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Women in Bikinis

I had my annual girls’ weekend this past month. It always seems like an indulgence for me to go (it is) and a bit of a hardship on my little family (it is) but every time I come home so refreshed, so renewed, so full, that we now think of it almost as a necessity. Few of us live near each other so we rely on social media and the phone for our daily connections but once a year, we gather at a lake to reconnect, tell stories, laugh until we weep and cry until we laugh. Female friendships are so dear to me – I can’t fathom going through my life without women alongside of me and ahead of me.

I was pretty worn out this year, I don’t mind admitting. I had a red-eye flight heading into the weekend, I was four months pregnant at the time, our life is still a bit too full for my liking, and so hello uninterrupted nap time, you’re a priority. When I woke up late on the Saturday, I wandered outside to sit on the porch overlooking the lake with my cuppa tea and I saw one of the most beautiful sights: women in bikinis.

We range in age from late twenties to late forties. We just look like regular women you’d see working at the bank or in the pews at church or handling school pick up. We have our own hang-ups about our bodies: one might complain about her size, another about her boobs, another about her thighs, another about how things have changed as she got older. A lot of us are mothers and that marks a body, you know.

But here they were out in public in bikinis, unashamed and having a great time.

I said it out loud, “I’m so thankful that I have friends who wear bikinis.”

There wasn’t any hiding behind oversized t-shirts or cover-ups. No posing on the dock or the sand with a perfectly bent arm on our hip to reduce arm-fat with an elevated smart phone for a filtered selfie. Just a group of women in the water, wearing bikinis like their bodies were nothing to be ashamed of. Imagine that.

I know that for some segments of the Church the thought of good-Christian-women-in-bikinis jumps your fence because of a lifetime spent labouring under strict modesty rules. Young women were often subjected to horrendous and humiliating practices about their clothing, even being told that their bodies are wrong or evil. Heaven help the young lady who dared to bring a two-piece bathing suit to youth group camp. Strict rules complete with diagrams and assumptions of motives, what started as likely a well-meaning experience to encourage modesty turned into a witch hunt and a theological confusion about responsibility.

Instead of treating women and girls as persons with full minds, hearts, souls AND bodies, they were treated as essentially physical stumbling blocks to men. And I think that dehumanizes women – in the minds of men and in their own souls. In a way, these modesty rules are a version of the tired and terrible questions asked about victims of rape: “What was she wearing?” meaning “Was she asking for it?” Answer: never.

(My other issue with the modesty rules stuff is that it paints men as unable to control their urges or bear responsibility for their own attractions and thought life – and that’s crap.)

Don’t get me wrong: I’m a pretty modest person by natural style and inclination. I hope I’m teaching my tinies how to choose clothing well AND how to bear responsibility for their own thoughts and choices. But I don’t think you can determine some else’s motives or spiritual life simply by how tight her yoga pants are on a given day. A woman’s spiritual depth or intelligence – let alone her value – isn’t indicated by how high her neckline or low her hemline.

Regardless, growing up in a shame-based culture around one’s body is crippling and hard to release. It leaves one feeling disjointed and separated, unconnected and even ashamed about one’s body. It can take a lifetime to unlearn those lies.

But for me, it’s not the modesty culture stuff that makes me rejoice over the sight of normal women in bikinis.

No, as I wrote for Glennon Melton at Momastery a few months ago for her Sacred Scared series, my battle is much more mainstream: my weight. 

As I wrote for Glennon’s site, “I battle with resenting my own body and the way it has changed over the years.  I feel so achingly and painfully average, a stereotype, like the chubby misfit mama. And it’s so much worse when I am around other Christian women leaders because they are so well put together, so beautiful, so seemingly effortlessly thin, so motivated, and I want to hide.   I know better – I do!  But apparently sometimes I don’t. I know I’m overweight – trust me – but for me, it’s not really about the weight, it’s about how I am often awash in shame and self-loathing about it. Our culture tells me that I am only loveable or sexy if I look like a thin movie star, there is no room for my softness, and sometimes, God forgive me, I believe them. I elevate popular culture’s opinion of me over what I know about being fearfully and wonderfully made, over my husband’s love and desire for me, over my logic, over my own convictions, over my beliefs about who I am in Christ.  I’m still overcoming the lies and some days, let me be honest, some days I am not an overcomer.”

