Tag Archives: #relationships

We need more men (and women) to be outraged

This week, Hannah Baxter and her three children (aged 6, 4 and 3) were murdered by being burned alive in their car on what was supposed to be a routine school run. The murderer was Hannah’s ex-husband and father to the three children.

Something like this happens every week here in Australia. In other countries it is more often. Here in Australia, this is relatively ubiquitous news but every so often, as was the case with this one, the country is shocked. There is a conversation about why our domestic violence statistics are so high. There is a vigil. Then nothing happens. Until the next time a woman is murdered.

As I read the opinion pieces, I feel myself swinging between sadness over such a senseless tragedy, anger and outrage that nothing ever seems to happen and so nothing ever changes, and heart-soreness and despair over the lack of voice for women. Are we so dispensable? Are we just to accept that this just the kind of thing that can happen to us?

Is verbal abuse, put downs, physical, emotional, sexual abuse and possibly murder, just something we have to accept as being part of the female existence?

How can this be? How can we be OK with this as a status quo?

The opinion pieces are largely written by women who are expressing their outrage. Unfortunately, outraged women can be sidelined easily – they are banging on again. Of course they are outraged, they are always outraged by this kind of thing.

Women’s anger is seen as un-womanly. It’s screechy and inappropriate. It apparently shows we are overly emotional, irrational and out of control. But women’s outrage and anger has been, throughout history, channeled to effect enormous social change. Women’s outrage has awarded women the vote, it has changed legislation that is discriminatory and unprotective of the disadvantaged, it has started charities, it has opened orphanages and hospitals.

But when it comes to the protection of women in society, women’s outrage can only achieve so much. We need the men to be outraged too.

Where are all the outraged men?

Seriously, where are you?

I need to be clear here – there are many outraged men, and there are many men working tirelessly in the background to make a positive and lasting change, in individuals lives and in our culture. We won’t hear from these people necessarily, but they are there. And many face this issue head on every day in their jobs. I can’t even imagine what they go through and how they process those emotions.

What I mean by this is a call to action for men who could do something but might not be currently – for varied and valid reasons.

If anything is going to change, we need more men to be outraged by this status quo too. If its just women publicly outraged by the abuse and murder of other women, the whole debate can be put on one side as a “women’s issue”. By its very nature then, the issue can be largely ignored.

But this is an everybody issue. It’s a societal issue. It’s our sons and brothers and fathers and nephews and Bible study participants and co-workers and friends. This is not about women protecting women but everyone protecting women. It’s also about all of us together, and with men leading the charge, modelling and teaching other men what is acceptable and appropriate behaviour. It is about men calling out other men when they are saying words or displaying behaviour that is not OK. This is about men being real men.

This is even more so for Christian men. Let me explain.

The death of Hannah Baxter and her children, the death of those other women every week, the beating and violent oppression of women breaks God’s heart. It is contrary to everything He wants for us and it is an injustice that carries the full weight of God’s outrage.

God made men and women equal in dignity and value. This alone should make men feel equally responsible for their lives (and equally outraged at their murder). The Old Testament is full of God’s view of justice (Exodus 22:22 and Deuteronomy 10:18 are prime examples of God’s exhortation to care for the poor, disadvantaged, fatherless and alone). In the New Testament, men are to care for their women like Christ loved the church (Ephesians 5:25). Christ died for the church. That’s how sacrificial the love of woman is in God’s eyes.

Many of our men are absolutely trying to live to these principles. My words are are a plea to those who may not be, or may not be thinking about it.

God gives men a higher bar. He gives men the bar that Christ himself stretched to – sacrifice of total self.

That being the case, how can we support outraged Christian men to act and to speak publicly as many women are doing? Many aren’t, for many reasons. I wonder if partially it might be that the news is ubiquitous. It might be that feeling that it’s someone else’s story and doesn’t really have anything to do with them personally. It might be a sense of “What can I do?”. I get that. That’s understandable. For all of us.

But it is your story. It’s all of our story. It’s your responsibility because God has called you to be a leader and protector. We can’t do this on our own. We need you.

I don’t know what you can do but perhaps, you could talk about it with your Bible study – just raising awareness and the level of discussion among men (particularly Christian men) would be a great start. Talk about it with your spouse – how can you parent or be friends in a way that starts to correct culture?

Can you start raising your own voice? Can you, as a group of Christian men, talk to your ministers and ask, as a community of God’s men, what you can do? What can your church do? Can you, as a church and as individuals, write to your local member? Exercise your democratic voice? I am going to start writing to my State and Federal members and anyone else I can think of. It’s only me and it’s a start. But what if we all did it? And what if it wasn’t just women but hundreds of men raising their voices too?

What can you do in your workplace? Can you be the one to ask if there is a domestic violence policy? Can you champion it? Can you open the discussion with other men in your business to talk together about what you can do to be aware, protective and supportive of women?

What else can we do? Do you, or your business, have any influence or contacts that could support channels of change?

I don’t know what the answer is. But the more men that make themselves seen and heard being outraged by this issue and willing to stand up against it alongside women, the greater the waves of change will occur.

But I know that something needs to happen. If Hannah Baxter and her poor children’s death goes the way of all others, we’ll be upset for a bit but then nothing will happen until another woman is brutally murdered. The only way things change is to show that men will no longer tolerate this, and are wiling to stand up and do something about it.

Anger that leads to the kind of violence we are talking about is so wrong. But anger that is channeled through outrage to effect change is so positive. We need all of us to express outrage publicly that I’m sure so many have inside. We need you to show it publicly. We need you to feel compelled to stand and act.

We cannot do this alone. Please – let’s work together to change what breaks God’s heart.

