I love you, friend, but I don’t want your essential oils (or leggings, or mascara…)

If you’ve been around church women for any length of time, chances are you’ve been invited to some kind of product party: a “no pressure, just-a-bunch-of-girls get together” with food and a presentation of jewelry, essential oils, makeup, leggings, cleaning products, accessories, nutritional supplements, skin care miracles, or (fill in the blank) on display.

Or, you’ve been invited to an online shopping party to buy books or mascara that will Change your Life.

Or, (and this might be my least favorite), you’ve been added to some FB group you did not ask to join and now have live videos appearing in your feed of someone applying their makeup.

Church life, it seems, is a hotspot for business. Multi level marketing (the I-sell-to-you, you-sell-to-your-friends, your-friends-sell-to-their friends model) is a 34 billion dollar a year industry, according to Christianity Today’s feature article on the topic… and a vast proportion of those sales are by and to women, and church ladies are at the forefront of the salesforce. There’s a reason your facebook feed is filled with church contacts selling stuff.

I used to think it was just me who got an icky feeling every time I got one of these party invites. I don’t like shopping at the best of times (I can feel my soul leaching out of me with every step I take deeper into the mall), but I’ve been wrestling for months on what it is about this particular type of shopping that makes me so antsy, and more and more I’m realizing it’s not just me… and getting closer to articulating what it is that bugs me.

So let me start out by acknowledging the good things about this trend. Targeted primarily at women who cannot engage in the workforce full time (because they’re caring for kids or parents) and women who need additional income because they’re in lower-paying jobs (I know multiple teachers and medical assistants who are keep ‘consulting’ businesses on the side for this reason) – these businesses do something wonderful: they acknowledge the talent and leadership potential of women, and give them opportunities to use their gifts in a significant way. The trainers invest time in developing women’s gifts, and they encourage them and build community among their participants.

Let me say from the get-go that I FULLY believe in acknowledging, developing, and encouraging women as able and ready world-changers. The world has come a long way in the last fifty years, but office space and church life still remain places where women sometimes aren’t fully welcomed as adding significant value. These companies SEE the incredible power and potential of women in the pews in a way we could learn from.

I also want to acknowledge that for a handful of women, these stay-at-home businesses have provided significant income opportunities, allowing women to help put their kids through college, or pay off student debt. That’s a wonderful thing. They work hard. I’m thrilled for them. And yet, I know a much bigger number of women who landed up investing more than they earned, and for whom the hours invested and nights away from home hosting parties have yielded very little. So, there’s that.

So why do I feel icky about it? Is it that I loathe the free market so much that I can’t bear to see people sell stuff? Nope, that’s not it. Is it that I am jealous of others’ success? Nope, that’s not it either (I wrestled long and hard about this.) I think, when all is said and done, the unease I feel about this phenomenon is for two main reasons:

First, it muddies the waters of friendship. True friends are one of my chief life lines as I cope with the stresses of this life stage (I wrote about it for Christianity Today this month here, if you’re curious.) Knowing that there are people whose care for me is genuine makes the world of difference, and it feels yucky to doubt overtures of friendship from other Christian women: am I a friend to them? Or just a potential customer they’re being friendly to? When someone who’s never been active on social media all of a sudden becomes highly active, liking all my posts, and posting highly hashtagged pictures of herself “living the dream” after years of never posting a thing…. I smell a rat. If the first time you message me after ten years is to “connect” and ask me about what’s up in my life and oh-just-breezy-sharing that one of the things you’ve been up to is starting this or that business… it doesn’t feel like friendship to me. 

And I hate feeling like a bad Debbie-Downer-Doubting-Thomas mashup about friendship. I think one of the most precious resources we have is our friendships, and I cannot shake the feeling that these billion dollar industries are muscling their way into sacred spaces they have no right being in. Especially when the language of the company is such that purchasing their product is seen as “supporting your friend’s business”. I don’t want a price tag imposed by some third party on how well I support my friend. I don’t want the first time I’m invited to your house to be for a sales/pampering/shopping party… that doesn’t feel like friendship, either. I love and believe in girl’s time, but I don’t want to be on my guard when someone invites me to spend time with them: will I have to resist a sales pitch? do I have to rehearse my awkward excuse? How many polite refusals can a friendship endure?

