A fleeting taste of my 2019 journey down under...
I had heard from someone who had come out the other side describe the YWAM Discipleship Training School as 'spiritual open heart surgery', another as being put through a 'refiner's fire'. For me it was a bit like being rolled out, squeezed, kneaded until all the lumps and ugly bits came reluctantly ( but inevitably) to the surface. Sounds great right? Ready to sign up?
For all those short-lived frustrations, agonising decisions and painful admissions, these past few months have given me something with eternal value, something I wouldn't put a price on - permission to be myself. Sometimes it takes a challenging, slightly claustraphobic, experience to get a stubborn person to change the way they see themselves, to lift the lid a little on their self-critique and release the pressure.
Those of you who know me will know that in August 2019 with my partner James, I uprooted from Bristol UK following a frenzy of fundraising fiestas and plonked myself on the other side of the world, the vast western suburbs of Sydney for 6 months. I must apologise to my friends and family for my distinct lack of communication, which won't come as much of a surprise to them - I'm not known for my contactability! But hopefully after reading this you will understand why, maybe I can ignite a bit of curiosity, at the very least to get it down in written word will give me a little clarity, and that is enough.
I write this as a believer in a Creator God, as a follower of Jesus and from within that framework, but if that is not your worldview, I urge you not to switch off. Grasping hold of the freedom to be yourself and not limit your potential to the expectations of the world is something that we all need, and so I hope there's a nugget in here for you all and if not, you get a little insight into the mind of Joy.
I am a feeler. I feel things deeply. I mean, I think most of us do more than we might care to admit. The issue is, I have not always been very good at getting those feelings out, putting them on the table, naming them, admitting to them. One thing that has been a persistent barrier throughout my life has been fear of judgement, we put the opinions of others on these pedestals and without realising the mountainous "What if?" soon becomes completely disproportionate to the action. It does not help that over the centuries much of Westernised society has deemed only certain feelings to be acceptable - leaving little room for anger, grief, frustration to be healthily expressed. This becomes particularly harmful when trauma is involved - we quite often look for the 'stick on a bandaid' fix, a "how can I continue to exist without being an inconvenience to society?" whilst blinkering ourselves to the root of the problem, kind of fix.
At the beginning of 2019, I made a resolution that I would spend the year working at kicking anxiety up the butt, and I made a number of momentous leaps in that area (I'm sure I will touch on this another time) but as I began my time in the small, 24/7 YWAM community, this crippling social anxiety began to creep its way back in to my life and with it came bigger, uglier emotions - anger, self-hatred, grief. There were many occasions throughout those initial weeks of lectures that I excused myself to throw my weight into the punchbags that were in our gym located conveniently at the end of the same corridor. But even with the punching sessions, the screaming, thecrying, the feelings still grew bigger. Feeling that much is exhausting let me tell you!
Fed up of band-aid fixes I cried out to God to help me get to the root and dig it out. It wasn't an instant answer, and it's something that I am still processing. But over the following weeks as I devoted time each day to listening to God, trying to understand these overwhelming waves of intense emotion that I often feel, the more I felt him speak to me about three significant things (When I say speak to me, I am referring to through experiences, through other people's words, and directly through my thoughts):
I have had 27 years of being emotionally suppressed by the world when I should have been free! It is okay for me to feel anger and sadness, but I do not have to be slave to these feelings. I am not 'wrong', there is nothing wrong with me, I just have all of these feelings that I have not allowed to come out. The more I understand this, the more I can combat the underlying lie I often allow myself to believe - that I am 'crazy'.
The importance of vulnerability - both with God and with those around us.
Sometimes our anger is because we have been pushing back against who we are and who God created us to be!
I think sometimes we act as though our wrongdoing is bigger than God. As though he is somehow scared of it, or can't handle being around us when we have done something we are ashamed of - that's a pretty small box to put the Creator of the universe in though, right? One completely amazing, breathtaking thing that I know is that my God loves the truth, and wants to meet us where we are at - not where we think we should be. He is not waiting for us to be perfect and yet we often live our lives like we need to be hiding something from him, if we can learn one thing from Jesus' life and the people he hung out with it's that he didn't come looking for perfect people!
During my time in the YWAM community, and also in the community house that I was living in before I moved here, I had the privilege of existing in a space of real vulnerability. Seeing adults stand up and sincerely admit their shortfallings and ask for forgiveness, or for help, is beautiful and healthy, and not something that we often see in our workplaces, our schools, even our homes - but it should be! Shame is given so much room to grow and move and spore like fungus when we keep the object of our shame hidden. But vulnerability within communities allows for the power to be taken back from the shame, makes space for forgiveness of self and others and for the process of grieving, feeling and healing. If we cannot admit to a problem/feeling/issue, we leave very little room to allow God or anyone else in to heal it. Not my strong suit really but I am working on it!