An open letter from a happy single person on Valentine’s Day

It’s the week before Valentine’s Day. It must be because I’ve started seeing articles and memes about being kind to, and thoughtful of, all the lonely miserable single people. And no doubt that is a thing. Valentine’s Day for many is a reminder of all the things you don’t have. That can be excruciating. Especially when everything everywhere is geared towards rubbing it in your face – 2 for 1 deals for you and that special someone, people forever asking “What are you doing for Valentine’s Day” and even worse, posting their romantic excesses on Facebook. It triggers an extra loneliness because every other day of the year you might feel alone, but on this particular day, you feel super lonely.

We absolutely need to be sensitive to people’s needs around this time.

But lets not assume that every single person is lonely and miserable. I’m single-again (divorced) and decided from the get-go that I would not be in another relationship. So if I was not going to be in a relationship, that means a deliberate choice for single and celibate.

But I am generally a very content alone person. I am happy to be on my own and have a community of Christian brothers and sisters who I can spend time with if I choose. I suppose I miss companionship from time to time – someone to tell about your day, someone to watch TV with, someone to cook with. I guess I feel it the most when times are hard. There’s nobody to fall back on, no one to support you. You have only your own mental and emotional resources and it can be exhausting.

But that doesn’t happen that often in the grand scheme of things and on the whole, I’m very content in my life choice.

How do you “get” that kind of satisfaction? It could be age. Or experience perhaps. It helps that I’m generally very satisfied in my own company. But I have something else. I am content with Jesus.

I can almost hear everybody’s eyes rolling at this point.

I’m not saying “Jesus is my boyfriend” and I’m not saying he is my imaginary friend. I’m saying that an overall happiness in the knowledge of God seeps into a more general state of peace and contentment.

I am also not saying its a silver bullet – an easy fix to “the problem of singleness”. Because it definitely isn’t. Like I said above, some weeks are really hard.

What I am saying is that I don’t see my singleness as a problem. It was my personal choice on theological grounds, but I didn’t (and don’t) see it as a self-flagellating abstinence for the sake of the kingdom.

I see my singleness for what it is – a personal choice, guided by scripture, as to how to live my life.

This seems counter cultural. Our lives are generally focussed on pairing up. It’s a societal norm and cultural expectation. Not being married is to be lacking in something. To not want to be married is something that’s a bit weird.

But Jesus was single.

It’s interesting that in the early church, it was actually celibacy that was exalted to rock-star status. By the time of Martin Luther (and ever since), the pendulum has swung the other way, with the exaltation of marriage. This is problematic in many ways as our churches can be places of great community for families, but much less so for singles, who are seen as “in waiting” til they have spouses of their own.

I’m not waiting. I’m happily single and celibate for the sake of the gospel. I read a lot and I get to know Jesus a little bit more every day, and it is vastly and peacefully satisfying.

I’m not living in a cloister though. I’m living in the world with two kids and a full time job, so how I live out my singleness is just as haphazard and chaotic as anyone else living out their situation.

I live my singleness much the same way that anyone else lives their family situation. It’s not better or worse, its just my life. And I am quite content in it.

So come this Valentine’s Day, if you’d like to know what I’ll be doing – I’m going to see a movie with a mate. It’s an early show because one of my favourite things is also going to bed early, drinking tea and watching TV or reading a book. (Side note: as a younger adult I loved that I could go to bed whenever I wanted. Back then it meant 2 or 3 in the morning. Now it means 9pm).

But, if you need a pick me up, I can highly recommend 7 Myths about Singleness by Sam Alberry. It is solid, biblical, wise and insightful and really should be read by singles and non-singles, because as Alberry points out, everyone will be single again at some point.

Towards a better understanding of sexual coercion in marriage and how Christians can respond

A week or so ago, I wrote an initial piece on sexual coercion in marriage, looking at what it is, whether it is actually a problem and how we should deal with it as Christians. You can read it here:

Sexual coercion: what is it, does it happen in marriage, is it justifiable and what do we do with this information?

Since then, I have also taken part in a live Facebook question-and-answer session. We ran over time because there were so many questions but hopefully we helped start a conversation.

We talked through 1 Corinthians 7:1-7 and what some critical terms mean – like “marital duty” and “authority over the body” mean. These can be particularly difficult terms for us to wrangle with and have been the source of much damage and distress in the past.

We explain what sexual coercion is with far more depth and nuance – including things like context, intentions versus reception, whether it is a repeated pattern of behaviour and so on.

We tackle tricky questions like “Is it all abuse?” and “Should we submit anyway?”

We talk about how it is damaging to women and to men and to marriages and in what ways.

We start to look how we can continue a collaborative conversation about this – seeking a positive and godly way forward that is biblical and supportive of our bodies, mental health, motions and ability to give joyfully and voluntarily (spoiler alert – its not an easy fix, but its possible if we have a language, have courage to communicate and have humility under He who gave us the picture of what marital intimacy should look like).

I hope you can engage, ask questions, take the conversation to your churches and ministers.

The Q&A session can be accessed here from the Facebook page:

Sexual Coercion in Marriage with GuruNow with Ruth Baker

If you have any questions, thoughts, comments, concerns please feel free to contact me. the work on this will continue so the more input the better. Send me your stories, your observations – anything!

If you feel you are in need of help, please speak to a trusted friend, pastor or professional.

GuruNow is the platform by the way – check them out on Facebook because the cover all manner of subjects from worry and anxiety, to bullying in the church, to Christian leadership and beyond.

 

Sexual coercion: what is it, does it happen in marriage, is it justifiable and what do we do with this information?

