Younger and Older: Counseling Women

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One morning last week, after tossing and turning and unsuccessfully trying to fall back to sleep, I rose out of bed early and came out to the kitchen with my journal to pray. I wrote, “I feel like I’m too much for people right now. I’m so needy for love and wisdom and healing- desperate to bear my soul and hear words of truth and love. But, I feel like that is just too much- the layers are too deep, too much to burden anyone with. It would just suck the life out of friendships.”

Am I the only one who feels this way sometimes? Or maybe this why we have such a booming counseling business in our country?  Somehow, we know that in order to overcome what is inside it needs to be exposed to someone else. We need to reveal the reality of who we are and we desperately want to find grace and understanding. But we don’t want to risk hurting our friendships by exposing too much neediness or vulnerability. So, we pay to have someone on our side and if we give them money, and make it a professional service, we don’t have to feel guilty about the burden we also hand them.

I think there is a good place and a need for professional counselors, along with their training and skills that give them insight and the ability to teach helpful ways of coping with difficult things. But, I’m becoming more and more passionate about the kind of counseling that I have seen continually transform my darkest days of life into fruit-bearing and light shining seasons.

When I was in college I read a book about spiritual mothering. I don’t remember a lot about it, other than it left me longing for a mature Christian woman to take me under her wing. I wanted someone who would be committed to helping me grow, be invested in my life and a resource to come to with all my questions and needs.  She would of course be wise, and would have likely homeschooled her own large brood of children, could clean, cook, garden, organize and decorate, and she would check in on me frequently and offer her jewels of wisdom and practical assistance at just the right times. As a young wife, realizing that marriage, even to your best friend, was more complicated than I thought, and then as a young, exhausted mother, this longing turned into an idol in my heart. If only I had that ‘spiritual mother’, someone with all the answers and able to devote time to teaching me how to be a wife and mother, then I would be a better Christian. I would grow. I would be healthy.

It’s a misplaced hope to think that one person could swoop in and meet all of our emotional and practical needs. That spiritual mother I was looking for didn’t exist. I felt like God was withholding something good from me for a long time, when really, he had provided something much better that I just didn’t recognize. He made me a part of a diverse, beautiful, growing church. Last week, I once again overcame that fear of revealing my mess and leaned hard into relationship. And, once again, I was left in awe of the wisdom of God in placing us in community. I came away with a better understanding of what was at the heart of my problem, and a deeper appreciation for the friends God has placed in my path as counselors, along with a deeper love of the gospel, which gives insight into human nature, and helps us to not be surprised by sin and brokenness. Not to mention, my friends make me laugh. What a gift from a happy God.

In the book of Titus in the Bible, the church is given a model for how the older women are to teach, or counsel, the younger women. I find that I’m both that older and younger woman now… somewhere in the middle and so blessed to be both walking with women in seasons that I’ve already experienced, while also learning from the wisdom and experience of women a step, or a few steps, ahead. I have something I would love to say to both…

To the younger women:

First, please be brave. As hard and as intimidating as it is, you need to reach out to more mature women you respect. You need to ignore the thoughts in your head that tell you that they are too busy, you are too insignificant, or that you would be a bother. If you are living in a season we’ve already been through, your problems don’t scare us. But, you need to take the initiative and the risk in reaching out. Too often, we as older women don’t assume you need or want our counsel because we don’t always recognize either your need or our insight.

Also, please be open-handed. Don’t let your need for counsel develop into a utilitarian view of women with some experience and insight that you want to learn from. Remember that they are your sisters in Christ, in need of the encouragement and friendship you can offer as well. Look for ways to bless them, especially through your prayers for them. And, as you pray, God will mature your heart at the same time. You will take their burdens, some that you haven’t faced yet– like an empty nest or the care of an aging parent– and your heart will wrestle with these issues on their behalf. You will be more ready to face them yourself someday because of your faithful prayers for older women. Look for ways to bless and care for them even as you let them know how much you need their love and counsel.

And that is so important… let it be known. Be honest. Go beyond the point of comfort. Peel back a layer beyond the one that feels safe and experience grace and love entering into a deeper place.  Even if you feel like you are taking more than you’re giving, keep asking. It will bear fruit and before you know it you will be that older woman yourself, pouring out what you have received.  Be brave.

