Do I only matter because of what I do?

The other week I was at a party and was introduced to someone I had never met before – I immediately saw their eyes go to the rings I wear on my right hand and they commented that obviously I was married and so was my husband at the party – they certainly didn’t get the response they were expecting. Now some would say I should have taken my wedding rings off years ago but I have never quite been able to bring myself to do it partly because I like my rings and they were made from a ring I had inherited from my grandmother and partly because I also like the fact that they symbolise a really important part of my past.

It got me to think about how we classify people in our minds and make judgments so quickly about people without really knowing very much about them, based upon external factors.

I am sure that person’s question was completely innocent and asked with the best of intentions but it made me think about the questions I ask people and my motivations and thinking behind those questions. Obviously it is important to ask such questions in order to get to know a person, and to express interest in someone and their life shows them you care but how do I use the information I am given – if someone says they are married do I automatically think about them differently than if they say they are a single person, or divorced or widowed – I think if I am honest sometimes I do and then I rationalise that response and always come to the same conclusion that I am being completely ridiculous and such a response is all about my insecurity. I massively struggle with feeling like a failure because I am widowed, that I am not as worthy or have not made it like all the happily married couples I am surrounded by, because I do not have anyone in my life or dare I say it, because in my harder moments, I feel like I am not as important to God – again that is a total heart response, a lie, because as my head tells me that is a totally irrational thing to think, but the world, the church, society tells us that marriage/relationships/true love is above everything else and it very wrongly plants those seeds that if you are not in that place you lack something, you are not as important or valuable.

Maybe for you it isn’t about marital status but rather work – maybe you are a stay at home mum and have at times been made to feel not as worthy as the mum who has a career or maybe, like me, you work full time and feel the guilt of not being there to pick your kids up or go on school trips. Or maybe it is parentage, looks/weight, cultures, a person’s history, the size of houses or cars or holidays or maybe it is education or lack of it. I think deep down we can probably all identify with those types of judgments about others and ourselves. Often they feel too ugly to admit but I think they are probably in all of us to some extent or other.

A few days after the party incident I read an article entitled “Do I only matter because of what I do?” In the article the writer talks about going on a retreat where at the start of the retreat they strip you of your mobile telephone, you are not allowed to tell people your surname or what you do for a living, i.e. all the things we use to impress other people. He reflected upon how difficult he found it at first but as the retreat went on he found himself going deeper with these strangers than he ever normally did with people. He went on to say how much better our world would be if we as humans did not feel the need to throw our ace cards out as soon as we meet people – our careers, our accomplishments, who we know and our marital status but rather look to who people actually are as people.

Similarly a teacher friend of mine was saying the other month how he was really glad he taught in a secondary school where they wear a uniform as he prefers that the kids all look the same as rather than make judgments about them based on the clothes they wear he is truly able to see them as a person with their strengths and weakness, likes and dislikes, that their personalities and characters can come through. He felt that it made him a better teacher.

How often have I found my identity in my job, or my education, or in where I grew up or in the people I know? I am ashamed to say far too often. Is my head turned by a fancy career, or an impressive business achievement or an attractive face or personality or a nice car or house? Again probably far too often.

Last week a colleague was talking about how we respond to people – do we respond to them in the framework of our own values, culture and experiences or treat them as a child of God and respond to them as God would do. Do we treat ourselves as children of God or do we judge ourselves by human standards? It really, really challenged me. It made me realise that along the way my values/mindsets had become skewed.

Whilst I totally believe God has a plan for our lives, that he blesses us with good things, and that he uses us in the jobs/situations/relationships we are in they are not the priority for him – he does not love us anymore if we are a High Court Judge or a brain surgeon than if we were homeless and hungry with not a penny to our name, if we are big or small, loud and outgoing or quiet and shy, black or white, gay or straight. He sees our hearts, he loves our characters, he loves it when we are kind and generous, when we forgive, and overcome, when we love as he loves us – he sees the things that matter.

My experience is that God always uses the other stuff – the relationships, the job stuff, the material to shape my character. I am loving being in my new job but there is a wrestle going on inside of me about my law career – I know I am in the right place but for so long, as sad as this sounds, a big part of my identity has been tied up in the law, and so there is a part of me that is grieving that whilst at the same time knowing that probably God is doing a work in me through all of this, a work in my character and in my attitudes, as many people have told me re-shaping my identity.

As I have been thinking about all of this I have been thinking about my John. I have written about this before but on paper John was not what I would have gone for, in fact we were extreme opposites , and my guess is had he still been here we would never have been rich or super successful, these were not things that motivated John in any way, shape or form – John was the most unmotivated by money/status/success of any person I have ever met. God has a sense of humour because actually John was just what I needed, the opposite to all the stuff I would battle with and for. John would go in search of the underdog, he was kind, he was about as good and real as you could hope to be – he was forgiving, patient, gentle (I never heard him raise his voice, and he refused to argue – very infuriating to a feeler like me), generous and joyful. I am so glad God allowed me to see past all the other stuff as I had the privilege of 3 and ½ years with the most amazing man and I get to love and parent his child.

I want to learn again to be a child of God, to love myself as God loves me and to see myself as God sees me – to know although so much of the time I see widowhood, a career left behind, many mistakes and struggles, he sees me as his precious daughter, and he loves me despite and because of those things. I want to respond to people as God does – I don’t want to judge by the other stuff but I want to love people unconditionally whatever their circumstances, because of their hearts and because they are the most precious thing to God. I know it is those places that there is freedom, true love and real satisfaction.