I tinkered with lots of clever and pithy titles for this blog, but in the end, I decided to go with the basic rule of advertising – “It does exactly what it says on the tin”. It’s obvious, but it’s clear. The reason for that is that this is something we don’t talk about much except in high profile cases. When it comes to sexual coercion in marriage, it’s something we don’t really talk about it at all. I wanted the title to be clear so people could engage with it straight away. Because sexual coercion is real, it happens in marriage all the time and it’s horrifically damaging. Which means we have work to do.

But here’s the thing. We have work to do together – men and women together. Sexual coercion is generally an issue that is visited upon women, but women can not solve this problem alone. This is not a women’s issue. This is an everybody issue. So please, let’s engage in this together.

Before we get into it, it’s important for us to be on the level. I know that sexual coercion happens. I have spoken to so many women who struggle with this. Most think it’s something they just have to put up with. Others know it’s wrong, but don’t feel they can do anything about it. Some don’t even know it’s wrong and have suffered for years without realising it was not OK.

How can this be? Well, for starters here’s a conundrum. I’ve heard Christian sexologist Patricia Weerakoon speaking once about how women are like slow cookers – you turn them on and they need to warm up. Men are like toasters – generally you turn them on and they pop up almost immediately. This being the case, if a woman isn’t “in the mood” when her husband is, does that mean we are heading for sexual coercion? Not at all, or at least not necessarily. Getting in the mood is part of the intimate experience. How people do that is very individual. The problem arises when “encouragement” becomes coercion.

I think some men may not realise that they’re doing it. And that’s a problem of awareness and communication.

Some men may realise they are adding pressure, but may not realise it’s wrong. This is a problem of awareness and accountability.

Some men, at the more extreme end, know it’s wrong but feel justified, and that’s just a problem.

But because this isn’t talked about, neither men nor women are equipped to communicate about it – with each other, or with other trusted Christians and pastors. Women can’t raise awareness that the behaviour is not OK, which means they can’t communicate how they feel to their husbands. Men can’t keep each other accountable, or talk honestly about what is appropriate behaviour in marriage, and where the line is.

It’s time to address that. So let’s start with being clear about what sexual coercion is.

What is it?

The U.S. Office on Women’s Health says sexual coercion is unwanted sexual activity that happens after being pressured in nonphysical ways that include:

  • Being worn down by someone who repeatedly asks for sex
  • Being lied to or being promised things that weren’t true to trick you into having sex
  • Having someone threaten to end a relationship or spread rumors about you if you don’t have sex with them
  • Having an authority figure, like a boss, property manager, loan officer, or professor, use their influence or authority to pressure you into having sex.*

The Australian national group 1800Respect includes sexual coercion under sexual assault and violence and describes it as “when someone pressures or tricks you into doing sexual things when you don’t want to. It involves behaviour that may not always be criminal, but is usually abusive in some way. Sexual coercion can include someone:

  • Saying they’ll leave you or have sex with someone else if you don’t have sex with them
  • Trying to get you to drink more than you want to so you’ll agree to sex
  • Making you feel guilty for not having sex when they want
  • Telling you it’s your duty to have sex with them
  • Saying that you owe them
  • Making you feel scared to refuse because of what they might do. This might be a fear of physical violence, but can also include fears of them saying bad things about you to others, sharing private or damaging information about you on the internet, or taking away support, money, children or pets.
  • Saying they will get you out of debt, provide you with drugs, let you stay at their house, or help you with a problem if you have sex with them
  • Holding you down, yelling at you or trying to scare you into having sex**

Some of these seem more overtly “abusive” than others and so the less apparently “abusive” behaviours could be down played.

They shouldn’t be.

Firstly, because individually these behaviours are wrong. Secondly, when taken over many occurrences over weeks, months or even years, the damage this causes to a woman cannot be overstated.

The damage to the relationship can be irrevocable. There is loss of trust and loss of love that can erode a marriage or make it implode.

The damage to the woman can last a lifetime. Once is bad enough. The real problem is if there is a pattern and especially if this becomes the “normal” approach to intimacy in a relationship.

There is trauma. And with trauma comes nightmares, flashbacks, anxiety, fear, hyper-vigilance, panic attacks, a deadening of any interest in intimacy (which can then exacerbate the issue), a problem being touched at all….it is akin to having a major car smash where every bone in the body is broken and which then requires intense medical intervention, healing, time and rehabilitation. Untreated, the woman is just such a car smash victim but has never had any medical intervention or healing and the injuries continue to be inflicted. She exists. Broken.

Perhaps this is part of the issue facing men and women. Given that men and women treat and experience sexual intimacy differently (generally speaking, of course), it is next to impossible for a man to understand the effect of broken sexual intimacy on a woman. Again this is highly individual, but there is enough research to show the effect on women as being highly damaging emotionally and psychologically and traumatic.

It hurts women. It breaks women.

I realise there are impacts to men too. Facing unwillingness to engage in intimacy can feel like rejection. It can feel hurtful. It can be disappointing, frustrating, and, given the right emotional environment, can feel damaging to a man too. And I am not talking here about withholding sex as a deliberate leverage of power over a man which is totally wrong on so many levels. That can be deeply damaging to a man.

I think the difference we need to focus on though is this:

Men don’t need sex. It might feel like they do, but not having is not going to kill them, like the removal of air or food and water will. Yet the importance placed on it can be disproportionate. However, there are deeply felt and real emotional needs and these need to be brought into the light and taken seriously. But there is an opportunity to communicate about these, and that’s as it should be.

Women, when having sex without wanting to, feel violated. That is not a feeling that goes away. Ever.

Is it really a problem?

Unfortunately, yes.