I feel some real grief for women wanting to build a business in these models: they are gifted and talented and I know they are trying to make an honest living in a way that supports their family… but the relational cost to have to look at a significant part of emotional support base all as potential clients has to be something that weighs heavily on them. It is no small wonder that I see friends engaged in these businesses bonding more and more closely with other women in the same business: new communities beyond the church where no-one has a before/after comparison on how their friendships are now.

My second big concern is this: these companies make us spend our invitations on a product instead of on Jesus. The model for sales is actually eerily evangelistic: consider the way we are encouraged to share our faith..

Be such a great friend, and live such a good and flourishing life among people that they will be drawn to you. Pictures of radiant smiles, testimonies of how your life is different, celebration of community and change all help show this.

Invite others to share in the joy of what you’ve found.

But do so with gentleness and grace.

And if anyone asks you for a reason for your hope, do so with gladness. 

Invite others to join the “family”, and hope that their joy will be contagious, too.

But what’s the source of the joy? My feeling is you can’t say “It’s Jesus. Oh, and also my amazing product,” in the same breath.

The evangelism model above works for the gospel… and remarkably well also for Tupperware, Young Living, Pampered Chef, 31 Bits, Doterra, Arbonne, LulaRoe, YouNique, NorWex, Beach Body, Premier Jewelry, Rodan+Fields, Urborne Books, and fill in the blank. Perhaps I also need to add here that the quality of the products that are being sold is often really great (such cute leggings! and necklaces! And your skin really does glow!) But the question remains: what do people associate with you, when they imagine you completing the sentence, “__________ has made all the difference in my life.”

Often we only get one chance to invite people into our lives, and one chance to share the story of what’s made the difference. My deep concern is that person-to-person sales leverage relationships for the wrong purpose: it uses our opportunities to build relationship in service of a product and not the Person.

I don’t ever want to be a person who has their overtures of friendship met with suspicion. No-one wants to be friends with the person who “just wants to evangelize them”. Whether for God, or their product. I think I have a way to go (we have a way to go, really) in learning how to develop and believe in women. I believe women can lead. I believe there are ways of developing and supporting income-generating projects. But I don’t believe the model we have on offer from companies that make their billions by exploiting my friendship-list is a healthy one. I know a handful of women who manage to walk this line of friendship and business remarkably well (and I should say, most of these are involved in justice-motivated ventures to support entrepreneurial women in developing countries)… but these women are exceptional in more way than one.

I’m sorry, but I don’t want to buy your product. But I really, really do want to be your friend.

 

 

 

Unreliable Mirrors

A woman poses in a fun fair hall of mirrors, circa 1935 (BBC.co.uk)

I’m never sure if it’s a compliment if someone says “you’re really photogenic”. Do they mean “you are attractive and this photo shows it!” Or do they mean “this is a nice photo of you… in real life you don’t look really as good?” One thing is for sure: depending on the photographer and the angle, the same face can look a variety of different ways.

My children and my husband, for example, have a different perspective (literally) on what my face looks like. One looks more down on my hair, the others get to see much more of my chin (I try not to think about this, actually.) As for me: I see myself eye-to-eye in the bathroom mirror, which is the closest I can get to seeing an accurate reflection of what I look like. But often, others can reflect things to me that I don’t see: the tag sticking out of my shirt at the back. The bit of fluff behind my ear. Or, later in the day, the proverbial piece of spinach between my teeth. We need mirrors—glass or human—to tell us what we’re like.

Much more important than our physical appearance, though, is that we all rely on others to reflect back to us what we are really like as people. There are no bathroom mirrors that can tell us if we are kind, or self-deluded, or mentally unstable, or genuinely hilarious. We gather information about what we are like from the human mirrors around us: our family, our friends, our communities.

However, we human mirrors vary wildly in our ability to reflect truth. None of us are perfect mirrors: every part of us is affected by sin (this is what I understand by the phrase total depravity… not that we’re as bad as we can be, but that every aspect of our being is tainted by it). We all are prone to self-deception, self-focus, and self-interest; we are finite, fallible, and foolish—as one of my professors used to say—and so we all give somewhat “warped” feedback to the world around us.

