Saturday, 29 September 2018

Right here

We think of ourselves as being more enlightened, more advanced in our thinking and ways of doing things than those who have gone before us. But way back in the fourth century, a monk living in the desert of Egypt said something that still has the ring of revelatory truth about it, all these years later. Abba Moses - that’s the name he is remembered by, although I somehow doubt it was the name given by his Ethiopian parents - was sought out by some wisdom-seeker. Bearing in mind how far this guy had travelled into the desert, looking for truth that would undergird his life in some new and revolutionary way, the old monk said this:

‘Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.’

Seriously? Isn’t that just the biggest cop-out ever? ‘Thanks for coming. Now go back to your small room and everything you need to learn, you will learn there.’ I mean, if we applied this teaching method to our big conferences and worship events, we would very soon be facing empty auditoriums.

‘Go home, people. Stay put. Be steadfast in the midst of the small daily routines of your life. And you will be taught everything you need to know in the face of this ordinary, repetitive and sometimes monotonous reality.’

This is not a message I want to hear. This is not the kind of message we pay hundreds of dollars and travel thousands of miles to be taught. We want something way more sexy, something that sounds more important, more radical, something that promises more adventure or significance. And yet, here it is … as true today as it was way back in the fourth century for that poor traveller into the desert.

The cell Abba Moses spoke of wasn’t a prison, although sometimes it might have felt that way. It may have been a small cave, or a little nook carved out of a sand-blasted rocky overhang. It might just as easily have been a small room, or even a tent. It was the dwelling place of a spiritual seeker, his shelter. It was the place he had chosen to be, and yet the place he might often feel like running away from.

And we all have places like that.

My cell, if you will, is this house I am sitting in. A tad larger than the cell a desert monk might call home, nevertheless these walls are the place of my dwelling. This is where I am tethered by ordinary life, where I am held fast by my own free will. This is the reality I sometimes want to run away from, and this is the reality through which I am learning what it means to follow Jesus.

I often resist these lessons in a life of faith. The interactions here in this home that squeeze me beyond any natural patience I might have - which admittedly, isn’t that much - so that I develop a patience that comes from a deeper place. The repetitive routines that invite me to learn what it is to put the needs of others before my own. The many, many times when choosing not to speak is more beneficial than indulging my own desire to be heard. The self-control that can only be learned by choosing to love the person in front of me more than I love letting rip with my own impulses. The choosing to create beauty and meaning right in the midst of the ordinary and the commonplace. The crafting of intentional connection when everybody so easily gets distracted by their own small worlds of activity and entertainment.

Right here, in this place of preparing meals and helping with homework, of repeated cycles of teenage hormones and the weekly ups and downs of energy and fatigue, here is where I come face-to-face with myself. And it isn’t always pretty. I see my self-centredness because I am daily invited to be other-focused. I see patterns of communication that betray elements of resentment, or of ego that I thought I had conquered. I see how easy it is for me to attempt to deceive or to hide rather than to be seen for who I really am. This cell of mine, this ordinary life of being a mother and a wife, it holds up a mirror to what is true about me and it extends an invitation to change.

It's easy to think that the change we long for in our lives will be found by heading out to the desert, maybe, or to the next big worship event or bible conference. It goes without saying that getting together with others in ways that encourage and strengthen us can be a good thing. I know for myself, though, that the deeper more sustainable growth is happening right where I am. Here, in the crucible of the everyday, is where I am learning to put into practice what I know to be true. It's far more ordinary than I want it to be, somehow. And yet no less supernatural for all that.

I guess Abba Moses was onto something.

Thursday, 20 September 2018

Another Way

I seem to have a foot in two camps, these days. Or maybe I should say, I have one foot on the pontoon and the other on the vessel that is slowly moving away from me, so that I am afraid I might just end up plopping embarrassingly into the water between my feet.

On the one hand, I am steeped in a spiritual tradition that teaches that to lose one’s life is to save it. The grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, so that it will ultimately bear lasting fruit. The one that would save her life lays it down. We are taught to die to self, to sacrifice our ego-driven motivation so that we can become who we were truly meant to be. We learn that this way of hidden humility will indeed save us.

