by Susan Johnstone
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I have started going to a ‘ladies group’ amongst some friends at church. I am not the usual hugging, air-kissing sort of woman who just loves hanging out with her ‘girl friends’ over a cup of coffee, discussing shoes and parenting. I struggle with my woman-hood, with the state of being emotional and yet being responsible for raising children and maintaining the household and finances. I don’t strive to be a superwoman who can do it all, and I don’t think it’s admirable to assert myself over those ‘poor, misguided men’ who can’t tell the difference between lilac and mauve.
So when one of the ladies proposed having a support/prayer/study group, I wasn’t sure I was on the same page and I was vaguely satisfied with my own moderate efforts at Bible study at home at the breakfast table. Although I saw the benefit of it, I didn’t need to meet with other women.
Somehow I ended up going along, maybe more for the theory of supporting each other rather than an intense personal desire to meet together. So then we started, with ‘getting to know you’ exercises, cups of tea or coffee, chokkie biscuits, and discussion, sometimes with an opened Bible, and prayer to finish. The talk rambled and flowed, along topics of importance, and other times, on trivial issues that we got side-tracked with. Sometimes the meeting ran so late I had to leave before the study or prayer even began.
I went home wondering about the value of it all. My husband asked whether I was enjoying it and I had to mull over the conflicting feelings I had. Overall, the group was a good idea and in my heart I knew I had to persevere. Forming friendships takes time, and it wasn’t just about what I got out of it, but what I was willing to give, how much tolerance and understanding I would extend to others.
We decided to study a book on relationships. Meanwhile, I was forming my own assessments of the ladies in the group, positioning myself in relation to how I viewed them. First, there is the Leader, the one with a passion for leading women and helping them reach their potential. Then there’s the Social Worker, the one who thinks a lot and talks about feelings and doing the Right Thing. There’s the Born Again Christian who overflows with positive attitude and has not yet developed disillusionment with religion and church politics. The Organiser is the one who chose the book we are studying. She does everything in a measured way, with love, but also with calmness sometimes that indicates (to me) her mind is ticking over with a flowchart of options and reactions. The Missionary comes to the group with a world of experience and somehow a detached perspective that comes from ministering in so many different groups in places vastly different to our Australian country town. The Relationship Junkie is the one who I relate to the most, being outspoken, but she is far above me in her relationship skills. She remembers names of everyone’s children, their birthdates, their family dynamics and she can cook for, and host every one of them in turn amidst her own busy schedule.
And then there’s me, with no special skills or insights to bring to the group. I’m the Cynic. I’m the one who tends to talk too loud, too long and with too much ill-informed opinion in order to cover my own insecurities about life. I am the one with the long-held dreams of being an author, dreams that are slowing slipping away from my grasp with each year, each rejection letter, each realisation that my time is not finite and perhaps I should be doing something more productive with myself.
The funny thing is, though, with our studies and discussions, I have also discovered more to the ladies. More to my neat little evaluations and labels. The Born Again does experience doubt and fear and struggles with knowing God has it all under control. The Social Worker admits she may do the Wrong Thing even with her degree and years of training in handling people’s affairs. The Relationship Junkie feels worn out and would love some time alone to recharge with God.
I have started to appreciate the differences and the unique qualities each person brings to the group and to our fellowship. However, I still baulk at the vulnerability, the assumption others make that we are all coming to the group with similar willingness to bond. I resent the commitment this group takes, on my busy day in town with all its errands and stresses. I argue with my own reluctance, and try to overcome with rational thought.
So we met again last week and I brought my active toddler and moody 6-year old, encouraging them to play together in the church playground. I sat in the small lounge area and waited until the ladies arrived. I got up again to check on the children and watched the others carrying hot drinks across from the kitchen, all the while, feeling an intense discouragement, a blanket of tiredness and despair about the world and its dysfunction. I had recently come from overhearing a violent domestic argument in the car beside mine at the supermarket car-park and had been overwhelmed with sadness as I prayed for a supernatural intervention in this couple’s lives.
And now I stood, on the outside, listening to the women chatting and catching up with each other, talking about things I somehow was outside the loop with, again. Did I really belong with these ladies? What did I have in common with them, anyway? The Born Again Christian arrived and I sat once more, putting aside my negativity to talk and welcome her. Soon, though she spilled her heart as she talked about a serious family problem that needed urgent prayer. We all had taken our place by this time and someone motioned to hold hands as we prayed. Me, the non-hugging, detached one, holding hands with two others on either side.
And as the ladies all prayed for this situation, I again felt overwhelmed. This community of women, reaching out in concern for their friend, with me a part of it. I formulated my prayer and waited my turn. Someone went ahead of me and said the exact same things I had thought about. My selfishness about praying the ‘right words’ taunted me and I held my tongue, knowing it was not important that my prayer got spoken out loud.
The despair of the afternoon burst out and I sat with tears rolling down my cheeks, snot dripping from my nose, and me sitting, frozen. What to do? How do I extract my hands to get a tissue without being noticed? The group prayer ended and I still had a messy face and felt exposed and uncomfortable. A couple of friends looked questioningly at me but I deflected their worry with a little smile and we moved on.
Later, the discussion covered showing love for others and someone pointed out my apparent display of love while praying for our friend in need. “What a compassionate heart,” she commented. Others agreed and there I was, put on the spot to explain modestly about my empathy and selfless love, while inside I knew it was not about them, it was all about me – my self-absorption and negativity - not my wide-reaching love for mankind. So in the middle of a ladies group that aimed to develop openness and friendship, while studying a book about Christian relationships, I sat and lied - not some barefaced fabrication of events, but a lie nonetheless – about my deceitful heart and my motives.
And will I continue to meet with these ladies, these ones who have opened themselves to me? I guess I must, for perhaps it is these very sorts of challenges that God is drawing me into in order to refine me and mould me.
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Keep going. As long as Jesus is being lifted up more than flesh and it doesn't become a gossip group, then all is well. Jesus MUST remains the focus and dealing with yourself to become more like HIM. Hearing the voices of the ladies must be about what God desires. When you get closer to Jesus, your desires will be His, and that's to see others saved and set free. So, if that's what you hear in this group of ladies, then I encourage you to keep going. It'll only make you a better person. God Bless
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