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Vulnerability

“Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability and authenticity. If we want great clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.” Brene Brown

I absolutely love this quote. It connects to something deep inside me and feeds that desire for more.

I would hazard a guess that the majority of us are rarely truly vulnerable. Whilst I would say I have a lot of close friends in my life and a close family I could probably count on one hand the people that I am actually truly open and real with, and I am a pretty open and real person, but the reality is that most of the time I am scared of being really real and honest and showing the true me because actually I am scared I will be rejected, or judged or be laughed at.

Then I flip that on its head and ask how easy do I make it for those in my life to be vulnerable with me. Am I willing to really engage with people’s mess and pain or is it just too uncomfortable and difficult? Do I fully engage with people’s hopes and dreams or do my jealousies, insecurities, and pride stop me doing so?

On Friday night I was at a party to celebrate a very special couple, my best friend, Anna, and her husband, Rich. In two weeks time they will no longer be living in Sheffield and will be settling into their new home in Edinburgh. Gulp! Last night was a goodbye party and if I am honest I was dreading it because I wasn’t quite sure I would be able to keep my emotions in check but actually it was a total celebration. As part of that celebration I had put together a book of photographs and messages from the people that had been part of their lives over the last decade or so and because I put it together I had the privilege of reading each of those messages.

Anna and Rich have been involved in church leadership for many years and so have been in the business of relationships and the messages in that book and the people there at that party and the prayers spoken time and time again spoke of gratitude for the way they had spoken into people’s lives, how they had been there in the worst of times, had celebrated with people in the best of times and called out of people again and again their callings, their dreams, their purposes, how they had challenged, inspired, encouraged. The overwhelming message that came across was that Anna and Rich had in so many lives pushed people forward and that people’s lives were so much richer because of them, changed because of them and in some cases that their impact on lives had caused people’s lives to go in a different direction. And all of it done with such humility, grace and love on their part.

As I have thought about Anna and Rich today and have been thinking about what I want to say to them before they go I knew that they are two people in my life that I can be truly vulnerable with and as the testimonies of Friday night spoke so powerfully I am clearly not the only one who has felt that way about them.

There have been so many times in the last 8 years, since losing John, where I have felt overwhelmed with sadness, scared and lacking in hope and each time I knew that Anna and Rich were my safe place, that they would not judge me or love me any less for showing my heart. So many times I have sat in their house and sobbed my heart out, or sent a text venting my confusion, hurt and anger, or shared my hopes and dreams. They have loved, challenged, stood in hope, prayed, spoken so many words of affirmation, encouragement and truth into me and over me, celebrated with me, mourned with me, laughed with me, cried with me and I can truly say that those two have been one of God’s greatest gifts to me – true, real and vulnerable friendship. As I have been able to be vulnerable with them, and they have allowed me to be vulnerable, there has been healing, there has been life breathed back into my broken heart, and hope birthed. Time and time again Rich has spoken words to me in response to me being vulnerable that have released stuff in me, words that years on I still stand on and which have been a gift straight from heaven. I know when my heart broke the night John died that Anna’s heart broke too – I have seen the tears in her eyes so many time because of my pain.

The depth of that friendship is in part due to many, many years of friendship going back over 25 years, so many memories and shared experiences, of growing up together, but it has been these last 8 years that I have felt it go deeper and stronger and again that has been one of those beauty from the ashes things but is also because of a willingness to be vulnerable. The more we let people in, the more we accept, the more vulnerable we are the more beauty that comes – I totally believe that – even though I find it hard to be vulnerable I know that those moments in my life where I have experienced the most joy, the most connection both relationally and spirituality are when I have allowed myself to be truly vulnerable and have felt safety in that place.

As I have thought about vulnerability I have thought about those in visible places, politicians, leaders and creatives, those who pour their heart and soul into their work – all these people put themselves on the line on a regular basis, put themselves out there at risk of being criticized, judged and very often publically slated. Often there is failure and those people I have no doubt feel incredibly vulnerable but they do it anyway because they believe passionately in what they do. But for all the failure there is beauty, transformation, truth, life, and power, for them personally but for their communities, the nation, strangers, because of their willingness to make themselves vulnerable. There is such strength in this type of vulnerability. 

I love The Rend Collective’s album, The Campfire, and the story behind that album – the call to be vulnerable, to tell our stories and sing our songs, how God calls his church to be open and vulnerable, to take down the walls of defence in the church and with each other, despite of our hurts, to see more authenticity. In the video that accompanies that album it talks about how in the kingdom of God there are no outsiders, that although the pain we experience in life can be overwhelming we aren’t meant to go through it alone, that Jesus longs for his church to be a place of warmth and safety, and a home and a refuge for the lost and broken but to do that we must learn the art of togetherness and celebration. The video ends by saying “To be on a journey as God’s family going through the highs and lows of life, suffering and laughing together that’s what I want, not some holy huddle, where we all pretend everything is ok but a real community which believes in the God of miracles but also in the God of the trials.”

I do not think it is possible or right to be vulnerable with everyone we come across in our lives, often that would not be helpful or appropriate but I think if we want to see change, want to see beauty, breakthrough and answers to our prayers, hopes and dreams then we have to make ourselves vulnerable. For me personally I need to learn to make myself more vulnerable before my God, so often my pride and my past stops me doing that, but I want more so I need to do it, and hand in hand with making myself more vulnerable to God I need to make myself more vulnerable with those I have been given to do this life but more than that I want to be someone that people feel safe to be vulnerable with, someone that will love people in their vulnerability, in order to see lives changed, and people set free.