictability as the abuser senses loss of control. Usually this is where gaslighting also escalates – an abusers process of making the victim believe it is their fault, or not happening, or even that they themselves are the abuser (read more here).

Then comes another downward spiral. Self-doubt in the victim leads to hopelessness and despair. This is on top of the emotionally abusive tactics (which are varied, diverse and insidious) which can generate real and deep fear and high levels of anxiety. The volatility of the abuser means that anger explosions don’t even need to happen for the abuse to occur – the fear is enough. Think of it this way: I have a new dog. At first when I was training her, I’d use words and tone of voice and even actions. Now, a mere 3 months later, my dog only has to see the look on my face to feel sure she is about to be shut outside and she’ll dart under the couch to hide from me. Victims have been trained and conditioned to know when to feel fear.

At this point, several possible outcomes are possible. The victim may reach breaking point and leave. Or, the abuse may escalate to physical violence as well.

This is not an outcome that can be tolerated by our community. But it need not reach this point for it to become not tolerable. Emotional abuse ought not to be tolerated by our community either. It is emotional violence. It is damaging and scarring.

When we understand emotional abuse (and this short blog by no means explains all the nuances!) we can become more aware to behaviour that is not ok. It may not be behaviour that is abusive yet – but yet is the key word. If we can see where behaviour is heading in that direction, if we can see some red flags, we can help and support the people around us who may be experiencing this emotional violence and damage.

Top 10 Christian books to feed your faith

I do love a Top 10, but sometimes they can get a bit same-y. I’m also always on the hunt for more good Christian books though. So here’s a list of 10 gems I’ve read, that you may not have seen on other lists. There’s a mix Christian living, theology, missions, history and biography so hopefully there’s something for everyone. I’ve added a link to where you can buy each book, and read more about it. Most books are available from Koorong in Australia. All are also available from Book Depository for non-Aussies.

1. One Forever by Rory Shiner (Matthias Media)

This is a short and easy read but it packs a punch. Shiner unpacks what it means to be “in Christ”. It’s something we say a lot, but do we really understand it? And, understand it in a way that truly impacts our emotions, thoughts and behaviours? I read this book across two afternoons but it stayed with me for ages as I processed it. It helped me look afresh at my relationship with Christ in a really profound and helpful way.

Very readable, under $10 AUD from Matthias Media – you can find it here if you want to buy.

2. Made for More by Hannah Anderson (Moody Publishers)

Hannah Anderson in American. I know how that sounds, but if you live outside of the US, usually we have a horrid habit of rolling our eyes a bit. We expect books from America to be a bit more “ra-ra-ra” than we’re used to. Well let me dispel the myth. Anderson’s book on living in God’s image is beautifully written, thought provoking, specific and practical. As I read, I got some very clear ideas about how to apply the teaching in my day to day life.

Readable, but worth taking some time over. Also a good candidate for reading with a friend or small group. You can get either hard copy or ebook here at Koorong or for the same price at Book Depository.

3. Jesus and the Rise of Early Christianity By Paul Barnett (InterVarsity Press)

This is one for the history nerds (of which I am one), but is very readable for non-nerds! I get fascinated by the history of the earliest church and Paul Barnett is one of the best historians and writers in my view. He’s the kind of writer who writes history like it’s a story book. This book is completely enthralling and helped me to see so much more in the gospels and Acts by knowing the historical background and culture of the time.

Very readable but probably not for everyone. If you want to have a run at some history, this is a great place to start. If you’re already well versed in history, this is also a cracker. Barnett has that ability to reach a broad audience. You can get it at Koorong but sadly it’s a lot cheaper at Book Depository.

4. Tyndale by David Teems (Thomas Nelson Publishers)

OK this is history too, but it’s biography so it’s a big life story. Tyndale is one of the most influential people of all time – he translated the Bible into English. It was the 16th century in England and he was so devoted to God and to the Bible and to making it accessible to people, that he endured enormous hardship, persecution and exile (and eventual execution). He loved language and would not stop until he had faithfully translated the whole book. His efforts changed the world as it was known.

A stunningly written book. It changed my view of the pages of scripture itself and the hardship endured to allow people like me to read God’s word for myself.

This one is cheaper at Koorong where you can get the hard copy and ebook.