To the older women:

Please be kind. Please notice the younger women around you and ask them how you can be praying for them. They want to tell you and they need your prayers coming from a place of understanding.

If you understand the gospel, and it is the hope you cling to for all of life, then you are both qualified and needed to give counsel to younger women. The gospel allows you to step in with the truth about hope: that hope comes from God loving us in the midst of the messes. You have no idea how much just the fact that you have survived the season we’re in means to us younger women. There’s hope for us. And, if you’re honest about your failings along the way, that’s even better and gives us even more hope… we aren’t alone in our failures.

Please be careful of how you speak about others. We’re listening, and if we hear you divulging personal information about others or speaking disparagingly, we won’t feel safe coming to you with the things that are closest to our hearts. But, if you let us see your heart for others, and it’s one of grace, and your words communicate your care and concern, we will want to be added to those you know and love. 

Maybe sometimes we try your patience with our immaturity. Please keep being patient. In seasons to come, there will likely be the most fruit hanging from the branches that need the most growth now. Those are the areas the gospel still needs to penetrate and transform. Speak truth into our lives gently but boldly. We younger women don’t want to think we are right all the time about what we are thinking or feeling; we want to know the truth that brings hope- the truth that we are sometimes wrong and messed up but that we’re still loved and that God will keep working in those areas.

Remember, we don’t need perfection. We just really need your presence and availability. Take us seriously when we send you an email or make a phone call to tell you we are struggling and need counsel.  It means the perceived need is significant because it is so intimidating to take that step. Please be kind.

So, those are the things burdening my heart for both younger and older Christian women. They are coming from a passion that continues to grow and longs to see the church –the community of God’s people– thriving as a place where life-transforming counseling takes place in natural relationships being strengthened with His supernatural love.

But, even with that passion growing, I know that these relationships are imperfect. That morning, while I was sitting in the quiet kitchen, afraid to burden my friends, as I prayed I was reminded of another Counselor. One we don’t reveal ourselves to, but One who reveals us to ourselves.

In the sixteenth chapter of John’s summary of the life of Christ, the words of Jesus are recorded for us. He told his disciples that he had to leave, but that it was for their benefit that He would no longer be physically present with them. Shortly after this, Jesus died on the cross, paying with death the cost of sin and breaking its power to separate us from God. His sacrifice and life dramatically changed how God’s people would commune with Him. It was a turning point in all of history. There was a reconciliation so deep that not only can our sins be forgiven, but the Holy Spirit can draw so close that He abides in us and teaches us truth. He is our ultimate Counselor.

When I am feeling lost or puzzled, broken or hopeless, tired or frustrated, insecure or anxious, or any of the other countless emotions we as humans will experience, the first and perfect Counselor I need is God who has made his abode right here with me; He is here, always available, always wise, always pouring out truth and grace and always coming with life transforming, undeserved love. All because Jesus paid my counseling fee in full. I don’t have to worry about burdening Him beyond what He can handle, because He held the burden of the sin of the world on the cross. I don’t have to worry about Him growing weary with me, or giving up on me, because He chose to make me His when I was repulsively stuck in self-centered sin. He says He will stay with me and carry me through to completion. He knew me before I took my first breath, and he knows who I will be after my last breath is exhaled. Isn’t that encouraging truth? We are known and we are loved by the only one who knows us completely and can love us perfectly. That is transforming truth and that is the message of our deepest counsel to one another.

You have searched me, Lord,

and you know me.

You know when I sit and when I rise;

you perceive my thoughts from afar.

You discern my going out and my lying down;

you are familiar with all my ways.

Before a word is on my tongue

you, Lord, know it completely.

You hem me in behind and before,

and you lay your hand upon me.

Psalm 139:1-5

The Provision of Friendship

IMG_0500We had a booming year for cucumbers; there are jars and jars of bread and butter pickles and some experimental dills. Next to them are jars of green tomato salsa, green beans and a long shelf full of little sweet dumpling squashes.  On the floor, five gallon buckets with oats and wheat berries wait to be turned into fresh bread all winter long. This time of year, with nine of us at the table and snow days ahead, there’s a drive inside to have the pantry shelves and freezer full. Just like a mother mouse finding seeds in the brown grasses, I find myself pushing my cart through the grocery store with an eye for what will keep.