The man Jesus is, of course, our ultimate example of this self-giving way of life. Rather than force his own agenda and take the most obvious route to establishing a new kingdom, he chose to surrender to another way. A way of pain and loss, a way of betrayal and self-sacrifice, a way that seemed dark rather than full of light. As we follow this God-man we are invited to step ever more deeply into this experience: we lay aside our ideas about the most obvious route towards ‘the good life’ and learn to embrace that which is lowly, humble, hidden and determinedly not obvious.

On the other hand, I dabble in the world of health and fitness. The many voices of the industry really sing from the same song sheet as the self-help ensembles. And there is truth in their message. According to this tradition, you get to choose the life you will lead. You connect with your desires for ‘the good life’ - whatever that means to you - and you set goals that will take you there. If you choose your attitude and consistently follow your dreams, you will arrive in the promised land of health, prosperity and success.

I honestly believe that the determination to choose your attitude is a life skill we all need. No matter what our circumstances, we can choose to be grateful, to hold onto hope, to believe the best. Truly worthy exemplars, from Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Corrie ten Boom to Dallas Willard and Ann Voskamp, have taught us that the daily practice of setting our attitude and intention will impact not only that particular day but the arc of our entire lives. This inner awareness and strength is something I long for my kids to develop (once I’ve got a handle on it myself, obviously). I know it will massively impact their journey.

The truth of this message is mixed in with another very subtle and not-so-true message. This is where I feel at risk of losing my balance and dropping into the water. As well as choosing my attitude, the self-help-healthy-lifestyle crew tell me that I get to choose the outcome of my life. And this is true … but perhaps not in the way they mean.

  • I’m thinking of the dear friend whose husband had a life-threatening bleed in his brain. Unspeakably grateful that he survived, she told me ‘Our lives have become very small, and I am learning to be okay with that.’

  • I’m thinking of someone else close to me who chose to stay with her husband even though he repeatedly left her for periods of time and even tried to take his own life on more than one occasion. She told me ‘I have surrendered my heart to the Lord and allowed Him to keep me moving forward.’

  • I’m thinking of those friends who worked for many years in a remote part of west Africa, raising their kids there. And when they left, it seemed as though their presence had wrought nothing of significance. Until they were gone and others arrived to nurture the fruit of goodness sown quietly over nearly two decades.

  • I’m thinking of our co-worker who is currently held hostage in the Sahara region, whose safety is far from guaranteed. And although we haven’t been able to speak to him, I’m almost certain he would say that he’d do it all again for the sake of the nomadic people he has lived amongst for nearly thirty years.

It is absolutely right to have our hearts fixed on this desire, hardwired within us, for ‘the good life.’ It is right to think that we were made to be utterly marvellous, to live lives shot through with significance and beauty. We hear echoes within us that remind us that to be human is to be made in the very image of God. However indistinct those echoes are, they are the truest thing about us.

And yet to think that I can get myself there is a deception that will land me in deep water.

Richard Rohr said that “One of the best-kept secrets, and yet hidden in plain sight, is that the way up is the way down. Or, if you prefer, the way down is the way up.” Our human-centred worldview has tricked us into believing that life can be an experience of more or less consistent ascent. If only we choose our attitude, believe in the power of positivity and work our arses off, we can create the good life that we know is part of our birthright. Look around you at all the beautiful people who are living proof that this works! If they did it then so can you! Yes, many of them had challenges to overcome. If you too encounter obstacles, this is how you surmount them: get your head in the game, think positively, know you’re worth it and then get to work!

And when this doesn’t in fact work, we feel that we are somehow to blame. We didn’t think positively enough (you are, in fact, a whiner). We didn’t believe that we were worth it (remember all those doubts). But most of all, we just didn’t push hard enough on the door of success and prosperity (you know you gave up too soon).

But what if my life is not, in fact, my own? What if a really big part of what is going on in my life is not actually seen by me? 

I want very much to follow the path of self-determination. I want it to be true that I get to determine what my life looks like. I know I have enough willpower and resolve to get myself there. I’ll be honest, I want my life to be significant, I want to know that I have done something important. I very much want to know that all the investment I have made, in terms of hard work and sacrifice, has been worth it. I want others to see that I did a good job, dammit.

And yet I sense that there is another way at work. Jesus must have been the most positive guy ever to walk the planet: If anyone had hope in a better future, it was him. If anyone was confident that their birthright was significance and authority, it was him. If anyone had a secure sense of self-worth and personal identity, it was him. And if anyone was familiar with hard graft - working for many years with wood and construction, trudging along many dirt roads, sleeping on countless hard floors - then it was surely him. 