5. Good News About Injustice by Gary Haugen (InterVarsity Press)

This one was a life changer for me. Gary Haugen worked for the US Department of Justice and was involved in the investigation into the Rwandan genocide. From such a horrific experience, he founded the International Justice Mission (which also now has an arm in Australia). IJM focuses on freeing people from slavery and servitude at the same time as working with legislators and police departments to remove corruption. He is an incredible man and IJM is an incredible organisation. This book brought me face to face with the hideous evil of the world, at the same time as the beauty of the gospel and its power to change things through us.

Very readable – a must-read for everyone. Only about $18 AUD from Koorong.

6. Amazing Grace by Eric Metaxas (Authentic Media)

Another biography but boy is it worth it! William Wilberforce converted to Christianity in his twenties. It was the 18th century and the industrial revolution was beginning. The slave trade was going full tilt. Wilberforce’s story is a wonderful story of conversion and a faith in God that led him to doggedly pursue the abolition of the slave trade in England, and the emancipation of all slaves in the British colonies. It was a life long battle and what he achieved was nothing short of stunning.

Highly readable. Metaxas is a journalist and knows how to bring a story to his audience. Available at Koorong.

7. True Feelings by Carolyn Mahaney and Nicole Whitacre (Crossways Books)

An unexpected gem. I think I bought this on a whim and it sat on my shelf for ages. When I read it I was super sorry I hadn’t read it before. I hadn’t really read anything on this subject before and, being grandly emotional myself, I found it fascinating and really useful. I looked again at the splendid array of my emotions, and why God gave them to me, and how I can channel them most usefully.

Highly readable, I read this in a few sittings. Also a good candidate to read with a friend of or small group. Available at Koorong in hard copy and ebook.

8. Holiness by J. C. Ryle (Moody Press)

This was another life changing book. I read the abridged version but this was meaty enough. I was interested in how to live a holy life, and what that truly looked like. The first chunk of the book was about sin and at first I was a little annoyed at having to wade through stuff I “already knew”. But I didn’t know. And as I read on, I was convicted so heavily of my sin that as I got the holiness part, I was completely ready to take it on board. Holy living without the conviction of guilt is just fakery. I just loved this book on so many levels. It’s quite old so the language is a bit old fashioned, but it’s still very readable – the language is not so different that it made it difficult to read. It’s available at Koorong in the classics section.

9. The Fruitful Life by Jerry Bridges (NavPress Publishing)

This is a classic. Bridges also wrote Respectable Sins which is also brilliant. This takes the reader through the fruits of the spirit and how they may be cultivated in our hearts. I love Bridges easy style and non-judgemental approach when talking about less than godly behaviours. This is a good one to work through by yourself or in a small group. It’s one I go back to every few years as a helpful corrective and encouragement.

Super readable and available at Koorong as hard copy and ebook.

10. My Seventh Monsoon by Naomi Reed (Authentic Media)

This is a simple autobiographical account of a woman and her husband and their journey to Nepal as missionaries. The story is compelling as you see a God working clearly and tangibly in every step of their journey. I was impressed by Naomi’s fortitude and courage (as I am with any mission worker). What kept me transfixed though was the clear knowledge that God had gone before them.

Beautiful, enthralling, thrilling. Available at Koorong in hard copy and as an ebook. This is the first of three books detailing their mission work.

Some lessons for Mother’s Day from my great great grandmother

Mother’s Day can suck for a lot of people. For some it’s a beautiful and wonderful day with your own mum, and you as a mum. For others it’s a reminder of everything we don’t have.

As a single mum I find it a mixed blessing. It’s a day like any other because who else is going to take care of the kids? There’s no special breakfast in bed, or gifts, or lunches. It’s just the same old same old. Except with a gnawing feeling that other mums are getting something that I don’t.

Except this year. I’m determined not to feel that way this year. Here’s why.

My great-great-grandmother was born Sarah Ann Lee in Hampshire in about 1857. She married my great-great-grandfather (Henry) and they had about 6 children together. He was away at sea a lot – he was an engineer in the Royal Navy just as steam ships were starting to be introduced. Sarah Ann died of tuberculosis after the birth of their last child and Henry married the housekeeper by proxy to ensure there was someone to take care of the children (because I suppose that’s the kind of thing one did back in those days).

By all accounts the housekeeper was not very nice to the children. He was a very loving father though. He wrote a letter to each of the children individually, of which I have inherited one.