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.***

A study as far back as 1997 found that over a third of married women had been sexually coerced by their husbands.****

A survey undertaken in 2018 revealed some scary results including:

  • Almost 20 per cent are not aware that non-consensual sex in marriage is illegal (just in case there is any doubt – it is!)
  • 1 in 7 believe non-consensual sex is justified if the woman initiates intimacy (so if a woman tries to get in the mood so her husband can have sex, but then cannot go through with it, 1 in 7 people believe the man would be justified in forcing her to go through it it)
  • 1 in 5 Australians believe domestic violence is a normal reaction to stress, and that sometimes a woman can make a man so angry he hits her without meaning to
  • 1 in 8 believe that if a woman is raped while she is drunk or affected by drugs she is at least partly responsible.*****

What this shows is an alarming number of people who do not see or understand that sexual coercion is wrong, damaging and traumatic. This being the case, it is easy for a husband not to know where the line is if culture largely remains silent on this. Equally, it is easy for women to never know they are being abused even though they feel all the feelings and responses of an abused person.

Let me be clear here. I’m not advocating for creating abuse where there is none. What I’m saying is that the abuse is happening already, we just don’t know to speak into it. Just because the abuse is not understood, does not make it not abusive behaviour. It’s still not OK.

A woman can feel traumatised and damaged, experience panic attacks and irrational fears – and think that it’s her own fault. If we speak into this issue, we can free women from this added burden and actually be clearer about what is appropriate behaviour.

We can equip both men and women.

So what do we do?

First, let’s approach this issue together. Remember, this is not a women’s issue, this is an everybody issue.

Second, we need to bring this issue into the light. There is a lot of fear and anger on all sides, anticipating blame and confrontation. So there can be a tendency to want to ignore the issue because perhaps women have just decided to raise it now. We need to be clear that women have never been OK with this, and it has never been acceptable behaviour – we just haven’t been able to talk about it before. It can also be driven by an assumption (coming from a place of hurt) that the woman is withholding, not because she is feeling damaged, but because she is making a power play. These kinds of assumptions are especially dangerous. So all assumptions need to be put to one side.

At the same time, this should not be an excuse for man-bashing. The only way to deal with this is to tackle it together. Many men have no idea that this is not OK and we need to equip men to understand the effect of certain behaviours. In fact, we need men desperately in this endeavour. We need men to be talking about it with each other, exploring it, even weeping over it. We need them to feel empowered to grow in gentleness. Biblically speaking, such gentleness is having enormous power, but using it for the care and protection of others. We need our men to grow in this Christ-likeness. To explore and mature in biblical gentleness is critical to this.

We also need to recognise and acknowledge that this is not a blanket issue. Not being in the mood can most of the time, become being in the mood, as part of the honest, trusting and loving intimate experience. What we are talking about here is the genuine cross over into coercion where one party (usually the woman) has sex without wanting to because they feel pressured into it – once, or as a repeated pattern.

So, men and women, start with reading the definitions of sexual coercion. Understand what it is, and what it isn’t.

Recognise and accept that it is what it is, and there is a chance that you could be experiencing it, or perpetrating it.

Here is where we need our God, and our Christian brothers and sisters. We need humility to recognise there may be some things to repent of. We need the courage to speak with our trusted Christian friends. We need to call each other out, gently and lovingly if we see behaviour or hear words that raise red flags. We need to be able to talk about this issue in the light – understand it, change it.

And we need to support and enable husbands and wives to talk to each other about this. Do a temperature check in your relationship. This may not be an issue for most of you, but talking about it cannot be a bad thing – it is a deeply intimate but profound issue of trust to be discussed. It may help you as a couple to support another couple for whom it might be an issue.

We need to not dismiss each other’s feelings or experience. This is an area that is extremely difficult and what will make it worse is being confrontational. We need to approach this as far as is possible in the most collaborative and positive way possible.

That said, if this is an issue in your marriage, and it is in any way repetitive, seemingly justified or escalating, please seek help. Immediately. It is not OK and you must be safe. At least seek the guidance of a professional and trusted Christian pastor or friend.

Most importantly, we must lean on God. This is where we need him most. Intimacy can be so broken. Experiencing it is traumatic. Recognising it can be equally traumatic. Seeking to rectify it can be challenging. It is us humans at our most vulnerable.

We need Him. Through and in Him we can seek the best – which is a bringing this issue into the light, talking about it openly and honestly, facing our issues humbly, supporting each other and keeping each other accountable.

Dealing with brokenness. Together. In Him.

* https://www.womenshealth.gov/relationships-and-safety/other-types/sexual-coercion#7

** https://www.1800respect.org.au/violence-and-abuse/sexual-assault-and-violence/

*** 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/m/pubmed/12477095/ and https://truthout.org/articles/its-time-to-confront-sexual-harassment-within-marriage/

***** https://www.abc.net.au/triplej/programs/hack/violence-against-women-survey-shows-concerning-attitudes/10568638?smid=Page:%20ABC%20News-Facebook_Organic&WT.tsrc=Facebook_Organic&sf203239950=1

Why I regret my early sex life

For as long as I can remember, all I could think about was having a boyfriend. My teen and young adult years stretched through the 1980s and 90s. There was Madonna, Rick Astley, Fresh Prince of Bel Air, shoulder pads, shaggy perms, bright make up – it was a great time to be alive.

I grew up atheist and everyone I knew were atheist. So everything I understood about the world came from TV and people I knew at school. When we hit 14 and 15 years old, my friends paired up. They had grown up relationships with older boys. They were cool. They had a hint of swagger. They’d done things. They knew things.