So much of what would finally be called successful about Jesus’ life, though, was never seen while he was alive. Let’s be honest, when it comes to charting a path towards his goals, his closest friends thought he was a walking disaster. There were unseen things at work that were barely glimpsed at; good things - the very best - that were hidden.

Is it possible for me to embrace the fact that my life is being judged by a reckoning that is almost completely at odds with our culture’s checklist? When my life appears to be going down, can I hold onto the hope that it might in fact be heading up? Can I let go of my strong desire to take hold of the reins and to make things happen in my way, in order to hold on for something of far greater value?

There is nothing wrong with beautiful, successful people. There is absolutely nothing wrong with our desire to build a good life. When Jesus said he came to give us life in all its fulness, I hold my hand up and shout, ‘Yes please!’

When I search my heart, though, I find I cannot subscribe to the idea that I am the governor of my own life. In some crazy, topsy turvy way, my heart feels its way towards an ancient, hidden truth. It is when I give up my right to success, to significance, to prosperity that I find a deeper, truer, more eternally precious reality.

I want to choose my attitude, I just don’t know if it’s possible to straddle the water without falling in.

Monday, 17 September 2018

Fear is a Terrorist

I have sometimes imagined myself running with a companion. I didn’t do this deliberately, he just sort of made himself known. It happened first when I was running out in the sugar cane fields, in the rural part of Mozambique where we lived for a while. Sandy tracks bordered by tall green stands of cultivated cane; it was a little remote out there for a lone woman, however speedy she fancied her getaway might be. Perhaps fear was edging its way into my awareness, as I set my jaw and kept running. 

A tall, muscled African guy turned up to run alongside me then, and he stayed at my right shoulder for the rest of the way. I’ve never known his name and I’m not sure who else can see him - I just guess that he comes for a reason and whether that’s to make me less afraid, or to make any leery dudes with bad intentions more afraid, I don’t know. I do know that he seems to appear when I need him and for that I’m grateful. And I know that now, when I think of angels, I think of him.

Fear lurks on the periphery of our vision, for the most part staying just out of sight. Most of us are willing to keep him there, fooling ourselves that if we never look him full in the face he will leave us alone. But, however familiar we become to his presence, fear is a terrorist. Whether we catch his eye or avert our gaze, his intent is to hold us captive through torturous manipulation and deceit. Fear strong-arms us into giving up our dreams, settling for what is safe, withdrawing into the sort of self-protection that gives us an illusion of security but is really just isolation.

Some years after AA first appeared (African Angel) I was once again running, this time crying out to God in frustration and desperation. “I’m afraid I’m not enough for all this!” I gasped, for once looking directly at my resident fears. I will never forget the gentle and straightforward response that immediately followed my outcry: “Yes, that’s the point. You’re not enough.That, my dear, is why I’m here.” There was no false comfort, telling me that I was indeed enough, that I could do anything I set my mind to. Just the reality that in the face of my fears I needed the empowering  presence of another.

Since that epiphanic moment in Clovelly years ago, I have realised that my personal terrorist really just has one incessant message: You are not enough, you never will be.

  • I am afraid of not being enough for my husband. Not engaging enough, not beautiful enough, not adventurous enough, not frugal enough, not energetic enough, not desirable enough.

  • I am afraid of not being enough for my kids. Not loving enough, not consistent enough, not giving enough, not church-going enough, not opportunity-providing enough, not present enough.

  • I am afraid of not being enough for friends. Not nice enough, not attractive enough, not interesting enough, not appealing enough, not friend-worthy enough.

  • I am afraid of not being significant enough. That my life will not adequately bear out all that I have claimed to be true. That when it comes to hope, and purpose, and faith, and fulness of life my own particular life just won’t be enough.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not conscious of these fears every waking moment. Only occasionally I become aware of the terrorist sitting at my kitchen table. ‘Yes,’ I nod at him. ‘I see you there.’ He’s always lurking around somewhere, you see, waiting to stick his oar in. 