“Her children arise up and call her blessed, her husband also, and he praiseth her.” Prov. 31:28.

A token from the father to the children.

In affectionate remembrance of a loving wife and devoted mother. She was the inspirer of all that is best in my character and I do pray her ennobling qualities may be reflected in the children. Patience and contentment with an exalted sense of truth and right pervaded her whole life which from childhood was one of complete trust in God. She always had a cheery word for those in trouble and the old folks of her acquaintance will ever remember her love for them and they with us all sadly miss her bright and happy disposition.”

It’s beautiful. As I reflect on these words, I note how many of the fruits of the spirit were in her. I don’t suppose that she was a perfect angel at all. This is Henry’s loving eulogy to their children, not an editorial comment about her every day behaviour. But there is much to admire here.

She was an inspirer of good in people around her, she was kind, patient, joyful, content, and above all had a complete trust in God. These qualities she, and Henry, prayed would be reflected in the children.

So this Mother’s Day, I’m not going to look at Facebook to see what gifts everyone is getting or what was delivered to their bedside for breakfast. I’m going to look at my children to see the many admirable qualities they already possess. I’m going to take a moment to self-reflect on the good qualities that have been passed on to me from my mum. I’m just going to take time to appreciate the beauty around me in the things that are not obvious, but are so tangible.

“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23). I see these already in my kids. I mean they also have the gifts of being forgetful, messy and really annoying, but that’s pretty normal! And one thing I know is how proud of them I am for their kind and innocent hearts, their love of God and their wide eyed joy.

Mother’s Day might suck – but we can choose to treat it differently. Switch off Facebook. Take some time. Self-reflect. Look at those around you and see what qualities you have inspired in them, and they in you.

Look to Christ Jesus because great-great-grandma Walker’s beauty was underpinned by a complete trust in God. He is the inspirer of all that is good in us, and what he grows in me, I pray I can pass on to my children, and always see it there, and praise them for it.

Is Medieval the new modern in doing singleness?

I like the idea of Ye Olde Dayes. In my imagination it’s always a balmy English summer and there’s long flowing gowns to go meandering through the cloisters in. It’s a nice life, a calm life, a peaceful life.

In the Middle Ages, entering a convent was an option for a woman seeking safety, and seeking freedom. We tend to think of it as a punishment for wayward aristocratic daughters. In reality, a convent could be a place of retreat and learning and service to God, which many women genuinely sought.

When I separated, I wanted to hide from the world. I wanted some kind of “convent” (except for Protestants and with kids). I wanted a peaceful life where I could retreat from a world that was cruel and cold and harsh. I desperately wanted an escape to a place of safety and calm. Except I didn’t want a nunnery for any devotional reasons. It was for me, and my convenience, not for God or his glory.

But there was something in the concept that I kept returning to. Separation is a lonely business. You have to work out how to do life all over again. You have to work out how to think, how to be. And yet at the same time, be completely consistent and solid for your kids.

I’ve talked before about my decision to remain single (you can read the start of my thought process here). The question I needed to answer for myself was how am I going to be single? How am I going to live this life in direct relation to God? Me? Separated, divorced, alone, struggling in the world?

The answer came to me in my Bible reading one day. I was in the book of Ruth (I know – what a cliche!). Ruth, a foreigner and an outsider, alone in a strange world, is noticed by Boaz. When Boaz shows her kindness, she says to him “why have I found such favour in your eyes that you notice me – a foreigner?” (Ruth 2:10).

And that was it. That was how I felt about God. He had showed me unbelievable kindness in that time – a clear and palpable kindness at a time when I had nothing. And I couldn’t quite believe that he would treat me with such compassion and abundance. What Ruth said to Boaz, is what my heart was saying to God.

That right there is what helped me to start working out how to do life with a God as my Boaz, my kinsman redeemer, my husband.

The first thing I did was to buy rings for my marriage finger. Nothing expensive – a symbol of what and who I was committing to. The top one represents the blood of Christ. The middle one is the wheat of the field where Ruth spoke to Boaz. The bottom one is because it was pretty (because that is also ok).

I stepped up my devotional activity. I increased my prayer times. I became more consistent with my reading of Christian history and biography. This becomes a basis for focusing outwards, being a Christian in the world, witnessing through word and deed. I’m still looking for ways to grow in this new existence, writing and reaching more people. The focus of my singleness though, and how I use my time, is not escape, it is God. I am single for him, I am married to him.