But, some people give healthier reflections than others. And this post is my reflection (<< cannot resist puns) on whether the most significant relationships in our lives are providing us with reliable or unreliable mirrors about who we are as people. So much of our emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being depends on it.

The healthiest of relationships are ones where a person show us, as closely as they can, how God sees us. They see our dignity, our gifting, our strengths. They also see our flaws and our struggles, and they are able to reflect back to us when we might need to “take a good, hard look at ourselves.” They are able to help us identify our talents. They are able to name our blind-spots. The best of friendships, and the best of marriages, are those where we are loved by a reliable mirror. This person doesn’t always take our side in things (they are not a permanent instagram filter for our character!), but they are not critical by default (like the mirrors in the Target dressing room).

The most toxic of relationships, by contrast, are ones where the person is close enough to be playing a major role in you forming your self-perception of you, and they reflect a deeply distorted version of yourself. This, I think, is what gaslighting is at its worst (you need to know what gaslighting is. Read about it here.) This is what abusive relationships look like: where you begin to see yourself as a crazy, awful, terrible person and a blight on human existence… but the terrible twisted image you are seeing of yourself is not accurate because it isn’t you which is twisted as much as the twisted mirror which is reflecting back a distorted image.

So my question to you is this: take stock of the relationships in your life, and consider how reliable the “mirrors” are among your inner circle.

Are your mirrors telling you that you are wonderful and perfect and lovely all the time? If so, your mirrors may need to be sharpened up a little. We need others to help us see and identify our weaknesses, to gently point out where maybe we took offense too quickly, or are responding to some trigger from a past insecurity rather than the person in front of us.

Are your mirrors just pointing out your flaws? Do you feel like you’re always failing? Always responsible for someone else’s bad behavior? That you might be a little bit crazy? Do they see you for who you are? Or for what you can do for them? We need mirrors that also see our strengths, that hear and validate our voices and our value. If your primary relationships (with your parents, spouse, boss, best friend) show the signs of being deeply unreliable mirrors, please – get help. Not all our loved ones reflect the truth about ourselves back to us accurately.

Are your human mirrors reflecting both the beautiful and the broken in you? And do they love you, regardless? Ultimately, this is the way God sees us, and this is the self he wants us to see when we look at him. One day we will see him face to face, we will know and be fully known (1 Corinthians 13:12, 1 John 3:2), but until them he has given us Scripture as a mirror in which we can see our true selves, and he has given us other people who, as they themselves become more and more like Jesus, should also be better able to reflect true to us.

I’m hoping and praying that we will be increasingly reliable mirrors to others, and be loved and known by increasingly reliable mirrors in return.

 

The Awkward Hello (after a long, long time away)

the awkward hello

Um. Hello.

It’s been a while since I wrote anything at all on this blog, and I’ve had a growing sense of awkwardness about what I might say when we saw each other again. A lot like some friendships, I suppose, when it’s been a while and you both know—as social media makes painfully clear—that Things Have Been Happening but you Haven’t Been Talking and so you’re just not sure where to start. And so, too often, you just don’t. You don’t send the text. You don’t write the email. You feel awkward about the distance and, at a loss for how to close it with the perfect “opening line”, you increase it.

I’ve been in that space for a few weeks: feeling like I needed to write a smashing blog post: a virtual Ta-DAAAA! to announce that summer was over and I’m back. (insert jazz hands here) But instead, I’ve opened up this page a half dozen times and stared at the cursor. Actually, last week I was cracking myself up (yes, I laugh at my own jokes) at a thought and I desperately wanted to turn it into a blog post but it turned out I was exactly three hundred and forty percent less technologically capable than I needed to be to pull it off.  The end result? More silence.

It has been a long, long silence. This summer was mostly spent with my kids swimming and reading library books (not at the same time, though), with a smattering of Vacation Bible School thrown in… ELEVEN WEEKS of ELEVEN HOUR DAYS of me and the kids. At home. In triple digit heat. (We ate a lot of ice-cream. We watched the Star Wars Trilogy. The real one. Don’t even start with the Clone Wars.) But in the midst of all this at-homeness and mothering-ness, I had one unapologetically girlie night and got to see Adele in concert. It was fabulous. No opening act: just her, in all her vocal glory. No dancers. No gimmicks. In an age where I feel like every news story has spin and every pop star is a carefully curated package, Adele is so refreshing. Listening to her sing is like bearing witness to the Redemption of Talent.

