Hello, it’s been a while.
You could be forgiven for thinking I’d run out of things to write. Truth be told, there was just too much going on and all of it a bit too “people-y” to disclose. Working out how to report the drama of the year and the many refections it offered was just too much like hard work, I’m afraid! I could spend a few hours working out what to write… or I could just stop writing.
The latter seemed the better option until this Monday morning, when I recieved an annual invoice from WordPress. Nothing like a £50 bill to grab your attention, huh?! To delete the account or get back on the horse…?
Gee up, Nelly!
It started last July when the government finally and completely withdrew social distancing restrictions. Our Church put on the first open doors event for almost two years, and I remembered – with horror – what it felt like to keep two eyes on three children in an overcrowded space with many rooms, many exits and even more people. Husband was there, somewhere, but his eyes were decidedly off limits. He was here for work. I was here for FUN.
Next, into the growing panic, entered The Bubbles, (remember them?) Swallowing down my own rising hysteria, I attempted to meet and greet BM and help her feel at ease. She physically turned her head in the opposite direction, clamped her lip and refused to engage in conversation. Anxiety, it happens. So I knelt down and greeted the Bubblettes instead, who were promptly shielded from me with defensive arms, whilst a suddenly-rediscovered voice barked, “NO. No thank you!“
And off they ran.
As did my own children. In opposite directions.
Queue an anxiety attack of my own.
In previous weeks, all attempts to meet up with the Bubbles since the “social bubble” dissolved had been met with last minute cancellations. Indeed, one cancellation was so last minute that it involved the disappointment of my own child, and as such, prompted a rather disgruntled phone call.
“How can you possibly have double booked us in the last two minutes- I only just got off the phone with you?!”
The eventual response was so unapologetically rude that I could do nothing but laugh out loud; “I just prefer the other woman now, that’s all!”
Still. No matter how socially challenged you know an individual to be, the experience of being blanked in public is still uncomfortable; and having the children you’ve helped look after for months shielded from your monstrous presence is still pretty brutal. Especially since you’re now frantically searching for your own.
(Who are fine. By the by.)
Around the same time, another friend that I had supported- intensely, for years, to the point of my own mental unravelling – (yes I see the pattern here)- announced a big life event.
The internal reaction to both of these things was interesting. On the one hand, intense relief. I’m off the hook! I am no longer the first, second or even tenth point of call in either of these suffocating relationships. And I don’t need to feel guilty for stepping back now, because clearly, they found a replacement. And they are fine.
On the other hand though…
“There is just no ‘stepping back’ with these people is there?!” I recall ranting at Husband a few days on. “Either I’m available 24/7 or else unworthy of a text or a playdate!”
Thus, the temptation to be offended walks boldly into the arena.
I mean, was there really not even an ounce of genuine friendship beyond how useful I could be?!
Well… No. Of course not.
These were never equal friendships and I knew that from the outset. I didn’t help a friend. I saw someone who needed help and befriended them on that basis. I knew what I was signing up for. And yet… it still hurts.
So… now what?
Well, there’s a brief stint of anger, a flirtation with selfish resolutions and an internal rendition of Beyonce singing, “don’t you ever get to thinking, you’re irreplaceable!” (To the left, to the left...)
Followed, naturally, by my old friend self depreciation.
See, it’s not their fault that I get too attached; too involved; that I suck at boundaries. It’s not their fault that my ego is so susceptible to manipulation!
Nobody is irreplaceable. The fact that I loosened my boundaries and overstepped each time someone told me that there was “no one else”, says more about my desperation to believe those words than the actual desperation of the need. I didn’t have to give more than was healthy. That was my own daft fault.
So… now what?
To give up? To try minding my own business for a change and enjoy a quiet life?!
I’m not so sure.
I still believe – wholeheardely- that God intends for us to live generously and openly, with compassion and hospitality in every situation, and that part of “concentrating on my own family” is in fact modelling that belief- in action- to my children. But what if… what if I’m just not cut out to live up to what I believe?
What if there are some people- some amazingly wise, patient, faithful, thick-skinned people- who can do this well, and then… well, then there’s just the rest of us?
Interestingly enough, at about this time (mid August), some such people moved in to our house. These people are most certainly all of the above and have long been heroes of the faith to me; case in point, they needed our spare room because they’d given their house to somebody else. It was only a temporary arrangement of course, and I was excited to have this family of four under my roof for two weeks.
I wasted no time in grilling them.
“How do you do it?! You’ve been hosting, investing, supporting, fostering, being family to the most eclectic range of difficult, disadvantaged or downright weird people for decades. How are you still here?! How are you not broken?! And why am I so bad at it already?!!”
The conversation was a good one. At the point I started ranting about BM and “all I’d done for her-” Mrs Jesus-features stopped me.
“But you didn’t do it for her though, did you?”
“Well.. I mean no, I guess there was a selfish element to it, but…”
“I don’t mean that either. ‘Whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me.’ You do it for Jesus. You do it because it’s the right thing to do, because it’s how He does it, and it’s how He teaches you to live. You decide to do it before you know or love the person, because He knows and loves them way more than you are capable of. And you HAVE to keep that in mind. Nobody owes you anything- because it’s not about you and them, it’s about God and what He is doing in both of you.”
Yup. God sent the big guns.
I take a minute to roll my jaw up from the kitchen table…
“Also,” adds Mister Jesus-features, “I’ve learned that you can choose how to remember and retell a story. Like, we tend to classify past experiences and relationships as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, when the truth is, there’s usually a whole lot of light and dark in the details. You can actively choose to remember the gold instead of the rocks, and that keeps you digging for it long into the future.”
There were plenty of nuggets like that in those two short weeks, but the diamond was still to come. See, diamonds are refined by fire, and when Mr and Mrs Jesus-features finally moved back into their own home in the middle of December… we’d seen plenty of it.
Now this is the part that I have absolutely no liberty to share, but I can summarise the effect it had on me. For in those four months I saw the most selfless, committed, experienced, (even trained) missionaries, with the most honed skills, faithful hearts and thickest skins… come to the end of their rope. There were tears, there was shouting, there was a heck of a lot of 90s worship throwbacks… there were crisis meetings and prayers of desperation for seemingly impossible relational standoffs that God – and only God – could resolve.
“How did I get this so wrong?!” I heard my hero cry, as I poured her wine and helped redefine the boundaries only discovered once trespassed.
“We’re sorry,” they said- again, “for bringing all of this to your door.”
“Are you kidding?!” I replied, “this has been BRILLIANT for me! I don’t feel unqualified anymore!”
See, their situation ended miraculously well, but the road was far from smooth. Largely because:
Ministry … is messy. No matter who you are or what you’ve done or where you’ve come from. We are all human and we all bring our passion and pride and flaws and failings; our best and our worst to the table. Missionary, minister, Vicar’s wife; single parent, refugee, addict… whatever label you labour under, however noble the cause… we are all people, real life people, and when you rub us together we get sores!
Jesus’ teaching is absolutely nuts, when you think about it. Radical, ridiculous, unnatural and so completely unachievable that there’s no “right type of person” to do it. Only Him! The good (and bad) news is that He lives in us, (so there’s no excuse!).
We CAN live radically generous, open and hospitable lives; which will appear differently in each context and time. We will get it wrong; we will get burned and we’ll get sore. But the diamond here, for me at least, is that there’s always gold when you dig in with God.
Thanks for reading again.