Like a lot of women, I think my battle started when I hit puberty. It turned out that my grown-up body was much more curvy and full – even at my thinnest – than what was in fashion or even what was considered “normal” within my family. I have been battling the feeling of “not enough” ever since then. I was very easily wounded by comments about my weight or size, carrying them and never forgetting the words.

I think that’s part of the reason why I write so often about body image – half the time, I’m preaching to myself. I need to hear the truth still. I need to have good boundaries about what I say about myself.

Overall, I consider myself remarkably healthy at this point in my life – both physically and emotionally – as it pertains to my relationship with my body. And I’m proud of this.

I have made my peace with my body and I even write love letters to my own body as a radical act of faith. I rebel against my own social conditioning about my body by choosing to not only accept myself, but celebrate my body.

But make no mistake: it’s been a hard-won freedom with occasional stumbles.

So I never thought I deserved a bikini. I thought those sorts of things were for thin women, for women without my breasts and my hips and my little pooch-y belly. I was meant for full-piece miracle suits and oversized cover-ups and quick dashes to the change rooms.

I thought bikinis had to earned. I never wore bikinis. Even in my teens and my twenties when I still had a belly unmarked by bearing children, I thought I wasn’t in the bikini class. The thought of wearing a bikini now was unthought by me. It never would have even entered my brain to choose a bikini.

Seeing my group of friends having a great time out on the lake – paddle boarding, laying out on floating rafts, swimming, jumping off the dock with abandon, unashamed – changed me.

Their hair was wet, there was no make-up, no self-consciousness. They were without shame about their bodies. It was stunning. I mean, yes, they were beautiful, absolutely. But it was stunning more because in our culture that constantly tells us that we aren’t enough or we’re too much, these women simply didn’t care and went out for a swim in a bikini. Each body was different from the other and yet each one was beautiful. Turns out you don’t earn a bikini by having a “bikini ready body” – you “earn” a bikini by putting one on your body as it is. Done.

I’m so thankful that I have friends who wear bikinis.

These women set me a bit more free with the glorious sight of their own freedom.

There is something about seeing women who walk in a freedom that we don’t yet enjoy that ignites us. I’ve had the same feeling when I saw women doing something I longed to do myself and hadn’t yet gathered the courage or conviction to step into.

When I see women enjoying a freedom that I can’t yet imagine, I think: I’m going to get there. I have a vision now for a new area of freedom and wholeness in my life. Whether it’s in my vocation and calling, my opinions and daily life, my priorities or whatever, I want to get there.

This is what I love about my friends. They challenge me simply by living their lives. I could tell you the dozens of ways I came home from our weekend together challenged.

And this seems like a silly one perhaps – women in bikinis, good gracious – but it was really a challenge about my body and how I view my body, about shame and freedom, about the goodness of our bodies before God, pushing back against my own prejudices and cultural conditionings.

It wasn’t really about the bikinis. Not really. (And we’re heading into the fall and winter so we’re past bikini season anyway. But wouldn’t it be awesome if more normal women in the middle of their years wore bikinis? I think so.) Really, my thankfulness was more about the presence of women in my life who extend to me a glimpse of wholeness and freedom.

There were other moments of challenge regarding calling and vocation, mothering and marriage, sex and Scripture, hospitality and theology, you name it over the course of our couple days together. All of those conversations arose in the context and safety of long friendship.