Don’t think for a minute that I am saying that I am nailing it. I still have down times, crazy times, busy times – nothing is a constant state. It is up and down, good and bad and somewhere in between (mostly in between).

But I know that God is my husband. This is how God styled himself in the Old Testament to bring comfort and confidence to his people. In Isaiah, God speaks words of comfort to his exiled people. He will bring them home, he says. He will bring them provision and safety and strength. “Do not be afraid; you will not be put to shame. Do not fear disgrace; you will not be humiliated. You will forget the shame of your youth and remember no more the reproach of your widowhood. For your maker is your husband – the Lord almighty is his name – the Holy One of Israel is your redeemer.” (Isaiah 54:4-5)

Again, as with Ruth, God speaks words to outsiders who he will bring home into a familial relationship with him. And not just any familial relationship. A spouse. A spouse who protects and provides, who strengthens and encourages.

God is my Boaz, my kinsman redeemer, my Lord, my treasure. My “convent” is in the world. I can still retreat and learn and serve, but among my community. I want my community to be able to see and understand my decision. I want to talk about my relationship with God, how he saved me, how I found favour with him, how he noticed me, a foreigner.

Use my label to reach me, not to judge me

Church is a place of labels. Some are logistically useful – we wear name tags so we can engage with others in fellowship. Some are purely organizational, categorizing us into ministries so we can be pastored more easily. But some labels are signs above our heads for all to see. These labels are burdensome to the bearer and scary or embarrassing to the reader – unless you know what to do with them. Then these labels become a signal as to how you can love and care for that person. It becomes a bridge into their life where you can sit with them.

“Single mum” is just such a label. Of course, there are “single dads” as well – but I can’t speak for them, I can only speak to my own experience. But I’m assuming a lot of what I say here will resonate with them too.

The best first step in ministering to single mums is to recognise (and therefore help them not to feel) that they are a rare thing: that its just “them”. Sadly, in Australia, 22% of families are single parent families, and of that 22%, 87% of them are lone mother families.[1] It is unknown how many single mums currently make up our church congregations. It is likely that it is lower than the general population average, given that the number of divorced/separated people outside of church is 48% and 12% within the church. This is a big gap, but not so big that a single parent should feel alone. If your congregation is 100 people, there could be up to 12 people who are struggling with this reality and this label.

The next step is to understand a little of what a single mum might be feeling (again, I can only speak for women here):

  • There is terror. This is real. A single mum faces financial, social and logistical challenges that place her in danger of poverty, unemployment and homelessness, and this is not just in the poorer areas we imagine. At one point in my post-separated journey, I had no job, no money, no prospects and came closer than I realized to losing my house. I live in a pretty cozy middle-class area. I was absolutely terrified. The worries crowd in, one on top of the other and there seems no end or solution in sight.
  • There is loneliness. We can be surrounded by beautiful Christian community. But at some point, they go home to their families and you are left alone. You wonder who your family will be.
  • There is exhaustion. The logistics of taking care of kids can be easy and it can be hard, especially when you are working full time which most single mums have to, to make ends meet. The physical tiredness can’t be pushed aside. What is important to get a picture of though, is the emotional exhaustion. Doing all the parenting – the discipline, the counselling, the loving, the teaching, the cheerleading, the supporting, the bed times, the dinner times, the school drop off, the pickup, the bath times, the bed times – and there’s no back up. It’s exhausting emotionally and it’s intense and sustained.
  • There is love. When it’s just you and the kids, the kids become everything and, speaking for my own, my heart pumps for their kindness and joy and humor.

So, all that said, how can our churches better minister to single parents? Perhaps even encourage more single parents to come to church for the eternal perfection of a relationship with Jesus and, in the meantime, find a new community of family.