As I grew older, it seemed everyone had boyfriends except me. Everyone was having sex except me. I was missing out. Nobody wanted me. Two terrible truths to grow up with – a yearning to belong and a yearning to be wanted.

Getting a boyfriend was what underpinned everything I did. In the atmosphere I grew up in, that meant having sex. At the time, sex was everywhere. If you didn’t have it, you were a sad lonely single. If you didn’t want to have it, you were frigid. Sex was what you did to have a good time. It was a trophy. Sex was how you got boyfriends. And it’s how you kept boyfriends.

I know what you’re thinking – that’s just not true. I know. That’s why I regret it.

Now, as a Christian, I look back on those years and wonder why I didn’t have more self-respect. This might sound offensive to some – many people in the world think sexual freedom is a way of people expressing themselves. I get that. There may be people reading this who just want to have sex. It’s not an angry thought, it’s not crazy, it’s not a yen to be having sex with everything that moves. It’s just a deep yearning to be like everyone else. To have those doors opened. To see what it’s like. To experience that deep intimate connection.

One of the reasons I regret my early sex life is because it was never like that. I confused sex with romance. I thought it would be like it is in the movies. I thought it would be graceful, beautiful, with soft lighting, everything airbrushed. It’s not. It’s fumbly and clumsy and and there’s embarrassing noises and squelchy bits and it’s just….well…real.

The other reason I regret it is because it wasn’t sex in and of itself that I wanted. It was what it represented. It represented me having joined the world. It represented me being like everyone else. It represented me being wanted and found desirable. Those are all the wrong reasons to pursue sex. It was about my self-esteem. And if that’s what feeds the self-esteem, then you get into a cycle of always seeking someone to show they find you desirable.

Now, as a Christian, I read about what I wish I had been. Proverbs 31:25 describes the woman of noble character as being “clothed with strength and dignity.” That is what I wish I’d known – that my validation came from God, not from someone wanting to have sex with me. I have dignity because I am God’s image bearer and he loves me so much that he did not even spare his own son to bring me to him. That is a staggering truth.

I wish I had known that sooner. But I praise him that I know it now.

But if you are reading this and wanting to belong and are wanting to open that door, please know that I’ve been where you’re going. I know it must seem restrictive – this whole no-sex-outside-of-marriage thing. But having been there, I understand completely why God designed relationships the way he did.

Doing what I did leads to brokenness and regret. It’s a way of lacking self-control. It’s a way of giving in to temptation. Obedience to God doesn’t make us perfect, and it’s not easy, but it clothes us in dignity. Its a quiet confidence that our value comes from him and not what the world can hold so cheaply. I am worth more than that.

There are heaps of good books on Christian perspectives on sex. I recommend you read them. I just want to say I get it. I was there. I was you. And I chose wrong.

Sex is great but it can be awful. It needs thoughtfulness and intentionality. It needs to be for the right reasons. I was an atheist. I had no framework for understanding the world through the lens of Jesus Christ so I had no idea that I could carry myself with confidence. I had no idea that I could wait for the one who would connect with my soul as well as with my body. I had no idea I could be different from the world, and that different is good. I was so busy looking at myself through the lens of the world, I didn’t even think there could be another way. And having been where some of you may want to be, I look back and wish I had known.

Don’t be swayed by the world. Know that you are so valuable. You are so loved. You are clothed in strength and dignity. Listen to God. Follow Christ and be different.

Why I don’t know what to think this week

A while back I wrote a blog about how the world throws up big issues and there are generally two extreme camps and the rest of us in the middle. In these situations, the extremes throw rocks at each other for a while and social media makes the entrenchment of each position more stark and vitriolic. The rest of us sit in the middle looking at each side and wondering how to make sense of it.

This week is no exception.

Big things have been happening in New South Wales this week. On 8th August, the Reproductive Healthcare Reform bill passed the lower house with 59 votes to 31. This bill makes abortion legal upon request up to 22 weeks. Past this point, the consent of two doctors is required but abortion is available up to birth. If you want to read the bill itself, I highly recommend it – it’s far better to read the original rather than summaries on Facebook. You can access it here. It still has to make it through the upper house but this is as it stands at the moment with a few minor amendments.

Here’s why I don’t know what to think.

I am hugely grateful that I have never had to go through the kind of decision making process required to choose to have an abortion. I cannot imagine what it must be like. It would be easy for me to think “Oh, I would never do that.” But I have never been raped and fallen pregnant. I have never discovered that my unborn child has such extreme medical issues that they would face death imminently after birth, or have no quality of life (no physical or brain function). I have never been diagnosed with a medical issue that would mean going to full term pregnancy would be a serious threat to my life.

I have never been alone in a foreign country and placed under pressure to terminate. I have never been in the kind of violently abusive relationship that places some women in fear of their lives if their medical condition were revealed.

At the same time, I have never faced an unplanned pregnancy. I have never had to look to abortion as a way that could solve the problems a pregnancy presents to me.

People often go to the extremes to prove the “norm”. But what is the norm when it comes to abortion? Some portray the scenario as women choosing abortion frivolously. Some portray the scenario as choosing abortion because they are women facing death.

Of course the answer is that there is no norm. People’s reason for abortion is far too diverse and nuanced.

Me personally? I wish that nobody had to have an abortion. I wish that people didn’t even have to make that choice. In that sense, as a Christian, as a woman, as a humanitarian, I am pro-baby. But I also recognise that people do and will make this choice – for whatever reason – and so having access to safe health care is a must. To not have access to safe healthcare would take us back to the horrific days of the backstreet abortionist. Thousands of women sought terminations in this way in the UK before eventual de-criminalisation in 1967, and far too many were rendered infertile or died because of the effects. So in this sense, I am pro-woman.