It's taken me a while to realise how seriously I have had "square peg round hole" syndrome. Always trying to squidge myself into what I think other people think I should be like, think like, talk like, look like, do - and as someone who, truthfully, is a 'Challenger' personality, is it any wonder that I have come out with bruises and scars?
So I am embarking on the life-long journey of discovering who I am, what I actually like, where I want my life to go, my dreams to be - at the heart of which is CREATIVITY! What an amazing tool we have to experiment, try things out, see what we like and don't like, get our thoughts and feelings out in a healthy, expressive way. Whether it is creative journalling, spoken word, dance, it's about just trying things, regardless of the outcome. I know that many of my friends and family are very creative people and know this stuff already, but it's always worth the reminder. I am learning to use colour, not caring what the finished painting looks like; to put words on a piece of paper, not needing them to sound perfect. The experience I have had here in Australia has given me the joy of living in an international community, within a very multicultural city. Hearing the nothing-short-of exhuberant worship chants and whistles of Fijians juxtaposed with the gentle strumming of Finnish folk song and the poignant rhythms of ancient Aboriginal dance has served as an undeniable reminder of our inherently creative nature and the power of expression in all its marvellous diversity. Enough to re-ignite the creative flame in anyone!
I have learned during the school that often entangled with the tendancy to try to contort ourselves into the 'right' shaped box comes a tendency to do the same thing with the way we see God. As humans many of us seem to have this desire to want to know everything about everything, analyse and categorise it, until we know just where it belongs in our filing system, so we can put a label on it and tick it off the checklist. Much safer that way. Of course this curiosity is an amazing part of our nature and I'm not knocking it, but the other side of the coin is that we don't handle it so well when something is a bit too big for our classification systems and we end up only looking at something through the four-sided viewfinder that we create for it. Unfortunately it can go the same way for religion and the sad fact is that too often religion snuffs out the mystery of God.
The truth, as I understand it, is that God is God, God is not constricted by time, space, human logic or reasoning. God is not linear and does not fit in our boxes. God is multi-dimensional, creative and far bigger than our imaginations. I have spent much of this time re-writing my understanding of who my Creator is, understanding that the things that we keep from God, not letting him unpack them, distort our view of who he is, and limit our ability to trust and relate to him. What an encouragement it is to me when those things don't seem to fit with me it doesn't mean I am 'wrong' - God doesn't fit in the boxes either, and I am my father's daughter.
However, incredibly this does not mean that he is distant, or impersonal. I can only speak from my personal experience of this (and I am very open to answer questions about that) but that, for me, is enough because I have encountered a God who wants us free even more than we want our own freedom.
"To be a hope for the poor, freedom for the broken-hearted, and new eyes for the blind, to proclaim that captives will be released and the oppressed set free"
- the self-proclaimed purpose of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, just as was promised 700 years earlier by the Jewish prophet Isaiah - this has always been God's vision for his creation.
This may sound a bit far-fetched or contradictory to those of you who know this concept of 'God' as a Santa-Claus like figure in the sky who strikes down anyone who doesn't obey him, and I don't blame you for feeling that way at all, because so much has been lost, misinterpreted, twisted in our understanding of who this God is. But the more that you go and seek directly from this being whose foundation is love, unconditional, relentless, sacrificial love, the more that you will discover that, as Ravi Zacharias puts it: "God did not send his son so that the bad could become good, but so that the dead could come alive.", so that we could know life in all its fullness. And being more concerned with preserving our freedom than our obedience, he gave us the freedom to choose to love him back.
Those of you who know my story and the spiritual journey that I have taken from childhood to present will grasp a little of the context of this experience - taking the time to be vulnerable with myself, God and others I have over the past year felt God minister this to me over and over again: that when I am hateful to myself, when I look at myself with disgust it truly breaks his heart. I have been overcome with an overwhelming sense of the lengths God went to get me back - humiliating himself, throwing his arms around us after we refuse him time and time again. Still he pursues us with the relentless love of a perfect father, calling his children home. I am trusting the healing process, as it is rarely an instant one - and for good reason - but I have so many reasons to be joyful, I have a God who wants me to sing, to shout, to dance, to laugh, to run, to open my mouth when there is a sound to come out!
Back in February last year, I spent a week at a Christian Healing Retreat. The most beautiful, picturesque old farmhouse, nestled into the lush Gloucestershire hills, with piglets for neighbours and the nearest town several miles away. I didn't tell many people that I was going, I guess getting the voice to talk about my faith is quite a new thing for me and there were some deeply embedded wounds that I was seeking to address. But it was during this time of quiet reflection, lemon and ginger teas, drawing and complete lack of distraction to pray with some trusted elders and finally looking at the issue dead-on instead of hiding it with heady hangovers and Netflix binges, that I truly experienced the breaking of chains. Breaking the chains of imprisoning thought patterns of anxiety and fear of man, transformation in my thinking and most significantly for me, total and complete freedom from the physical post-traumatic symptoms that I had been experiencing on a daily basis for almost 5 years at this point.