Far-away women on stage or writers from the pages of a book teaching me or preaching at me are great and I love that. I receive a lot of life from women of influence, I do. But I also need women in my real walking-around life teaching me with their own lives, living as testimonies to freedom and wholeness, as invitations for my own life.

Next year, I’ll be bringing a brand new little nursing baby with me – and hopefully a bikini.

 

Continue Reading · fearless, friends, women · 114

In which you gather at the homemade altar

You sent out the emails with the place and the time. You stopped at the grocery store for a round of sourdough bread and a bottle of the finest grape juice. You took the baby to the frozen food store while the tinies were at school, and you picked up appys and lemon squares (between a home cooked meal and your own sanity, you’ll choose your sanity, every time). The night came and you bathed all the tinies and put them in their beds early. You realized the washroom needed a quick wipe-down seconds before everyone arrived and madly ran around with the Windex, threw all the coats that usually hang on the banister into the closet. You made a pot of tea.

The doors are unlocked, everyone can just walk right in. They know that.

You covered your beat-up old coffee table with tablecloths from the thrift store. You arranged candles, centred the iron cross from your mantle, laid down your Bible and your Common Prayer. You placed the bread and the wine and – just like that – you turned your coffee table into an altar, your home into a sacred space for the gathering.

And that is how church begins on a rainy Thursday night in a small city in the west.

You love the way the men make each other laugh, the way their faces crinkle at the eyes. You love the way the women congregate in the kitchen so easily, standing around talking about their babies.

The night unfolded with logistics and scheduling, then justice to frustrations, prayer to silence, stories of our lives now and from our past.

It’s dark outside, pouring rain. Your babies are sleeping in their beds under the quilts their Grandma made for them, miraculously snoring through the loud laughter. The candles on your homemade altar drip drip drip as the night unfolds, and this is your church, these are your people, they look you in the eye. You know their stories, they know yours, but there is still so much to discover. Hope is still present. You’re not quite a family yet, but you’re getting there, one gathering after another.

And then you pray over their bowed heads, each one so precious to you, and invite them to the table.

So come to this table,
you have much faith
and you who would like to have more;
you who have been here often
and you have not been here for a long time;
you who have tried to follow Jesus, 
and you who have failed;
come. it is Christ who invites us to meet him here.

 

You tear off the bread and hand it to your beautiful friend: this is his body, broken for you. She turns and hands it to the man beside her, blesses him with that same benediction. Then you pass the cup – this is His blood, spilled for you – and you all partake together, one after another, hand to hand. You aren’t standing in a line, you’re beside each other and it’s hard not to grin sometimes. You read Scripture out of your old friend, Isaiah’s book, and right now here you are looking at the way that the desert has bloomed. This is your river running to Zion, and it’s right in your own living room.

Good night, good night. I’m so glad I was here, I’m so glad you could come, this was just what I needed. I love you, love you, too. See you next week.

This is another way that you have fallen back in love with the Bride of Christ: you opened your doors and welcomed her in to your life.

Liturgy taken from Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals

Continue Reading · church, community, faith, friends, journey · 13

In which women talk about women (an interview)

I read Sarah Cunningham’s book, Dear Church: Letters from a Disillusioned Generation, years ago and loved it. Like many of you, I’ve followed her work online for a while and was pleasantly surprised to be included in her ongoing series Women Talk Women. She interviewed me a few weeks ago and today the full interview is up at her blog.

We discussed everything from friendship to jealousy, cattiness to criticism, even Madeleine L’Engle and my sister.

 

Sarah Cunningham: Have you had an easier time building friendships with men or women? And what do you think are the challenges of both?

Sarah Bessey: I do have friendships with men, primarily professional friendships or through my husband. But my deepest friendships are with women. I think one of the great lies of our culture is that women can’t be trusted. We hear from reality television and some church people alike that women are catty, insecure, jealous, gossip-prone. My experience has absolutely been the opposite. On the whole, I’ve found women to be funny, strong, supportive, motivated, wise, and deeply spiritual. Anything else tends to be the excepting minority.