(I do not want to use the terms “pro-life” and “pro-choice” because they are such heavily loaded terms and I don’t think they are helpful. I think the baggage they bring weighs down the debate and takes us to extremes when we need to think and talk lovingly about this deeply personal issue.)

What troubles me most about the recent debates around the Reproductive Healthcare Reform bill is our apparent ability to sustain antinomy. An antinomy is a paradox – holding two things that are entirely contradictory in perfect balance as though they are both true.

Here’s the issue:

Society talks about abortion being a part of women’s rights. But these rights only extend to the mother, and not the girl-child – how can both be right? Before now, we (the west) have rallied against developing countries for the “heinous crime” and “social evil” of female infanticide and feticide and sex-selective abortion (as an example, see this piece from last year from Save the Children India).

In fact, one of the amendments proposed by Tanya Davies MP for the Reproductive Healthcare Reform bill was that “if a live child is born, the child must be given the same neonatal care as would be given to any other child born at the same stage of pregnancy and in the same medical condition.” (Hansard, NSW Legislative Assembly Thursday 8th August p21).

We should be clear here. Currently there is an obligation on medical professionals to render care to a live-born foetus so this amendment would not change Current practice. However, I think a lot of us would have been way more comfortable if this had been enshrined in this reform bill.

This amendment was rejected though because it was one of four sub-parts of an amendment that sought to limit the places where an abortion could occur (in a hospital with a neonatal intensive care unit) and would limit the access to late term abortion unless on the grounds of necessity to save the life of the mother or the baby.

The other sub-part of that amendment would have meant that if the foetus was compatible with life, that the same neonatal care be provided as any other child at the same stage of life. I think (although I am a Bear of Little Brain) that means that the child would necessarily be delivered by natural birth or by C-section (as any other child at that stage would) rather than a termination procedure. I don’t know enough about the differences in procedures to comment but what makes me nervous here is that one is treated as a child and the other is not – and not because one is more medically viable than the other.

Tanya Davies also proposed an amendment that “Termination not to be used for gender selection. Despite anything else in this Act or any other law, a medical practitioner may not perform a termination on a person – (a) for the purpose of gender selection, or (b) if the medical practitioner reasonably believes the termination is being performed for the purpose of gender selection.” (Ibid, p87)

This amendment was also rejected.

So the very “heinous crime” Save the Children is trying to stop in India (and UNICEF and hundreds of other charitable organisations) will be permissible under law in Australia.

I know many will argue that “Australia is not the same”. I know. There is nuance and there is hundreds of years of cultural differences that culminate in a very different set of circumstances. BUT I genuinely don’t understand how an amendment to enshrine life giving care to a live baby, and to prevent abortions on the basis of gender selection could be rejected. Pro-woman access to safe healthcare is one thing. These amendments have nothing to do with that. And I am just lost for words as to why we, as a society and our parliament on our behalf, would think this is OK?

Which leads to the second antinomy.

On 9th August – the very morning after the parliamentary debates on abortion – an article appeared that described the new mission to reduce stillbirth rates. Obviously this is very different to abortion (but no less personal). But the rates of stillbirth are still so alarming that the medical professional in the piece notes that “Its time to act.” And this the very day after the Reproductive Healthcare Reform bill rejects amendments that would potentially save more babies.

Similarly, the Crimes Amendment (Zoe’s Law) Bill 2017 was introduced in March 2017 after a woman (Brodie Donegan) was hit by a car while 32 weeks pregnant, after which the pre-born baby died. The long title of the Bill was “An Act to amend the Crimes Act 1900 to prohibit conduct that causes serious harm to or the destruction of a child in utero; and for other purposes.” and it included a clause that the Bill not apply to any harm done during a medical procedure (ie an abortion). (You can read the Bill here and the Second Reading speech here). This bill never made it to law.

What makes me very queasy in all this is that what has become apparent is that a child does not have intrinsic value in and of themselves. Their value lies in whether they are wanted or not. A child killed in utero in a hit and run is horrific and wrong. A child lost to miscarriage or stillbirth is agonising and tragic. A child aborted by gender selection and a child dying after being aborted alive……

The only difference is whether the child was wanted or not. And having that as the moral line that distinguishes our political decisions, our cultural bias and our law making makes me want to cry and vomit at the same time.

I am not talking about the access to safe healthcare. I am not talking about the woman who is being forced into it by a violent partner. I am not talking about the parents who have to make the agonising decision after being told their baby cannot live.

For me, this debate has not come down to the provision of abortion, it has come down to what we, as a society, accepts as morally right. Its about what has been exposed in the rejection of amendments that I would have thought would be a no-brainer. Its about our moral pendulum swinging where it is convenient for us.

And its about how we no longer seem to look at alternatives.

I feel odd about abortion up to 22 weeks (the amendments wanted to cap this at 20 weeks) but I can understand why medical practitioners have pushed for it. The kinds of serious medical issues that might show up, are often only picked up at the second scan had at 18 or 19 weeks. This means that if they are placed in that decision-making position, the parents would potentially have to make that choice in the space of a week. That is an extreme mental and emotional load to place on a shocked and probably grieving couple. There is not enough time to think through the implications. There is not enough time to think through the possibilities and the opportunities. There isn’t enough time to explore all the options. There isn’t enough time to access an unplanned pregnancy support centre.

For me, these centres, such a Diamond Women’s Support, help the mother look at all those options. They support and counsel. They help to remove roadblocks and barriers to having the child and, if the mother decides to go ahead with an abortion, they support her for a full year afterwards with counselling, because they know that an abortion is a trauma that needs to be processed and the woman herself needs to feel loved, valued, supported, listened to and understood. They are wonderfully pro-woman and pro-baby.