Every single person reading this has their own live-in terrorist. The bible calls our enemy ‘the accuser.’ You’ll each have your own experience of accusation, your own experience of living with fear. Fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of abandonment, fear of not being enough - these terror tactics are as ancient as humanity. So, when it comes to fear, there are some strategies I’m using to keep the upper hand.  I'll share them here in case they help anyone:

1. Name your fear.
If you can name your fear, you are closer to looking him in the eye and telling him the terms of your relationship. Put words to the repeated fears that dog you. ‘Oh, there you are again,’ you might say, as you hear his whispers start up. ‘Sit there in the corner and shut up because I have things to do.’ 

2. Choose your weapon. 
That moment of recognition offers you a pause, a moment in which you can draw your own weapon. This is not an appropriate moment for anything fancy, you realise. My go-to is a simple breath prayer: I pause to draw in a deep breath, saying ‘You are my sufficiency, Lord.’ And as I release my breath, I say ‘I let go of my own insufficiencies.’ A small pebble in a humble slingshot it might be, but at moments like this it can hit the target.

3. Call the shots.
This is where you get to define the terms of your relationship with El Terrorista. You can show him the door, and that could work for a while; until he shows up with reinforcements. I’ve found it helpful to understand that he will most likely keep attempting a comeback, so I tell him clearly and repeatedly that, no matter how often he takes a seat at my kitchen table, he won’t be making any decisions around here. 

4. Get back-up.
This is where my African Angel comes in. He’s the strong, silent type and doesn’t say much, honestly. But I’ve realised that he comes from a place where they believe good things about me. Every so often his presence, real or imagined, brings a reminder of that gentle voice that heard my fears and said, ‘That’s why I’m here.’ In the face of the Terrorist, I feel so very alone. I need reminding that I am not, in fact, alone; that the All Sufficient One is by my side. I confront my fear of not being enough in the presence of the One who is enough, has enough, will always be more than enough.

What is the name of your own live-in terrorist? Can you name him? Even better, can you bring to mind the heavenly host that has your back in the face of this fear? What fear-thwarting truth are you being reminded of today?

Friday, 14 September 2018

Arrange your Life

Every week, I have people telling me that they don’t have enough time. They don’t have enough time to read books. Or they don’t have enough time to work out. Or they don’t have enough time to learn a foreign language. Or they don’t have enough time to cook meals from scratch.

Time is one of those things that is shared out evenly; we all get the same amount dolled out to us. Every day, we each get 24 hours to use the way we want to. Of course, there are some hours we have more wriggle room to choose to do something we feel we ‘want.’ I don’t always want to do laundry, or cook a meal, or spend 2 hours in a meeting. But at least some of our time we do get to choose.

Dallas Willard, guru of Christian formation, instructed his readers to “Arrange your life so that you are experiencing deep contentment, joy and confidence in your everyday life with God” (from Living in Christ’s Presence). I am struck by that phrase: arrange your life. It tells me that I get to organise my life around those things that I truly value. I get to make choices that reflect what I want to be true about my life. That idea that I have in my head about what makes a ‘good life?’ I have permission to arrange my life so that I am living that good life.

It’s not always easy, let’s face it. The wannabe writer who chooses to spend their vacation time holed up in their urban apartment instead of with their friends at the beach. The couple committed to co-parenting who miss promotions they deserve because they went part-time. The amateur athlete who gets up at o’dark thirty every day to log their hour of training before work. The mum who studies at night after the kids go to bed to complete the degree she’s set her heart on.

The last few months, our family decided to be intentional about keeping Sabbath. Who feels like they have time to set aside emails, homework and housework for an entire day? None of us! But we did it anyway and the results were surprising, even to us. You can read about what we learned here

More recently, I realised that I desperately need to make silence part of my daily rhythm. You’d be amazed how hard it is to keep silence for just 10 minutes every day! It’s incredibly easy to find a million other things that need doing, rather than sit my butt down on a chair and shut the hell up. But choosing to do it meets a need in my soul that makes me wonder why so few of us have caught onto this secret.

I remember when I started my Master’s degree. One of our professors addressed the class during our first residential, strongly exhorting us to ‘prune’ things from our lives in order to make space to fit in our studies. Some of us did - I pretty much stuck to my daily 6am to 8am study slot - while some of us tried to stuff study hours in alongside an already full schedule … only to crash and burn later. It’s hard for us to believe that time isn’t as stretchy as we’d like it to be.