I am incredibly blessed to say that many of my pointers here are not because this is what I realized I needed, but my community of sisters (and brothers) who just appeared with these supports to me during my time, and still do. These are people who are living out the biblical principles of kingdom community:

“How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity! For there the Lord has commanded the blessing, life forevermore” Psalm 133:1, 3

  • Sometimes we need your material support: Before I got another job (and sometimes after) and I was in need, every so often I would come home to an envelope or bag of groceries on my doorstep. Another friend from time to time tells me she’s bringing dinner over. She doesn’t ask me if I need it, she just brings it and drops it off with a smile and a hug. Trust me when I say Centrelink does not stretch far so these gifts got us through many a week.
  • Open your home and your family: Every second Friday is a hard one for me. I come home to an empty house. I have beautiful friends though who bring me into their home. Its not a dinner party, I just join their family at their table. It’s inclusive, it’s normal, it’s joyful.
  • Give us a reason to put our bras on: Some days it can be easy to sink your head down and let the depression take over. A friend of mine one Saturday asked me if I’d like to join her and her friend for coffee. I didn’t feel like it, but I went. We started meeting frequently after that. It gives me a reason to get up, get dressed and get out into the world.
  • Cut us some slack on the “hallmark” days at church: A lot of churches do things for Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and even Valentines Day. These are hard times for us. We probably won’t come to church those days.
  • Don’t assume we can’t or don’t want to serve: OK, it’s going to be hard, but there are things we can do. Some might not want to but helping us to find a serving niche supports us in the church, it keeps us connected (because it is very easy to become isolated). It also tells us that you value us and that our “label” doesn’t also say “Failure – not to serve”.
  • Sometimes we need “dad jobs” done: I have learned how to do a lot of things that I never knew how to do before. But sometimes there are things that just stump me – putting new door handles on, replacing a kitchen cabinet door, replacing windscreen wipers. Sometimes we just need a Christian brother or sister to help us with practical around-the-house things.
  • Don’t assume we are looking for new husbands: The first line of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice could have been written for the modern church – here it is amended for people like me: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single [woman] in possession of [children] must be in want of a [husband].” I personally decided very early that I would not be in another relationship, partially for theological reasons and partially for personal reasons. Others may decide differently. Single mums don’t come to church (on the whole) like it’s a weird singles bar. We come to be with Jesus. Help us to do that. Because ultimately, in our time of need, he is what we need.
  • Help us to live in our singleness for the gospel: Whatever people decide to do, there is a period of time when they exist in singleness. Singleness in the church can be difficult whether you are a never-married, a single-again or a widow(er). We need help to discover the potential and purpose in our singleness so that we can grow as disciples and live for Christ.

Jesus says his community of believers is his family (Matthew 12:49-50) and in the book of Acts, we see the community of first believers living with strong bonds of unity. I have this family of believers around me. They saw the sign above my head and used it as a bridge to come into my life and treat me with grace and gentleness and understanding.

The thing that unites and bonds us though, is Jesus – the most gracious and gentle person of all. Help us to stay in church. Help us to stay connected. Everything I have mentioned here helps women like me to survive and get stronger. It helps us to not become isolated from church. It may help to build strong bonds to church because it shows how the church can reach out to people where they are without judgement or recrimination. Ultimately, it helps us to keep our eyes fixed Jesus. The kindness of his community, shows us a present and real picture of God’s love in action.

[1] http://www.hisheartministrytraining.com.au/one-together/

Just don’t be a jerk

Here’s a shocking thing.

A recent study of 122,000 women found that over a third had been in abusive relationships. But of those 65% of remaining women who said they hadn’t been in an abusive relationship, almost two thirds had experienced problematic, harsh and potentially abusive treatment from a partner.* We tend to think of “abuse” as something visible that those other horrible people do. What this kind of study shows is that many are well into the grey-area of abusive behavior in their relationships – and may not even know it.

A study as far back as 1997 found that over a third of married women had been sexually coerced by their husbands. The reason this is important is that this is not just rape. This is not just coercing particular sexual acts that a partner is not comfortable with.  This can be actions that people don’t even realise are abusive. “Coercion” can include exploiting a woman’s sense of duty, expecting sex after spending money, bullying, repeated pressure or humiliating women into unwanted sex.** This can be particularly difficult to gauge because men and women are created so differently. There is the old joke that men are toasters and women are slow cookers. Women need some encouragement whereas (generally), men need far less encouragement. But when does “encouragement” become “coercion”?

How do we know? How can we tell? And then, how do we approach it better?

The Sydney Diocese drafted in 2017 (and formally accepted at synod in 2018) a document called “Responding to Domestic Abuse: Policy and Good Practice Guideline.”*** It is a great piece of work. At one point, it quotes a clinical psychologist and clergy wife:

“When you haven’t personally experienced abuse, it’s easy to listen with an attitude of
assessing whether what is being reported is really abuse. ‘Would I find that abusive?
Doesn’t everyone argue sometimes?’”

