Sunday, February 28, 2016

Out of the box

It feels weird to be writing a blog post. It’s been several years now.  Back when I was writing here regularly, my life was very different. I was a work at home mom with a house full of young children. This place was my outlet and connection to the outside world.  Over time, I went back to work. My kids grew older and their stories became theirs to tell and no longer mine. I lost the desire to write my feelings as I spend most days at work sharing them. I no longer needed that outlet. People occasionally ask me when I’ll blog again and my response is always the same… “when I have something I just have to say.”

This post has been brewing for me for several years. In reality, the journey started for me in my early 30’s as I began really unpacking who I am. What a long strange trip it’s been. But oh the freedom that has sprung from it. But first, a little background…

I was raised in a family of strong women. Raised by a single mother who had a single mother. Then when I was ten, my parents became Christians. Our family and church subscribed to the theology that men are the leaders, both in the home and in the church. A woman’s calling is always to be a wife, a mother and submissive. It was drilled in to me during the very formative teen years of figuring out who you are. I believed it. My struggle was that I didn’t fit into that box. I was not quiet, I was not submissive and I was very rarely gentle. So the label I wore was “rebellious”. I spent years walking out that label to its fullest degree. Talk about a self-fulfilling prophesy. I carried that label into young adulthood, even after I returned to the Lord after many years astray. I threw myself full force into what a Godly woman was supposed to look like. Ministering in acceptable areas (children’s ministry, hospitality, music). Trying to fit who I really am into the box of “Godly woman”. I tried to be more submissive to my husband. I tried to suppress the natural leadership skills I have always had. I tried to learn how to be meek and sweet and quiet. I failed miserably. With each passing year another piece of me shriveled up and faded. I found myself increasingly burnt out by being the small group leader’s wife, who isn’t allowed to teach because there are men in the group. I was tired of serving in children’s ministry when quite frankly… I don’t like children. My marriage was suffering greatly as I tried to submit to my husband being the leader of our home and resenting him for not meeting my standards. Meanwhile, his resentment for me grew as he was forced into a role that is not his gifting either. And around and around we go…

Fast forward to 2011. We had officially crashed and burned in ministry. We had walked away from all of our leadership roles and rarely attended church. My husband was drowning in addiction and I had no choice but to be the strong one. It had to be done. But the resentment carried on. Opportunities began to arise in the community that allowed me to lead outside of the church and I ran with it. I finally felt like maybe I could spread my wings a bit. I had spent the past ten years of my life carrying shame and guilt over not being good enough, not being the right kind of woman, not being a woman of God. I began to step out a bit, little by little, and lead. I began to let those gifts lying dormant out of the box. I started teaching. I started to mentor. I started to find Abby again. Meanwhile, my place in the church didn’t change and my resentment there grew even more. I started to notice that I had never seen a woman speak from the stage. I had never heard a sermon by a woman. And I had a lot of questions. I’m just enough of a type A personality that when I am questioning something… I begin to obsessively research. It takes over my mind until I am satisfied. I began to read everything the Bible had to say about women and compare it to what it says about the character of God. I began to read books on the topic and pray pray, pray. During this time, the Lord spoke. His words were so clear to me.
“Abby, if I had wanted you to be a follower, I wouldn’t have created you a leader.”
I wish I was a gifted enough writer to describe to you what impact that revelation had on my life. It was as if someone had taken the lid off of the box and let me FLY. It set me free.
  All of my life I had worn the label of “rebellious” under a cloud of shame.. I now wear it as a badge of honor. 
  I felt free to walk in who I really am.  As this new found revelation began to permeate the different areas of my life, things began to change. I will never forget the day my husband and I sat down and discussed what it could look like if we were equal partners in this marriage. If neither of us had to be the leader or the follower. If we were able to mutually submit to one another. When he is weak, I can be our strength. When I am weak, he can be strong. Our marriage changed profoundly from that point on. We both were able to be free to be who we are. Sometimes strong, sometimes weak, always a team.
Around this time, I began to really struggle with whether I should leave our church. Staying or leaving a church may seem like a minor decision to some. But keep in mind, my family has been there for 27 years. The people that make up that congregation are not just acquaintances I see on Sundays, they have become my family. How could I leave? But resentment continued to grow. I went to coffee one day with a dear friend and I shared this struggle. She knows me well and knows I prefer someone to be direct. She looked me right in the eye and said “It’s easier to walk away than to stay and change the system.” In the moment, I was angry. I didn’t want to hear it. I wanted to leave and find a place that agreed with me. I was tired of fighting the system. I was tired of being put in a box and not being allowed to walk in my identity. I was weary. But despite my pleas to the Lord to release me, He didn’t. Within a few weeks of that conversation, we were approached by one of the pastors about being part of a church plant in a neighborhood of high poverty. It really is the exact thing that I’m passionate about. I put everything on the table that night in a coffee house. My anger at the church, walking away from leadership years before and my refusal to get back in the box. He assured me that we were on the same page and I would be allowed to walk in freedom there. I agreed to come. Over the past two years, he has kept that promise. He has gone to bat for me more times that I can count and probably many more than I am aware of.  Not long after opening, circumstances occurred that allowed me to become a staff member and serve as a community advocate for the church directly serving that neighborhood. I was finally free to minister in the way the Lord uniquely gifted me to do so without the constraints of my gender.  I was able to serve with a pastor that saw me as an asset and not merely a woman. It was breathtaking.

That brings me to the present. I am serving my community with the gifts I have. I have a career that is both fulfilling and heartbreaking and beautiful all at the same time.  I still don’t see eye to eye with my church on issues of women but I’m continuing to have the conversation. But what I’ve learned along the way is that my church’s theology doesn’t define me. The world doesn’t define me.
I am free to be who I am without shame.
There will always be those who disagree. There will always be someone trying to put me back in the box. But the best weapon I have in this battle is walking unapologetically in who I am and doing so to the best of my ability. I can be the best version of myself. I can be a female leader who is not aggressive or militant. I can be a woman who is strong and powerful. I can be a woman who is passionate about social issues and still cries during worship. I can speak my truth and tell my story and be vulnerable so others can hold me up when I don’t have the strength to hold myself. I can raise daughters who have no boundaries set upon them, either in the world or the church. I can teach them that the possibilities are endless. Maybe the Lord will have them be a pastor or a CEO or a homemaker. Whatever future He has for them, they will be powerful. 
Because just like their male counterparts.. they are created in the image of God.
 And their call will be to use that power to be a voice for the voiceless, as is mine. That we serve in our church because we are called to be servants. That we love the unlovable because we were first loved. That sometimes we visit a different church so they can hear a woman preach. That this is OK. That being powerful and strong doesn’t mean being overbearing and critical. It means being wise and empathetic and knowing who you are. It also means knowing who you are not. I am not meant to be in a box… and I’m never going back there.