Anyway, my point is this. We do actually have time. We have the same amount of time as everyone else, and we use it the way we want to (at least part of it). Honestly, I’m preaching to myself: as boring as it seems to get myself to bed at 10.30pm, if I go to bed any later I find it hard to get up at 6am to read, journal and go for a run. I’m reminding myself that I get to choose to have time to reflect and exercise, or not. I get to create the life I want and the person I become. I am not a victim of the other demands on my time. And when I wish that I could just watch another hour of evening Netflix and not set the alarm for the morning, I want to remember the rest of what Dallas Willard said: “Arrange your life so that you are experiencing deep contentment, joy and confidence in your everyday life with God.”

What brings you deep contentment, joy and confidence on an ordinary, everyday basis? Organise your life so that you have more of that! I know I want to.

Monday, 10 September 2018

3 things I learned from disconnecting

I have just returned to the world of social media after a hiatus of three weeks. No, it wasn’t that I carefully planned to take a break; I wasn’t really being intentional or trying to #livelifeonpurpose. It just all became too much.

I don’t know if you can relate. In my case, it could be that several weeks filled with consecutive yet brief face-to-face encounters, followed by a return to a context I find particularly lonely, simply made the superficial nature of social media connection especially unfulfilling. I do love my online community, it’s just that all of a sudden it wasn’t enough. 

Putting a large chunk of myself into a piece of writing, only to get the odd ‘like’ seemed dispiriting. Bolstering other people’s engagement in living a healthy lifestyle with a positive video message, then not receiving any feedback, made my efforts seem insignificant. Finding myself in a place of struggle, and being unseen despite all my connectedness, made those connections seem inauthentic.

In any case, I’m guessing we all have days when the world of social media makes us feel more lonely, not less. I doubt I’m the only one who aches for real connection in a community of reciprocal relationships. We are hardwired for this, always have been. Our 21st Century world is simply our generation’s particular environment for figuring out what community and belonging look like. And it turns out we still have a lot to learn.

Hold that thought ...

In spite of the fact that my social media fast wasn’t planned, I did benefit from this period of disconnection in some specific ways. I thought that by sharing three of these lessons, I might encourage the braver ones among you to try a time of abstinence!

1. I learned to be exactly where I am.
It was hard for me to return to Spain, to face the challenges of life here after 2 months away. In order to do that well, to truly enter into this space, I needed to actually be here - not just physically but also emotionally. Rather than distracting myself from the discomfort of this reality, I needed to be fully present here; aware of my discombobulation and allowing myself to respond to it, to reflect on what is difficult and why. It is easier (way easier!) to distract myself, but when I do that there is no room for growth. Here is where I am: if any growth is going to happen it has to be right here.

2. I learned to let things get real quiet.
My life in Spain is very quiet. It is relationally dry and although there are seasons of busyness - during a retreat or a residential program - there are periods when nearly all my interactions are with my immediate family. My temptation is to fill this space with noise: podcasts, music, audio books, news … But there is something that happens in the quiet that can only happen in the quiet. My soul gets to settle. What is true about me rises to the surface. My deepest desires can finally be heard. I can surrender to these truths and to the One who meets me in this true place.

3. I learned to enter into a place of stillness.
My ego wants a sense of perpetual movement. The achiever in me wants to feel as though I am making progress, I am moving forwards, I am making things happen. I fill my life with activity in order to generate this sense of advancement. A ‘like’ on Facebook or a ‘share’ of a blog post, these things stroke my ego and allow me to remain in this place of false comfort. By deliberately detaching myself from these ego-strokes, I have to face hard truths that are nevertheless kind. I am not the centre of my universe. Life does indeed go on without me. Other do not need me to make good things happen for them. My sense of advancement may in fact be a mirage, an invisibility cloak for my false self that is now revealed in all its naked posturing. 

It may not sound like much, learning to be still, to be quiet, and to be where I am. Yet these small inner movements really do seem to be where the real action of our lives takes place.

So next time you wonder if it’s time to disconnect momentarily from the whirlwind of life online, it could be that you’re hearing an invitation to listen more closely to what is most true about your life in this season … perhaps there’s something waiting to be heard that can only make itself known in the stillness.

Tuesday, 4 September 2018

Faith and Freedom

We've just returned from several weeks of touring churches in the UK. It's kind of hard to believe so many people want to hear our stories, but these are prayer and funding partners who are deeply invested in what we do. Part of our commitment to them is to visit regularly to update people on the ways we are drawing on their investment of time and resources, and the difference that it makes in the contexts where we work.