I think women in the church today are rather tired of being pitted against one another and I believe we want to transcend the competitive staging of our relationships. For instance, the “mummy wars” are usually more of a myth to sell magazines than my actual experience. I see women around me – in work, in my neighbourhood, in many faith traditions, in professional encounters, even online – as very committed to each other’s well-being. The underlying sense of sisterhood among women of faith is strong. I have found women on the whole to be willing to be friends even without point-by-point agreement on every aspect of life.

SC: Love. Why didn’t I interview you earlier? As a strong leader, you’ve probably occasionally run up against another woman who acted “catty” toward you. What do you do with that?

SB: Cattiness from women is usually gossip about surface things – my weight, my looks, my mannerisms, that sort of thing. (And that can get under my skin almost more than someone who thinks I’m a heretic!) But I don’t confuse criticism with cattiness. Someone can disagree with me very well without being catty, so I try to separate out “catty” from “critic.” I’ve been attacked by women, but I’ve also been attacked by men. I’ve been gossipped about, sure, but it’s not gender-specific.

Read the rest of the interview at Sarah Cunningham’s blog, Crowdsourcing Life.

My thanks to Sarah for the invitation! She’s one to follow.

 

Continue Reading · friends, women · 4

In which I have circles of friendship – and a Lobster

“Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind. “Pooh?” he whispered.

“Yes, Piglet?”

“Nothing,” said Piglet, taking Pooh’s hand. “I just wanted to be sure of you.”

- A.A. Milne

As an introvert, I have often felt bad or less-spiritual because I just don’t enjoy crowds or parties or large groups. Ice-breakers and games and church-teas are pretty much the third circle of hell for me. Get-to-know-you chit-chat is a necessary evil so I’ve practiced, I’ve gotten much better at it now. But add in the aspect of being a blogger and writer who writes about All The Thoughts and Feeeeeeeeeeeelings publicly, and it gets a bit more complicated. I often write to figure out what I think, and I think I live a pretty seamless life between online and real-life, but some part of me still wants to die of embarrassment when someone in my real life actually brings up my blog or my book. (In fact, I’m rather private and I keep a lot of my life and the lives of my loved ones secret and sacred – which surprises people because, well, 2,000+ posts here on ye olde blog seem to indicate differently.) I have pretty small circles of trusted friends, and a very strong Holy-Spirit-led instinct which I’ve learned to honour.

Sometimes all the talk about “community” in the Church lately can freak me out. Not just because the expectation of CONSTANT TOGETHERNESS, or the pressure to feel guilty for my beloved solitary pursuits like walking or reading or writing and quiet weekends. It’s also the way that it can make us feel like everyone should have full and unrestricted access to our time, energy, spirit, and soul.

Years ago, when my husband was a youth and college & career pastor, he used to preach a few times a week. Today, he would tell you that he would preach and teach and lead much differently now than he did ten years ago, but the content of many of his sermons stay with me still. (He’s a good teacher.) In those days, I used to sit up in the sound booth, running the PowerPoint slides. Or I would hang out at the back of the Warehouse, alternately keeping trouble-makers in line and having little abandoned worship-moments by myself as the youth band jammed. One of Brian’s sermons was about “circles of friendship.” I’ve never forgotten it and I’ve often referred to it in my quest for understanding and practicing community.

A few friends and I were chatting about that buzzword – “community” – recently and trying to figure out why it felt weird sometimes. While we talked about our own best and worst experiences, Amber casually mentioned that we just aren’t meant for community with 500 people. This rang true for me because it articulated how I manage my own quest for community and friendship, expectations and intimacy.

Some folks think we need to be vulnerable and transparent and deeply connected with everyone and their dog and Facebook. But that’s just not so. Brené Brown says we should only share with people who have earned the right to hear our story. We’re not made for friendship promiscuity – that’s not community, that’s pearls-before-swine and it’s probably a profanity to your soul.