But we waited a long, long time before she came onstage. We got snacks. We had a drink. We told stories. We took Adele-Like extreme close-up eye-selfies:

But she did finally come on stage, and (of course), her first words were:

Hello. It’s me.

In the absence of a so-fantastic-it-must-certainly-go-viral blog post to break the silence, I thought I’d take a cue from Adele, and just say: Hello. It’s me. Because sometimes that’s all it takes just to get things going again, doesn’t it? After months of silence, we can pick up the phone, or send a text, or draft an email, or turn up on a doorstep with a cup of coffee and say: Hello.

In my experience, awkwardness doesn’t dissolve over time. Awkwardness in relationships is like awkwardness in dancing: it’s not being sure where to step so that you don’t step on someone’s toes. It’s uncertainty and fear of rejection and nervousness about whether your breath smells and whether they’d say something if it did.

But no-one ever became a better dancer by not dancing for a little while longer. And no one ever fixed an awkward friendship by prolonging a deafening silence. And, if that is true, no blogger ever got back in the game by waiting until she had the perfect post to share with you all.

So I’ll share an awkward selfie and just say “hello”. It’s nice to be back. I missed you.

Just Hang The Darn Curtains

Our home is currently the site of an aggressive marketing campaign. Every door in the house, as well as the headboard of our bed and several walls are sporting hand-crafted posters, all bearing the same message: We want a dog.

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Apparently our children feel they have been in pet-limbo for long enough, and the Betta Fish–beloved as he is—is not meeting their snuggling and playing needs. Hence: Operation Wear Down The Parents. With Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs met, they are tackling their Hierarchy of Wants, and in their vision of what makes a house Home, a dog is high on the list. We’ve been putting it off for years.

Nearly four years, to be exact.

This Fall will mark four years since we bought our first house. Before then, our reason for not having a pet is that we were renting, and our lease agreements forbade pets. Then we bought a house, and found a new reason: we had two kids in diapers, and There’s Only So Much Poop Mama Can Handle. “Not until you’re potty trained,” we told the kids (a process that took YEARS longer than expected). But it finally happened, and with the potty-training obstacle removed, the real reason for our reticence was exposed: a dog is a long term commitment, and we didn’t want to make it. Not here, and not now.

The dog conversation has been tabled, but it raised another question for me: what else have I been putting off because I didn’t want to commit? As it turns out, a whole lot. Grateful as we were for our house, we have never thought it was the place we would stay in long-term, and as a result didn’t want to invest in it too deeply. Improvements—if any were to be made—were for the purposes of resale, not for our own enjoyment.

We’ve done things that needed to be done (like replace the A/C and the carpet which got doused with the neighborhood cat’s pee), but not much more. We have done no landscaping. We never hung curtains. The few artworks we own remain in the same places we put them when we first moved in, saying “it’ll do for now”. Part of this decorating malaise is certainly attributable to a my having 0% of Martha Stewart’s design genes and a pathological fear of Pinterest. But that’s not the deeper issue.  Thinking it wouldn’t be long until we moved house again, we didn’t commit to making this our home – a subtle but not insignificant reflection of our general tendency to find excuses to delay living fully in the moment.

We save a bottle of wine for “a special occasion”, and in doing so let multiple small but real opportunities for rejoicing pass by unnoticed. 

We buy a beautiful dress and keep it on the hanger, letting season after season go by without pulling it out and enjoying it just because we can.

We think of a friend we haven’t seen for a while and, wishing we could spend hours catching up, fail to send a text or call for a few minutes just to maintain connection. Months and years go by, and friendships wilt under our silent good intentions.

We see something that needs doing and, fearing we might not do it well enough, leave it undone.

We move into a house and, knowing we won’t want to live there forever, fail to live there well now.

This weekend I called a friend I haven’t spoken to in over a year, and while we were on the phone, I hung curtains. It took several trips to the store to get the right combination of mounting hardware and fittings, and the curtains aren’t perfect, but as we tumbled into bed last night after a weekend of team work, I looked up at the newly hung drapes in our room and couldn’t help but smile. The room that had felt like a workable “transitional bedroom” until we found the “home we really wanted” all of a sudden felt a lot more like our space.