I think of my great-grandmothers; Isabella came on a boat from England with a store of knowledge. She knew about finding herbs and roots and how to make people well. I imagine her, with small Charles and little Lucy trailing along behind, studying the Maine woods; an early scientist identifying plants and a doctor tucking her prescriptions away in a basket or apron pockets. When Lucy was a mother herself and held my grandmother in her arms, it was still natural to look to plants for food and medicine. But, as time passed and pharmacies with strong, effective remedies grew, it didn’t seem valuable to hold onto these old ways.  So, this fall I turned to Amazon Prime and put in an order so that the cabinet would be stocked with children’s Tylenol and cough syrup and vapor rub. The pantry has cans of ginger ale and Gatorade for those seemingly inevitable belly hurts with little ones.  I know Isabella and Lucy would have been thankful for a storehouse of these simple things that I can take for granted, like a way to so quickly bring down a fever in a small, hurting child. Still, there’s a wistfulness inside that makes me long for a walk in the woods beside these grandmothers, bent over the leaves and digging in the dirt for roots and being taught some of the old ways.

We had our first snowflakes last week. They came down in intervals with a cold sleety rain. My husband says he’s making an appointment to get snow tires on the van. The children want to know where their snow pants and boots are and we locate tubs and make sure everyone has sizes that fit.  Everyone has grown a size or more since spring.

There’s a fire in the woodstove every day now. And, rows and rows of firewood neatly stacked outside ready for little boys to see how high they can stack it in each other’s arms and still make it up the porch steps and through the house without dropping any; little boys that are strong for their age and grin when I tell them, “thank you for keeping our family so warm.”

I think we’re nearly ready.

I love the sense that we are prepared and can face days of being snowed in and still be warm, with food on our table and hot cocoa in our mugs.

But, even with all the coziness and feeling ready for winter days ahead, the last few weeks have been hard for me. I know there are people who struggle with dark, hard, debilitating periods of depression. I’ve had days of feeling down and melancholy, but never to the point where I would alarm a doctor if I filled out a questionnaire. So, it was surprising to me how heavy I have felt. There were some days when I could barely function. My kids had half-hearted schooling and minimal mothering with movies to keep them quiet. A couple of times, after getting a bare bones meal on the table, I would go straight to bed when my husband got home from work. I had nothing to give, no joy in anything, no desire for anything except to be alone in the dark and quiet.

I think this began with an email I woke up to one morning. The words were from a close friend and her news was devastating. Not only did my heart break and bleed with empathy for her pain and anxiety for her future, but old hurts from my own life were broken open. Old fears resurfaced and the world that had seemed bright and full of kind people seemed dark and deceptive and full of evil. It overwhelmed me. I couldn’t pull out truth or Bible verses to lift the weight because everything seemed so meaningless. Why had God created a world with so much darkness to begin with? The presence of the darkness just swallows any joy in the flickers of light. I was heavy and dark and only desiring quiet.

But, with seven children busting through my bedroom door and begging for snacks or to be read stories, that desire to be still couldn’t be satisfied.  I’m sad to say that it wasn’t with joy that I tended to their needs but it was with a discouraged drag of my feet. It was overwhelming to see, when I stopped feeling the motivation to sweep or pick up, how quickly our house became a disaster of puzzle pieces and crushed food and random sticks and rocks from outdoors. The chaos made me want to retreat even more.

And, it wasn’t just from the kids and the messes that I wanted to retreat. I didn’t want to answer the phone, emails from friends wanting to make plans made me cringe, my husband picked up groceries on his way home, and I started day dreaming of how I would take a six month sabbatical from church. The darkness I was giving into wanted to isolate me. The darkness wanted to drag me into a place where I couldn’t receive love or hear truth.

A while ago I made a commitment to myself. It was shortly after we moved down this long dirt road and into a place where it would be easy to become isolated. I made a decision to listen to that voice that pops up sometimes and tells me to withdraw from church or friends or social interactions; to listen, recognize it and to do just the opposite. If I start hearing lies run through my head like…

You’re just tired… you need to take a break from church or having people over and spend time with just you and God in the woods and quiet….

