Friday 27 October 2017

The Power of a Story

This afternoon, I was invited to be the guest speaker at a World Community Day Service. If you are like me and hadn't heard of such a service before, it is similar to the ecumenical World Day of Prayer services. A theme is set along with a liturgy, hymns and readings. The job of the guest speaker is to try and say something meaningful which reflects the theme and incorporates the readings.

The theme for 2017 was "Empowered to Proclaim (Love, Liberty and Life)". On first seeing this, I thought it was a very broad theme and wasn't sure where to begin. I then looked at the readings. The first was the story from Matthew of a woman anointing Jesus' head with oil. The second was the raising of Tabitha from Acts. The final reading was the story of the healing of the crippled woman on the Sabbath from Luke. This was not helpful. Three huge stories about women. How could I do any of them justice in such a short space of time?

After much pondering, I decided to parallel each story with a story of a significant woman in my life. The three women I chose were vastly different and had effected me in various ways. I chose not to provide any analysis of the stories, but just to tell them with honesty, emotion and a touch of humour. To be honest, I wasn't sure if this would meet the expectations of the group who had given up their afternoon to be there. Having never experienced one of these services, I had no idea where the bar was set.

I needn't have worried. I should have realised the power of a personal story. People were obviously stirred, perhaps by relating part of my story to their own. People recognised their own ordinary stories as sacred, perhaps as a result of my holy holding of my own. As I shared a cuppa with some afterwards, the stories flowed easily between women who had only just met.

I thought I had taken the easy option in telling a few stories, but sharing of yourself is never without some cost. For me, it is much more tiring to share personal stories than to stick to a more removed style of preaching. The process, however, is extremely meaningful. The stories come alive in a new way, not only for the listener, but for the storyteller as well.

Sunday 15 October 2017

Soundtrack of Life

One of my skills in life, which is now obsolete, is the art of creating a mixtape. As a teenager, I created many such cassette tapes. Cathie's Hits One through to Fifteen, the Love Songs special and the Movie Classics are still hidden away in a drawer somewhere. My boyfriends during this period of my life also had the rare privilege of being gifted a mixtape with all the soppiest songs of the day expressing my undying love for them.

For those a little too young to understand the process of creating such a gem as Cathie's Hits 11 (I recall this being one of my favourites) let me explain. Before there was such a thing as iTunes or Spotify, we had to buy our music on cassette or listen to the Top 20 on the radio with finger poised on the record button. This required a high level of skill in order to avoid the DJ's intro or the beginning of the next song. After managing to capture the favourite tunes, you would then spend hours fast-fowarding and recording the tracks to a mixtape, creating your very own compilation.

I spent five hours in the car today, driving to retreat. As I drove, I flicked between my favourite songs on my phone and had an awesome sing-a-long. I was reflecting on what I would put on my mixtape today. It would have a good dose of Carole King, Missy Higgins and Kendall Payne. Of course, there would have to be Over the Rainbow and a couple of tunes from the musical Wicked.

As I listened and sang along, it occurred to me that each song had its own story for me. Some reminded me of certain people, while others described perfectly certain situations in life. Music holds so much power; the power to evoke tears, motivate us to new ways of being and bring clarity to the mess of life. My mixtape today would be a soundtrack to my life, a journey of ups and downs, joys and sorrows. I think I might create this 'mixtape'. Fortunately, with today's technology, it won't take me hours of pressing buttons. I will create a playlist titled 'Soundtrack of Life' and see how it changes over the months and years ahead - just for fun!!

Wednesday 11 October 2017

The Shaping of the Adolescent Girl

Today is the United Nations International Day of the Girl Child. There is a particular focus on adolescent girls and their ability to change the world for better if given the chance. This theme presents itself to me at an opportune time. Recently, I have been reflecting on my own adolescent years and watching my own children go through this turbulent time. 

I spent most of my adolescent years at a private high school. In those days, it was considered a low fee private school. It didn't have all the bells and whistles of other prestigious colleges, but certainly had a lot of heart and a great reputation for decent pastoral care. Before leaving primary school, I had already well established my place in the whole social web. I had no enemies (that I knew of), was friends with everyone, but found my social niche kicking the footy with a small bunch of guys on the oval. To begin with, they were cautious, not sure if they could tackle me for the mark and running in close for the short kicks I would inevitably execute. But soon, I became one of them and gave as good as I got. 

Moving to high school, I had to re-establish my friendships. I was the only student going to this relatively new school from my primary school. I had some friends from my local church to look out for and to begin with we banded together. By the end of the first year we had a large friendship group, girls and guys. I had girlfriends, but still seemed more natural and at ease around the boys. This was fine to begin with, however, it became complicated as we got older and the boundaries in relationships started to change.