And this for me, is the middle ground. I see the nuance. I see that this is deeply profound for all of us (not just women). I see the medical needs. I also see that it is possible to become myopic in our views. It troubles me that “more time” could mean “More time to decide to have an abortion” as though its the only viable option and is a foregone conclusion – because this is where our cultural bias ultimately leads us. “More time” doesn’t necessarily mean “More time to evaluate all the options and seek support”. And this is where I feel like we need to pull the pendulum back.

As godly people, I want to support women and support babies. I also want to glorify my God and support the church. Which means entering the debate with love and respect and grace. It means knowing its OK to air how I feel about this and encouraging my sisters and brothers to know their feelings and views are valid and valued. It means supporting centres like Diamond Women’s Support so they can go on supporting women who are in this position.

But I believe that children, men, women – all humans – have intrinsic value. All are worthy of love and grace. If we believe that, then we should act accordingly. That’s the only thing I think, and know, this week with any clarity.

 

Why Christians are not immune to loneliness

As Christians, I often feel like we should be immune to loneliness. We have Jesus, right? But this is one of those areas where an inspirational Christian meme doesn’t really cut it. “Only God is enough to satisfy our loneliness” I read. And “You are never left alone when you are alone with God”. These are true, obviously, but not really helpful when you’re feeling the raw reality of loneliness.

If you google “bible passages for the lonely” you find lots of gems. “Surely I am with you always, till the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). Also true. But this is part of Jesus’ great commission to his disciples, not a consolation to a person crumbling under the weight of loneliness.

And yet, there is acknowledgement in scripture that loneliness is real, but not necessarily in the emotional way we might think of it. For example, in Psalm 25:16 “Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted.” The Hebrew word translated as “lonely” denotes more a physical state of being solitary – like a friendless wanderer or exile. Of course there is a psychological state associated potentially with that, but that’s not what the language denotes. Loneliness described and discussed as a psychological state is a relatively recent phenomena. That doesn’t mean it was any less real prior to the last hundred years, just that it wasn’t talked about the same way. In history, to be friendless or cut off from community was a social state and was the epitome of a fate worse than death.

We talk now about loneliness as a psychological and emotional state. It might include feeling cut off from community, but includes fear, despair, hopelessness – and as Christians we are not immune. Even though we have the truth of our salvation in Christ and an eternal relationship with the living God, we will still from time to time feel the awful chill of loneliness.

Loneliness can happen to anyone. Whether you are single or in a relationship, whether you are in a large family or none. It’s not the same as being alone. Personally, I’m quite content on my own. I am an introvert by nature and I enjoy reading, writing, knitting (badly) and so on. But being alone in this way is a choice. Feeling lonely is when we are alone in a way that we don’t feel is our choice – when we want to be with someone, or with family, or with community – and we can’t.

That’s when secondary emotions kick in. Disappointment that things aren’t different, anger at feeling powerless to change things, despair that things will always be this way, fear of a future that is uncertain.

Loneliness can feel cold and brittle. There is a stillness that you feel in the cavernous hollow of a dark mountain cave. You are the only living and breathing thing. There is a silence. There is nobody else and there is the thick rock cave wall between you and the rest of the world. If you screamed in this sound-deadened cavity, nobody would hear, and the only sound would be the echo of your own scream coming back to you. You are the only person who hears your pain.

That’s what loneliness feels like.

Loneliness is both our modern emotional understanding and the historical social understanding. You feel cut off from people. Even though our modern world is less constructed according to familial ties and community, we feel separated. And you feel the associated ragged emotional cuts of isolation physically and psychologically.

What is interesting is that even though the meaning behind the language has changed over time, scripture still acknowledges that anguish.

Psalm 142 gives us important teaching without ever using the word “loneliness”. It is attributed to David when he was hiding in the cave from his enemies. Verse 4 says:

Look and see, there is no one at my right hand; no one is concerned for me. I have no refuge; no one cares for my life.

This seems to be a perfect description of loneliness. And what does this psalm tell us?

I cry aloud to the Lord; I lift up my voice to the Lord for mercy.

I pour out before him my complaint; before him I tell my trouble.

Sorry to sound obvious but prayer is the first step when we are feeling pain. What is interesting here is that David says he tells a God of his complaint before he tells him his trouble. For David this might be his complaint about his physical situation (I’m trapped and alone) and then his “trouble” is then his emotional state – which he lays out in the following verses.

When my spirit grows faint within me, it is you who watch over my way. In the path where I walk people have hidden a snare for me.

4 Look and see, there is no one at my right hand; no one is concerned for me. I have no refuge; no one cares for my life.

His spirit grows faint – he is feeling overwhelmed. People have hidden a snare – he is surrounded by enemies. Nobody cares for him. These are all things that resonate with us.

I cry to you, Lord; I say, “You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living.”

Listen to my cry, for I am in desperate need; rescue me from those who pursue me, for they are too strong for me.

This whole psalm is a prayer – it is a conversation with God. David has told God his complaint (“I am alone”) and he’s laid out his trouble (“I feel so lonely and overwhelmed and frightened and this is too big for me…”). He continues this conversation, talking to God in real and raw emotional need. There is no prayer-formula here. There is no massaging of words to sound right, he just lets it pour out.

But what comes next is fascinating:

Set me free from my prison, that I may praise your name. Then the righteous will gather about me because of your goodness to me.

David doesn’t end with a hope that the loneliness will end at some point. He calls on God to deliver him so that he might praise his name. Then the righteous will gather around David – his loneliness and uncertainty will end. Not because of David, but because of God’s visible goodness.