I'll be honest, this part of our jobs is not easy. Well, it's amazing and not easy. It's amazing in the sense that we are joined through a sense of common purpose with people of faith in so many different locations; such kind and hospitable people. It's amazing and a real privilege to get this incredible overview of the Body of Christ, physically present in so many different locations, and relationally present to us when we visit and when we are living in Spain or travelling in Africa. These groups are so diverse - different ages, different socio-economic brackets, different racial groups, different levels of education - and yet sharing this common desire to be part of what God is doing in the world. Remarkable really.

The not easy part is self-evident.Every two years, we spend weeks away from our own home, travelling thousands of miles from one place to another, giving up our rights to eat what we want when we want, with little time to truly be 'off duty.' This isn't a complaint, it's just the nature of the beast.

Clearly it's not for everyone, this way of life. We feel called to it and it's still discombobulating.

This summer marked 20 years pursuing our sense of calling in this way, which is pretty incredible if you think about it. For 20 years we have had no 'salary' as such but have simply trusted that God would provide what we needed when we needed it. And the crazy thing is, He has. Some of that provision has been downright miraculous but mostly it has been through the committed generosity of individuals and groups who, for whatever reason, have willingly tied themselves together with us and our own small endeavours to see God's kingdom come in the places He puts us.

Even after 20 years the realities of our choice to live this way can still be hard. Apart from the ongoing need to walk in humility and vulnerability (amazing how challenging that can be) Tim and I both have unfulfilled dreams that seem crazy given the reality. Take our shared desire to own a plot of land - nothing fancy, just something we could put a cabin or tiny home on - instead of renting our whole lives long. A couple of times in the past few years a viable plot has been dangled tantalisingly before us and it's hard, in those moments, to trust that the same God who has kept us fed and clothed, with wheels to drive and beds to sleep in, can do whatever He has a mind to do, in His time.

It's important for me, then, to remind myself of the unique value of living out our calling in this way. Of course, we could do faith-based work for a centrally funded organisation that pays salaries to its personnel. There's nothing wrong with that, so why choose this particular modus operandi?

One truly amazing thing about receiving our funding this way is that money is never our primary filter in decision-making. Don't get me wrong, I don't mean we never think about the cost of things before we buy them. On the contrary, we know what it means to budget, believe me! No, I mean that when we are deciding whether such-and-such a project is something we should do, or whether such-and-such a trip should be made, we make that decision based primarily on a sense of the intrinsic value of the project or trip. It might seem backward to make a decision to do something when you don't have the money and you don't know how you'll get it, but that's kind of a way of life for us. It means that we have been able to go to places to teach groups that have no way to pay our transport, let alone a teaching fee. We are free to serve those people in ways we couldn't if the decision was based first on finances. Yes, there are times when we've had to delay something while finances are pending, but there's still an unexpected sense of freedom in all this, rather than the lack of freedom one might expect.

Another thing is that we don't do things primarily to make money; in fact, making money through what we do doesn't really figure. We teach, train, offer spiritual direction or debriefing for free, in that sense. This is what I have found unsettling about my recent foray into the business side of being a coach with the Beachbody company. While I believe wholeheartedly in encouraging people to steward their physical health, and while I long to see people's embodied life working in a fully integrated way with their spiritual and emotional development, I am simply not motivated by the desire to make money doing it. I don't mean that it's wrong to make money this way, I have simply been confronted by what a mindset shift it is for me to put the motivation to make money in the lead.

As I look back over the past 20 years and reflect on countless stories of timely provision, I'm amazed. Which doesn't mean that as I look ahead there isn't a frisson of anxiety (it would be foolish to be presumptuous, after all). All I know is that this way of life, for all its challenges and demands, has actually given us a greater degree of freedom than I ever expected to respond to the needs and opportunities around us.

As for how we spent our summer, you pay your money and you make your choice, right?

Sunday, 2 September 2018

For their sake

Imagine I worked with a female co-worker, a black woman. The two of us are equally experienced in our field, have the same level of education and training, and are both excellent communicators. And imagine, as part of our commitment to the funders of our work, that we have committed to visiting them about once every two years. Imagine we would tour the country, reporting on our work, telling stories, sharing insights, demonstrating that the funders’ money was being well-spent, assuring them that their investment would reap dividends in ways seen and unseen.