Hang the darn curtains because THIS IS YOUR HOME RIGHT NOW. Break open the bottle of wine BECAUSE YOU’RE HAPPY. Wear the nice outfit just because it’s TUESDAY. Invite over the new person even though your house is messy BECAUSE WARM HOSPITALITY IS ALWAYS WELCOME. Call that friend, even if you just have five minutes: because never mind birds and bushes – A BRIEF TEXT IN THE HAND IS WORTH TWO IN THE DRAFTS FOLDER.

There’s value in investing in life now, even if our efforts are impartial and imperfect. As G.K. Chesterton said: “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.”

Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.

Which includes my half-baked efforts at hanging curtains.

(But we’re still not ready for a dog.)

Help, I have a transgender friend

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Dear Bronwyn,

I have a new friend who recently asked if she could share something with me without me judging her. She told me she was actually born a boy and has been living as a girl since she was 14 (now 17). He had wanted to be a girl since a young age, but his mom would not allow it until he almost committed suicide. Questions that followed were in regards to dating, if she should tell the person she is with, what to wear, how do do makeup for the date, etc. I have been struggling with how to respond to such things so that I am not being too involved and encouraging living as a girl, but also not coming off as judgmental while still living out my own christian beliefs and making them clear. How can I continue to build a trusting and positive friendship with her, and lovingly share Gods truths? – P.C.

Dear P.C.,

A few years ago, I met someone who had had gender reassignment surgery. She had lived as a man until well into her adult life, had married and had kids, and then in her 30s made the choice to start living as a woman. After a few years, she followed it up with surgery to ‘seal the deal’. It cost her her marriage, her career, her relationship with her kids – and it caused a terrific amount of stress in the extended family: some were accepting, others refused to ever come to a family meeting where she (or ‘he’, as they insisted) was present.

I knew some of this background before meeting her, but I was still a little unprepared when I finally met her and her boyfriend (!!) I did my best to be loving, friendly and attentive – but I confess I was really unnerved when I got up to use the restroom and she got up and accompanied me, “because we girls go to the restroom in pairs.” A few minutes later I was washing my hands and she came up next to me and observed: “You also have big feet – don’t you find it a hassle to find nice shoes that fit?” I didn’t have a clue what to say. Yes, I find it hard to find big shoes – but I have big feet for someone who was born a woman. I mumbled something and skedaddled out of there.

All of this is to say: I can relate to your feeling of confusion, but I don’t feel I have excellent answers for situations like this. What I can say, though, is this:

You are already showing love and friendship to her by being a safe person who listened without judgment. You have shown welcome. I do believe this is the most important thing Jesus would have us do: he welcomed people and did not lecture or judge those who were hurting. It is one of the most wonderful things in all the gospel that Jesus did not require us to change before he loved us or bid us ‘come’ (Romans 5:8).  That you have shown a willingness to love her as she is in itself is a powerful witness to the gospel.

Secondly, your job as a friend is not to be a counselor or psychologist: you cannot possibly untangle all the things going on in her head. But you can listen. You can try to understand. And that is more powerful than you might realize.

Thirdly, your job as a friend is not to be the Holy Spirit. He is the one who prompts and enables real change in us, when it is time for that change. I want you to know you can love her freely without feeling like you need to act as her conscience too.

Fourthly, your job as a friend IS to be honest about who you are, even as she is being honest about who she is. So just as she is entrusting her true self to you, when the time comes – you must honor and respect her enough to entrust your true thoughts to her – but do this with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15). Remember: “I don’t know” is often a very useful and honest answer to know you have. If she asks your thoughts about how to apply lipstick or dating, I would say it is okay to answer “I don’t know. I have never been in your situation or had a friend in your situation, and I have no idea what to suggest.” It is okay to say “this is an awkward question for me, and I don’t have an answer but I’m glad you feel safe asking me.”

Fifthly, if she asks about your faith, tell her about Jesus. Tell her about the hope that you have, and what God means to you – she needs that more than she needs a position statement on being LGBT. We are saved by grace, not by keeping the 10 commandments. I know that her sexuality might seem like the “big sin issue” from one perspective – but in truth it is only one of a NUMBER of complex issues which God, in his love and wisdom, cares about.