This is the trap that we (and those with their toes in the abusive end of the swimming pool) can fall into. Those listening to the victim’s story may mentally evaluate whether they would find that behavior abusive and judge the story on their own response. The question that has to be asked is not “Would I find that behavior intimidating?”. This is not about you. This is about how the victim perceives the behavior and emotionally responds. The question to the victim must be “Did you feel safe in that confrontation?”

You may not have found that behavior unacceptable. But you’re not the person living that life. When a person has been repeatedly subject to bullying and abuse over a long period of time, their capacity to deal with any situation is far less than someone who has a normal threat response.

Even worse, people can judge their own behavior as acceptable because they themselves would not find it intimidating, scary or abusive, or, have enough cognitive dissonance to not believe that of themselves when called out on it. I have heard a well-educated middle class male state, regarding an incident in which the police were called, say afterwards that the incident couldn’t be counted as part of his behavior pattern because he was upset. Here’s the newsflash. Hardly any abusive person thinks they are abusive – they think they are justified. Saying “You can’t count that, I was upset” is about as cliched as it gets unfortunately.

We hear about domestic abuse on the news a lot and yet things don’t seem to change. Is this partially because we are not yet having a conversation about worrying or inappropriate behavior before it becomes a news story? Do we need to talk more about the kind of behavior that dabbles in that gray-area? Do we need to look more closely at just basic appropriate behavior within our relationships?

This issue requires great humility and honesty and repentance from us all if we are to change this. The first place to start is God’s word:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” (Galatians 5:22-23

Gentleness and self-control. The cause of much pain and conflict is pride and power. How much might be avoided if our interactions with our partners were marked not by pride and power, but by gentleness and self-control. This would mean regulating our natural negative emotions and processing them through our discipleship growth.

Anyone can do a marriage course (and they should!) but we can fall into the trap of making our discipleship a personal goal which is compartmentalised from outward interactions. The fruit of our journey in Christ-likeness must be shown in our interactions – and particularly our conflicts – with others.

What we need is for our churches and ministers to have discussion groups and seminars and courses on appropriate behavior in marriage. What does it look like? I mean, really look like? Get down and dirty with the truth. Are there some basic things that could come across as intimidating just because of physical differences? Are there things that we personally do that could come across the wrong way? When we get angry (which is natural), how do we process and regulate it so we can respond with gentleness? Or do we let it come out, un-filtered, in our words, tone, pitch, vocal register, our physicality, facial expression and stance. Are there things that your partner finds intimidating but doesn’t say? We need to find opportunities to talk about these things outside of conflict.

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7) This doesn’t say “Attack is the best form of defence.” This doesn’t say “You must prove yourself right.” This definitely does not say “If they don’t agree with you, they are by nature wrong.” What this boils down to is gentleness and self-control.

What this can also boil down to is just don’t be a jerk. This does not just go for men. This is also women. Women can be jerks too. Our discipleship growth is not the only answer, but it sure starts laying a good foundation for some long-term cultural shifts. We need to not respond to these harsh truths with hurt pride, but with humility and willingness to work together – and work hard.

What this also needs is a conversation. Because there is some pretty awful behavior happening that ends up in very bad places. It also ends up with people in our churches crumbling on the inside and needing things to change and needing someone to love and protect them.

Just because we are grown up doesn’t mean that we know everything. There may well be some behavior that needs to be repented of. At the very least there should be conversations within relationships and groups about what this might mean. And if you’re going well (which most are!), be a support to a brother or sister. Help them to understand and help them to course-correct.

There should be a commitment to learning and growing together – which is exactly what the Bible exhorts us to do anyway. We will not be finished until the last day, so in the Spirit, let us lift each other up, not pull each other down. But please, just don’t be a jerk.

 

* https://www.businessinsider.com.au/two-thirds-of-women-dont-realise-they-experience-abusive-behaviour-2018-5?r=US&IR=T

** https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12477095

and

https://truthout.org/articles/its-time-to-confront-sexual-harassment-within-marriage/

*** https://safeministry.org.au/wp-content/uploads/Responding-to-Domestic-Abuse-Policy-Guidelines-and-Resources.pdf