This might feel confronting to us. Our prayers are requests but largely asking for God to empower us to feel better – as though God is a self help guru. What David does is directly and boldly ask God to change his situation (the circumstances of his complaint) and through God’s action, his trouble will be alleviated.

Sometimes, in our lack of confidence, we minimise God and our knowledge of what he is able to do. David, in the midst of his despair, asks God to essentially perform a powerful work so that in his responding praise, people will see evidence of God’s goodness and gather to him.

These are David’s words to God, but they are laid down as God-breathed scripture, which means they are words that God has given us to acknowledge our pain and provide a means and a language for us to reach him in those times. We must use them.

So, if you are like me and from time to time struggle with loneliness, we can use this approach to God. We can take the burden of self help off our already aching shoulders and ask God for help. We can not just speak words of complaint and trouble, but let them pour out of us. We can ask for deliverance. We can be bold because we are approaching our God who is bigger than any circumstance we have.

We are Christian and we have a relationship with the living God. But we are not immune to loneliness. God knows this and gave us real words to bring to him in our pain. Formula prayers and inspirational memes won’t cut it. In the Psalms he gave us these beautiful words that express how we feel – but he doesn’t leave us there. He gives us the means to move forward.

We need to give ourselves permission to be raw with God, be bold in asking him to take over our circumstances and deliver us from our loneliness.

Why “Meet Me Where I Am”?

Some of the best pastoral care I’ve had over the years has been within my church small group. I love everything about small groups – a group of women, meeting weekly, digging into the Bible together, praying for each other, eating an inordinate amount of snacks together, crying, laughing, learning and growing. Within a group of women like this, we truly do life together. We get each other. We can sympathise and minister to each other with all the raw honesty that is needed and without any “Sunday church politeness”.

The most troubling pastoral care I’ve had is when people have tried to meet me where they are, not meet me where I am. What do I mean by this? When someone comes to us with a pastoral issue, we can sometimes instinctively do any of the following:

  • Try and solve the problem without listening to the full extent of the issue;
  • Question the viewpoint (Did that really happen? Isn’t that over-reacting? I wouldn’t have taken it like that. That doesn’t seem to me to be that big of a deal. I know the other party and they probably didn’t mean it. Is the problem that your husband is away for work? Is the real problem that you’ve forgotten to take your antidepressants? Aren’t you being overly emotional?);
  • Jump straight to a Bible passage to try and make the person feel better.

All of these, as well meaning or as accidental as they can be, actually meet the person where we are. What do I think about this situation? If I would react in X way, but the person is responding in a Y way, I’m going to pastor as though you should be responding in X way, because that’s the way I understand the correctness of this situation.

This is problematic. And it can contribute to a feeling that churches are disconnected from reality. Great theology, but lacking in understanding and grace. Meeting people where you are inhibits trust (and actively promotes distrust). It makes people feel misunderstood and at worst, not cared for. It can build a picture that there is a disconnect between the pulpit and the pew – which is a sad assumption that the general populace have of the church anyway, without us accidentally contributing to it.

It can also become self-perpetuating. This kind of pastoring creates barriers. It stops open communication. It makes people feel they can’t be honest in revealing themselves. So they hide. They hide behind their polite-Sunday-face. And the issue gets hidden. Down deep. Where it festers and spreads like a cancer in the soul. And all the while, growing a resentment towards the church because you feel like they don’t get you and don’t hear you.

Women need to feel heard. And they need to feel valued. Good pastoral care is not reactive when a crisis has happened. Good pastoral care is walking through life with them on the good days, and sitting with them in the darkness on the bad days.

Great pastoral care is knowing people enough to know what to pray for them – on the good days and the bad.

Jesus didn’t meet people where he was – and if anyone had the right to do that, it was him. Jesus met people where they were. In Mark 5, Jesus went to find the demon possessed man. He didn’t judge the mans situation and how he got there and he didn’t question if things were really that bad. He met him where he was.

When, in Matthew 9, the woman who had been bleeding for years approached him secretly for healing, he didn’t judge her condition even though, in Jewish culture, it should have been personally distasteful to him. He met her where she was.

When in Luke 7 a woman come and washes Jesus’ feet with her tears, Jesus does not judge her or question her or solve her problem with a vague scriptural platitude. He meets her where she is.

The reason I called this blog “Meet Me Where I Am” is because that’s my plea. And it’s my prayer for every woman. Real women have real problems. We have mental health issues. We struggle with our faith. We struggle with our confidence. Sometimes we snort when we laugh. Many of us have kids and now avoid jumping up and down. We struggle with our weight. We can’t wait to take our bras off at the end of the night. We love Jesus. We love the Bible. Sometimes we cry in the shower for no reason. We want to feel valued. We want to have a voice.

We love our churches. We have wonderful ministers and pastors and Christian sisters. But we want to be met where we are. We don’t want our pain to be questioned or a quick solution presented. We need pastoral care to be as important as the pulpit. We need theology and humanity.

And let’s not forget – women make up over half of our churches. If we support and nourish our women, we support and nourish the whole family. On top of that, women are seed sowers. We talk to everyone. We connect with people far beyond our immediate landscape. If we make our women feel valued, they will feel confident. If they feel confident, who knows how many seeds they will sow?

I have had the benefit of being around some wonderful ministers and I’ve been around some others with a few blind spots – nobody’s perfect. This is a general plea and prayer for all though. Meet me where I am. Meet all of us where we are. Let your growth in Christ-likeness include putting the self to one side when pastoring a woman. Resist the urge to solve or question. Just let us be heard. Be real with us. And let us be our real selves with you. The church will be enormously enriched by it.