No one really cares about you so don’t bother them with your troubles… you should be strong enough to handle it yourself, anyway…

Don’t call that friend… she’s so busy… there are more important things on her plate than listening to you talk about yourself… 

When I start thinking thoughts that if followed through would separate me from people, I know it’s time to send an email or pick up the phone. It can feel so humbling to send an email saying, “I am feeling really down this week. I don’t even know why… but if you get a chance to call sometime I could really use a friend to talk with.”

And, just like storing food on pantry shelves or medicine in a cabinet, I try to prepare for times when I barely have the strength to reach out. I try to give stores of friendship to women in my life so that they can call on me when they barely have strength as well. The truth is, this world does have a lot of shadows and murky areas, and we are going to feel the weight of sad things. And, we just weren’t designed to go it alone.

Our church is really wonderful about providing meals to people who are sick or who have just had a baby. I have had seven babies while a part of this church family and on average have received probably eight to ten meals each baby. Not to mention when I broke my wrist and was delivered lasagna five or six times (I’m not exaggerating… the kids started asking what kind of bread we were having with our lasagna instead of what was for dinner). Preparing meals and caring for people in this way is such a kind, wonderful way to live in community. But, honestly, this was so hard for me to accept. As an independent New Englander, I know I can plan ahead and put meals in the freezer and we can do just fine on our own. I always had the urge to say, “Thank you anyway, but we don’t need help. Don’t put yourself out on our account.” I’ve had to learn and be stretched and to grow in the area of receiving. Receiving meals and receiving relationship. It is so much easier to be the strong one offering a helping hand. But to accept the hand that’s offered, or to reach out and ask for a hand, is so much harder for me. It’s coming to terms with both my need and my worth. It’s admitting that I’m weak and believing that I’m worth helping.

Several times in the last couple of weeks I’ve needed to do both. The ladies in my church have a prayer group where we share requests through email. I sent off a couple of humbling emails. I have had to answer the phone and respond to emails and say ‘yes’ to getting together with friends, some of whom reached out just because I had admitted I was struggling. One friend brought me and my kids into her house for an afternoon and we shared the sweet medicine of laughter. She’s a friend that I have a big store of history and vulnerability piled up from years of truthful conversations, so I didn’t need to say much. She knew why things were hard and we could just spend time together pushing the darkness back and letting in more light.

Today, I just got home from a visit with another dear friend. Earlier this week I couldn’t imagine packing up all the kids and getting us out of the house and being energetic enough to visit. But I said yes. And, I’m so glad I did. More light came pouring in.

I finally feel like I’m coming out of that darkness that wanted to swallow me and isolate me. Some courage is seeping back in and some energy is starting to flow again. As it does, I find myself being so thankful. Not just for the stores of food to keep us fed or medicine to keep us healthy, but the store of community that God has blessed me with; friendships and a connection to a church family that has been tended and preserved through time.

One of the last things Jesus told his friends, after he had washed their feet and fed them a meal, was that he had a new commandment for them. “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. “

For a long time, the mark of being right with God had been holiness.  Jesus was drawing his people together and giving them a new mark. His disciples are known by their love for one another; the humbling, sacrificial, self-exposing, grace-extending love of Jesus pouring from heart to heart.

If you feel alone today, and like there’s a cloud or weight of darkness, please take the one little (though I know it can be so hard and daunting) step of reaching out and letting someone know you are feeling that way. I would love to have a cup of tea with you and hear your story, whether you are feeling strong and happy or whether you are discouraged and down. Since distance is an issue, sometimes the telephone or email has to serve as our virtual tea table. But those thoughts that tell you it’s a sign of weakness to reach out or that nobody wants to hear just aren’t true. God created us with a need for one another. He knew that in all seasons, the joyful bursts in summer, the cold and biting days of winter and all days in between, we do best when we are together. The love and truth and grace he wants to pour on you and me, he so often pours through the words or touch or listening eyes of a friend. My lesson this month has once again led to a prayer… may he give us the strength and the grace we need not only to give, but also to receive this kind of love. And, may He produce in us the commitment and authenticity to work and grow stores of this kind of friendship, which is more precious than any wealth of provision on pantry shelves.