Somehow nearly all of the communication leading up to this trip has come to me. Only one of the funding groups thought to copy my colleague in on the emails. Perhaps she is considered a tag-along, or maybe I am simply expected to keep her in the loop. Subconsciously this gives me the sense of being the primary player; information is power after all. This is how the sense of entitlement begins, unwittingly, to take root.

So, my colleague and I come to one of the venues along our route. Without knowing us, our skills or experience, I am invited to address the main gathering while she is tasked with giving a talk to the children. We share a wry smile - neither of us considers ourselves very good at children’s work - and we make the best of it. Rightly or wrongly, the children’s talk is considered a more lightweight, less demanding job. Is my colleague less equipped than I am to present our work to the adults present? We know this is not true, so how has this decision been made?

We come to another venue. There’s a lunch, an opportunity to meet and greet the funding group. Somebody comes to direct me to a seat next to the group’s leader, they make a comment about it being the ‘right’ thing. My colleague and I are a team, equally responsible for the distribution of funds, equally engaged in the overall project. Yet she is seated with a group of women, doing her best to chat brightly about inconsequential matters, while I engage in the more weighty subject of our work and where it’s heading. 

At the next venue I am called to the front of the gathering to receive a cheque towards our work. The cheque is made out to me personally, and no mention is made of my colleague and co-worker. Has it been assumed that I am responsible for the finances, that my name is on the project bank account, that I am the more senior of the two of us? Apparently so.

Nearly everywhere we go, we are introduced as ‘Miranda and her colleague,’ continuing to give the impression that I am somehow the boss, the director, the one in charge. While I feel honoured, I am becoming increasingly unsettled. It would seem that there is some covert prejudice at work here. When two similarly educated, similarly experienced, similarly effective communicators arrive to do a job and it is unfailingly assumed that one is the senior partner, one has to assume that there are hidden dynamics at work. 

In the imaginary scenario of me working alongside another woman, where the only difference between us is that I am white and she is black, it would not be far-fetched to conclude that racial prejudice is at work: that perfectly nice and well-meaning people are behaving in ways that betray their colour-coded worldview. And we would not stand for it, would we? We would politely yet firmly insist that we are equally skilled co-workers, coming to do the job together. Where the unequal treatment continued, we would need to communicate this more clearly, more firmly, surely? Racism, in all its guises, must be addressed and rooted out.

And yet, here we are. And this imaginary story is in fact a true one. Only I am working alongside my husband, and he is the one called to the front to receive cheques made out in his name. He is the one seated next to the most senior members of whichever group we are visiting, he is the one asked to address the main meeting, while I speak to the children. 

If we could call this racism were skin colour involved, then surely we can call this sexism when the only reason for such prejudice is gender? As women, and especially as Christian women, we have been taught to take it on the chin. Just toe the line, smile at the well-meaning people and excuse their behaviour, however it makes you feel. This is the Christian approach, apparently. Meekness and mildness in a woman is part of our heritage.

I beg to differ. Our common calling as part of the Body of Christ is to partner with Him to establish His ways here on earth. That means justice for the mistreated, and it means treating every image-bearer, no matter their colour or their gender, as a co-heir alongside Jesus and with a significant and unique contribution to make to the work of the King.

The small injustices outlined above may seem too subtle to get stirred up about. But they are, in fact, only the thin and more presentable end of the wedge. Rooted as they are in a sense of a difference of inherent value, this sort of disrespect and disempowerment opens the way for the greater wrongs of salary disparity, glass ceilings, and indeed more violent abuses of women.

When I think of raising my two daughters to send them out into the world as independent adults, I confess to a feeling akin to dread. For all the distance we have travelled to permit these two young women to make their mark on the world through voting for government, attending university, or holding jobs in most professions, we cannot avoid certain realities. If they choose to marry, in all likelihood they will be expected to give up their surname for that of their husband, they will receive bills in the post addressing them by their husband’s initials, and they will be treated in a thousand subtle ways as the lesser partner in the relationship. 

And if my daughters choose to go to church, they will be more likely to encounter these thousands of subtle mistreatments, not less. If I choose to keep quiet for the sake of not rocking the boat, I am complicit in the prejudice they will face. And that is where I draw the line.