A testimony

Saturday, 12 February 2011

I've been taking part in some public speaking workshops at church and last night I presented a short talk on the subject of 'a testimony'. I thought I'd reproduce the main points of it as a blog post for reference and anyone who is interested, as my talk actually included discussion of my blog and I know people who were the last night may be on their way here eventually.

This is a testimony in two parts. Part One deals with my struggles surrounding self-worth, confidence, depression and anxiety and Part Two deals with my life after overcoming most of these struggles, but feeling that there was no place for me in the church. Further information can be found under the 'my story' and 'Christianity' tags.

Part One: 2003-2006.

Last night I subtitled this 'And Here My Troubles Began', which is a reference to a favourite book of mine but in no way was I insinuating that my 'troubles' here are comparable to those in that particular book. Just in case you know which book I'm talking about. The point I was going to make at the start but which I think I probably glossed over a bit and was subsequently discussed at length was that in some quarters, it's easy to get the impression that once you're a Christian, God solves all your problems and life becomes AMAZING. Because He will heal all hurts and fill you with the joy that can only touch you when you're TOTALLY ON FIRE FOR JESUS.

This is not correct. I think it's fair to say that this can happen and also that through God we can find hope and healing. But it's not that easy for everyone. I was one of these people. I was a person who went off to university filled with optimism and excitement and really hoping to make loads of great new friends. I returned to my parents' house one year and two months later, because I dropped out of university. Struggling with depression, anxiety, body issues, anger and loneliness. A month or so later I was suicidal. Permeating everything was this enormous sense of failure, that things had not gone as they were supposed to, that my life was ruined. Looking back this seems almost silly but when you're a 19-year-old who has spent her life basing her self-worth on being a straight-A student and all-round high achiever it's easy to see how it happened.

For the next two years I went from place to place, new start to new start, thinking each time that things were going to improve and that my problems would be over. They didn't. What did happen was that I still couldn't shake the self-hatred, the sense of failure, the depression. I was made redundant from my first job after just three months. I thought my second job would be my 'big break' but it turned out to be the job from hell, one which made me feel like I was compromising my values and gave me a great dislike for a lot of people. I wasn't attending church very often and I felt very disconnected from my faith. The body issues were worse than ever and despite talking with some people at church who really tried to help, I just could not see how I could be a woman of worth.

August 2006. I went camping to Momentum. For the first couple of days I was consumed with unhappiness because everyone else seemed just so damned happy and radiant and filled with joy. Why wasn't this me? What was wrong with me? It was yet another reason to beat myself up and dwell on what a horrible person I obviously was. But something changed one evening when I was receiving ministry and being prayed for by the friends I was camping with. What I received was a profound revelation of who I am in God's eyes and that I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

It was some months later that I realised I could trace the cessation of many of my issues to this day, which is not to say that they were gone forever, never to return. These things take work and they take time. At Momentum that week, I purchased a book about dealing with depression. I've never needed to use it.

Part Two: 2007-present

So I felt equipped to deal with my problems and more secure in who I was, but with my marriage came worries that had only been 'niggles' before. I'd always felt at a bit of loss as to how I could serve in the church. Previously I had felt that my personal problems were a barrier to this and that I could not effectively minister to people when I was going through so many struggles. The problem now was that I felt my personality, my interests and my strengths were 'wrong'. That God had made me a certain way but that this wasn't what the church wanted.

When I tried to find enlightenment on this point it made me feel worse. Everywhere I looked I found very conservative Christian blogs and books with titles like 'Captivating Countenance' (clearly I've made that one up, but YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN. I know you do) which felt totally irrelevant to me because we had no plans to have children yet, because I had a job, because I didn't care about crafty home decorating projects or being the 'perfect' hostess. I'm sorry, but I do not like books like that and find them generally unhelpful and narrow-minded. I have written about this before in more detail so all I'll say now is that I don't believe God's plan for women involves forcing them into living out a 20th century Western white middle-class capitalist male-run version of femininity.

Things were also not being helped by some of the attitudes towards the place of women in Christianity that I saw played out in my church. I found this short but sweet and totally spot-on blog post the other day which goes a long way towards explaining it. I got the feeling that being a woman, for me, was going to be less about being 'proud to be me' and more about changing myself to be 'acceptable'.

The things which changed everything:

* Great teaching on women in ministry, social justice and political involvement from Elaine Storkey and Jo Saxton.
* Finding more resources that I felt comfortable learning from and discovering that I wasn't alone, knowing that it is possible to be passionate about the things I'm passionate about and still love God.
* Joining a church we are very comfortable with, which supports people in developing and using all their gifts regardless of gender - and is full of great people helping each other, with a commitment to diversity and inclusion, helping the needy and combating injustice.
* Constant encouragement from my wonderful husband, who made a promise to support me and build me up in everything I do when we were just 18 years old and has never gone back on it.
* Blogging, which has enabled me to express myself, connect with others and start dialogue with a wide variety of people from many different backgrounds.
* Great teaching on marriage at my church from Mark Stibbe, which echoed our personal position on marital relationships and was incredibly edifying.

As I mentioned above, things take work, but what I shared last night and what I hope to convey through this post is that going from a very low place spiritually to a much more confident and positive outlook on life, church and self-worth, seeing yourself as being able to make an important contribution to the world and knowing that you were made the way you were for a reason is possible. That you should never be afraid to be the person you truly are.

The quote of Jo Saxton's that I finished with: 'Be the man God made you, not what you feel you ought to be. Be the woman God made you, not what you feel you ought to be.'

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