Community isn’t an exercise in consumerism and gluttony. Community is not more+more+more = better.

Based on Brian’s old sermon, I picture my relationships like concentric circles, progressively getting smaller.

On the biggest outside circle, there is The Crowd. These are the people in my life without any real intimacy – people you know by name or sight through church or the neighbourhood, perhaps through blogging or social media or school pick ups. You run in the same circles but you’re not really much more than acquaintances. I don’t give much energy to these relationships.

(Notice that I don’t have a circle for Toxic People. It’s not because I hate them or think God hates them. Not at all. I just don’t have room in my circles for people who make me crazy. Life is too short for me to give energy to people who poison my life or spirit or mind. This includes old relationships broken due to betrayal or lack of trust and it even includes people in public life. I know there are people who feel very strongly about “keeping an eye” on the enemy or being a watch-dog but I don’t think of people as enemies, and outrage wears me out, so I just ignore them. I know my calling in life and it’s not that.  For instance, I’ve got enough going on here without losing sleep every time someone is wrong on the Internet.)

The next smallest circle is My Community. These are the people with whom I have a measure of real reciprocal friendship. We hang out, do the playdate thing, occasionally open up, maybe go to church together, we have fun together. Yet these are the people who require a commitment from me. I enjoy our time together, absolutely, but it’s the “Love is a Decision” crowd for an introvert who prefers time alone. I’ve decided to love them and decided to do life with them, and so now I act like it by showing up, by being committed to our friendship. I might rather have another Thursday night to myself, but once my Home Group shows up, I love it because I love them and I like doing life with them. They make my life better. I used to dread going to a book club every week, contemplated cancelling weekly, and yet every week I came home and told my husband that I was so glad I went because it was wonderful and life-giving.

Then there are My People. These are the people with whom I feel a connection of the kindred-spirit and bosom-friend type, this doesn’t require much commitment because there is magic and pixie dust here. This is my tribe. I am open with this small gathering of diverse people because they have earned my trust. I feel I can be my real self with them – both the silly ridiculous and the deep contemplative. They know me, truly know me, and speak into my life often. They challenge me, call me out on my sin or struggles, pray for me, and have my back. I hope I do the same for them. I have them in my real day-to-day life but a handful are scattered around the country and we only see each other in real life once in a long while even if we talk daily. We have our fingers on each other’s pulse and notice changes. These people act as mentors and fellow-journeyers and they are, quite simply, My People.

(The circles are now very tiny, indeed.)

This second-to-last circle is quite small, only enough room for my sister here really. She is My Lobster (which makes absolutely no sense if you didn’t watch a lot of Friends). We have mated for life, we will walk around the tank holding our little claws together forever. I have no secrets from her. (I hope that when the tinies grow up, they will be My Lobsters, too.)

And the last circle for me is my husband, My Soulmate. I don’t think we believe in soulmates, not really, but we act like it. We are One, no secrets, full intimacy, he’s the one I’m sure of.

Kristin – who is on of My People – references these circles far more spiritually than me. She says that Jesus had the Crowd, then he had his large group of Followers, then his Disciples, then the Twelve, then just the Three – John, Peter, and James – went into the Garden with him while he prayed before his crucifixion.

So she calls her most intimate circle “Garden Friends” – the people she would want with her in the garden before death, standing watch with her. I like her way of looking at it.

Of course, I want to be transparent. I want to live without a mask. I want to be vulnerable and courageous and bold. I want to live a seamless life. And yet I believe we can’t have real, true community or real, true friendship with 500 people. I believe we were made to belong, made to love and be loved. And I also believe we’re really truly blessed if we have a very small handful people in those inner three “circles.” Most of us don’t need much more than that, not really. We can get by without the Toxic People, without The Crowd. The Community is nice, but it’s the inner three circles that make life beautiful.

 

Continue Reading · church, community, faith, friends, journey · 64