That was the kickstarting of project Restoration. Being stuck inside an invisible suit of armour that is too heavy to lift, and so a desire to move that cannot be fulfilled, or having words to say but an invisible zip fastening your lips together until it is too late and the moment has passed, looking down and seeing a body but not really knowing how to relate to it. Those are feelings that we were not intended to feel, but sadly if you have suffered from trauma or anxiety you probably know what I'm talking about. Anxiety is a thief, trauma steals from you. But it is not hopeless, because I know there is a Restorer.
Just over a year ago a woman I spoke to who is very spiritually switched on, saw an image of me in her mind's eye. I was walking along a path and as I walked a figure behind me was picking up jewels and precious stones of different colours and sizes that had fallen from my pockets onto the path. Other people from the sides of the road tried to snatch them and pull at my heels, but he began to return each one to me, until eventually, all of the precious things that I had lost had been restored to me. That has been my experience over the past year, and continues to be, it is not finished but I am journeying through the restoration of my joy, the restoration of my creativity, the restoration of my voice. The YWAM Sydney Island Breeze base is in a bit of an odd location - think industrial estate meets highway sliproad with a sprinkling of greasy takeaways, but my little oasis was the duck pond 5 minutes around the corner. At dusk you would find flocks of fruit bats flying over and swooping down to the pond to drink, in the daytime the friendly ducks and white ibises or as I like to call them, grumpy grandpa birds will keep you company, and the odd lizard too. And if you were lucky, you could on occasion spot a Joy, amongst the trees, with headphones over her ears, drum and bass at full volume, eyes closed, dancing out her feelings without a care for what she looks like, learning to take ownership of her body again and using her movements to reconnect.
I guess there was one thing that I was a little fearful of when I came to YWAM, and even before, when I decided to commit my life to following Jesus. I had grown in some ways fond of who I am, my personality, the things I like and don't like and even though I didn't do it consciously, I had a misguided picture in my head of what a Christian should look like/sound like/be like and feared ending up on a conveyor belt machine pumping out the same shaped cut-outs. A fear that God (or YWAM) would want to turn me into someone that I am not. For anyone else who has thought this way, I have 3 huge encouragements for you:
This is a redemption process, not a reinvention. It is completely our choice and if we choose to partner with God in allowing him to transform our lives he does not want billions of the same person, he invites us to let him redeem us to our original design - unique and personal. I have felt more and more free to explore the things that my heart has always desired but I have pushed down under the surface. Led into adventure, nature, creativity, and I have never felt more like me.
I believe that what happened to humanity when we became separated from God was like a tree being uprooted. Like a fish out of water. I recently had the privilege of attending the Yabun festival in Sydney, a celebration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders cultures where I listened to a number of Aboriginal people speak about the issues of past, present and future Aboriginal Australia, the challenges and how they are being overcome. An older Aboriginal uncle from the crowd who had grown up for his early years in the bush, spoke passionately about connection to the land and the effect that dispossession and cultural assimilation has on Aboriginal people. He likened it to a plant being ripped up from the garden and put into a small pot indoors - it can still live, sure, but it will never thrive like it would in the garden where it belongs, and its span and growth is limited to whether the hand chooses to water it, limited to the size of the small pot, until inevitably it withers and dies. I believe that were made and designed for relationship with God and each other. Made to be in right spirit, living in love and with the spiritual food that he provides for us when our roots are in him. So when I came back to him rather than limiting my potential, rather than conforming to a shape, I was placed back into the garden, where I belong.
A friend reminded me last summer of the beauty of an acorn growing into an oak tree. An acorn does not tense its muscles, ball its fists, furrow its brow and say to itself with great effort "Right. Now we've got to start growing into an oak!", it just is an acorn, takes in the nutrients and grows into the beautiful oak tree. I had spent so long striving, and now I look back and realise I was an acorn tensing its muscles, furrowing its brow and saying "Right. Now we've got to start growing into an apple tree!". I now understand that when I keep my roots in the garden and allow the rain to fall on me, the tree will come.
So that is where I am at right now: Re-writing the picture of myself that I have in my head, redefining my dreams, allowing myself to aim high, to be ambitious, to be loving to myself so that I am able to love others better and to be so secure in the knowledge about the truth of who I am, that I can trample the lies of the world under my feet, and enjoy discovering the real Joy.