Finally, I would offer this one piece of advice if she’s wondering whether to disclose her situation to other friends. She is in an awful situation where not telling someone about her identity means that she can never be fully known in that friendship. She will always be afraid of being found out or rejected – and in truth, the longer one keeps that information, the harder it is to disclose it later in a relationship without someone feeling really betrayed. However, telling someone from the get-go  risks a huge amount of rejection and enmity with people who may not have made good friends either. So I would say: she doesn’t have to tell everyone or wear it on a pin – but if there is a relationship which she feels has potential for being a significant friendship, she will have to make the decision to trust them with that information… and I daresay earlier might be less damaging than later.

Unequipped as you may feel to be her friend, you are being a friend right now. I want to encourage you to keep being that friend: be kind, generous, loving. Be honest. And I do believe God will use your friendship to her to show her something of His welcome.

Related posts: Why I Won’t Take a Stand On Gay Marriage, The Parable of the (Gay) Samaritan

Photo Credit: Giulia Cortigiano -Ci piace! La vogliamo in: Friendship never ends (Flickr Creative Commons)

Sliding in socks

I have fond childhood memories of sock-sliding competitions. With feet clad in our slipperiest socks, we would launch ourselves at one end of the long, wooden passage way, and run furiously down the length of the passage. About two-thirds of the way came the tricky part: stopping running, throwing your balance slightly backwards, and skid-sliding the rest of the way into the kitchen.

sock_sliding_by_eollica

This Christmas feels a little like I’m sliding in socks. There was frenetic activity, bursts of bustling behavior, but now I feel I’ve stopped running, I’m leaning slightly backwards, and I’m sliding into Christmas-base. I’m not moving, but I’m in motion. It feels like cheating. But there was enough momentum in the weeks past that now I get to “slide” into Christmas with relatively little effort the day before.

Also, I’m wearing socks.

Tonight is Christmas eve and we will eat ham. We have three desserts and one vegetable planned (because, priorities). Tomorrow, there will be sugar, carbs, and gifts. Most of those are joyfully given to and joyfully received by our children. There are a few gifts for the adults. My husband, noticing the dearth of gifts for me, stole off with our eldest on Sunday to add a few Mommy-treats to the pile.

I love that he did that, but truth be told, he didn’t need to. As I’m enjoying the final wheeeeeeeeee slide-int0-Christmas, I’m aware of so many (unwrapped) (invisible) (precious) gifts under my proverbial tree. I’m thankful for my family, my friends, for home and hearth, for ice-cream and laughter.

But this year I spy some new gifts under my blessing tree: a new community of friends and writers through Redbud, whose wisdom and encouragement mean so very much. I have readers (!!! this still amazes me!!), whose generosity and comments keep me writing. I have new followers friends on Twitter, whose insight and humor enrich my days. This year, I count an online community of thinking, laughing, challenging friends among my gifts.

And for all these, I thank my God, who is the Giver of every good and perfect gift.

Merry Christmas, everyone. May this Christmas rock your socks.

Photo credit: Eollica

Thank you for loving my children

Thank You For Loving My Children

Dear friend,

In case I haven’t said so before, I wanted to thank you for loving my children. Maybe you don’t think it’s a big deal, but I want you to know it means the world.

Thank you for looking them in the eye and greeting them by name. You are teaching them they are valuable.

Thank you for asking them questions about their lives and waiting patiently for their stumbled replies. You are teaching them the currency of conversation.

Thank you for entering their imaginary worlds and helping find the pet unicorn a snack. Thank you for reading to them, even though they were sticky and stinky. Thank you for for pretending you couldn’t see them under the kitchen table when they hid in the same place for the tenth time playing hide-and-go-seek. You are teaching them that that they are wanted. You are showing them the value of play.

Thank you for that time you played rough-and-tumble T-ball with them. Thank you for asking about their first day of school. Thank you for reminding them to say thank you when I’m too weary to remind them again. Thank you for telling them your own childhood story to distract them from their tears.

Thank you for being a safe adult, another role model in their “village”. Your presence in their life is more valuable than you know. They soak up your laughter, your kindness, your pleases-and-thank-yous.

We take our children to church, but you are the church to our children. You are one of the teaching aides God has put into their life, and they love you.

Thank you for loving my children, and in doing so, for loving me.