As a teenager, I was very vocal about the fact that I really disliked being female. I may have even used the word 'hate', which seems far too strong now. At my school, the girls wore dresses or skirts. This was not my usual choice of attire and I worked very hard to develop the necessary lady-like ways to accompany the uniform. I recall, at one time, being informed by a staff member that my 'natural and easy way of being around the boys' might be misinterpreted. This confused me at the time. In hindsight, what I hated about being a girl was the fact that I could not live it out the way that was natural for me. There seemed to be an expected mould, and I certainly didn't fit into it. Being an adolescent girl, for me, was awkward, uncomfortable, tedious and a tad lonely.

I am now watching on, anxiously, as my daughter goes through that same
period of her life. Of course, all of my fears and concerns are projections of my own experiences, but I really needn't worry. She is a different person to me and she is growing up in a different generation. My daughter is a dancer and, I must admit, this did concern me when she was younger. I wondered if she too would develop with certain ideals about how a young woman should look, act and be. My fears have been allayed. I believe that her love of dancing has fostered some very healthy attributes. She is resilient, comfortable in her own skin, able to have a laugh at herself, confident and perseveres. She has a 'can do' attitude, a wholesome dose of self esteem and a love for life. She is a real natural beauty with no need for false facades, but can put on the eyelashes and costumes to shine on stage.

Perhaps, on the International Day of the Girl Child, my commitment needs to be to encourage each young girl I have the privilege of spending time with to be the best version of themselves possible. Being true to yourself is a gift, not only to oneself, but to everyone around you. Being a teenager is hard enough as it is, without trying to be someone you are not. So, lets give our adolescent girls a gift today of allowing them to be the amazingly diverse young women they are.

Monday 2 October 2017

Silenced in the Name of God

Those who know me well, are aware that one of my greatest sources of annoyance is spiritual abuse. It is not talked about as much as physical, emotional or sexual abuse and, in my experience, is often swept under the carpet. Many I have spoken with have never heard of it and need to be given examples to convince them it actually exists. There are many ways that spiritual abuse can be manifested. One of these is silencing.

As a fifteen year old, I first experienced this at school. I attended a church school and as part of our Faith and Values program we were expected to keep a journal for a term. The idea of the journal was to reflect on the faith issues that had arisen in class. I was a questioner and a deep thinker. I don't recall all the theological statements I recorded in that journal, but I certainly felt it was a safe space to explore the boundaries a little.  I submitted my journal at the end of the term, proud of the depth of my ponderings, to be marked. It was returned to me covered in red pen. "Have you read your Bible, Cathie?" References to a variety of Bible passages pointed me in the right direction. I had it all wrong. I learnt from my journal submission that this class was not a place to question or speak out. It was a place to tow the line, especially if I wanted a good grade. I had been silenced.

A bit over a decade later, I had not long returned from a period living overseas. Our local congregation was having a meeting. A proposal was brought concerning the future of the congregation. I remember publicly making an observation which resonated with many in attendance. My comments resulted in a counter-proposal being brought that was widely supported. My observation had shed some light on how things really were in that community. The next week, I was called in for a 'conversation'. My outspoken nature and unrealistic hopes were linked to the obvious reverse culture shock I was experiencing and my desire for the church to be like I had known whilst overseas. I clearly was not in a fit state to be contributing to the church community. Funnily enough, I was never invited to lead the morning worship again either. I had been silenced.

These are just two stories that immediately jump to mind. I could share many more. Times when the words or actions, usually of those in authority, have let me know that it is not acceptable to question, to rock the boat, to cause ripples, to stir up trouble, to think for myself and much more. It took many years for me to realise the impact of being silenced. It occurred on a day I will never forget and yet it was so simple. It was in a Systematic Theology class at university. The class was larger than others I had attended. It seemed to be full of people who knew what they were talking about. They all seemed to have this Trinity thing worked out. I felt out of my depth and said very little in the class.

There came a week when the class discussion seemed to be going around in circles and I was imagining it all a little differently in my mind. I reluctantly raised my hand to contribute (what if I have this completely wrong?), the lecturer looked in my direction, "Yes Cathie?" (this was a mistake, what would I know?) and I begin with, "This probably doesn't mean much, but I've been thinking..."
My lecturer stopped me in my tracks (here we go, silenced again).
"I want you to start again. What you have to say is important. Say it with confidence." I was given a voice. I have no idea what I said, how eloquent it may or may not have been, or even if it made sense, but I recall very clearly how I felt. I realised how often I had been silenced, sometimes very subtly, and this felt freeing.

I wish I could say that this experience transformed me into a confident person always ready to have my say. To be honest, I often second guess myself and feel very vulnerable putting my head above the water. I wish I could say that my experience was unique, however, silencing in faith communities is more common than we would like to think. Just this week, a colleague of mine has been silenced by his denomination. His voice is not as easily suppressed as mine and, as a result, the methods used are more explicit and personally damaging.

Watching this unfold has reminded me, yet again, of the importance of solidarity. In a culture where this type of abuse is not recognised, let alone confronted, it is important that we stand with those who are silenced and where possible help them be heard. We need to be the ones who say, "What you have to say is important. Say it with confidence."