Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Bigger than divorce

I once mentioned that I was probably not going to be spending any vacation time in Nigeria with my children this year (http://remembering-my-journey.blogspot.com/2013/03/no-place-like-home.html).

Well, I changed my mind. I’ve booked the flights, too, so there’s no going back. And I’m quite pleased with this plan. It’ll be a nice change for us all.

The length of the trip will be just right: not too long and not too short. But short enough for me to have to alert my in-laws to the fact that we will be arriving so we can schedule visiting dates. The news has been met with much excitement on their part. Even though I shouldn’t have been, I was still a bit surprised by the elation our impending visit has caused. Every single phone call I have made to announce our plans has gone the same way: First, they want to know if I’m actually coming with the children. I say yes. Then, they ask if I mean I’m coming with my son and my daughter (whom they haven’t met yet, and who is named after my mother-in-law). Each time, I’m very amused and I remind them that I have two children – a son and a daughter – and confirm that I will be coming with both of them. Then, rejoicing, they either tell me in advance what they’ll prepare for us (a goat, for instance), or ask what I want them to prepare for us (soup, for instance).

The truth is, I hadn’t planned to pay a visit to my ex-husband’s village. I plan to be in a central enough location where my in-laws can easily get to (one of them actually lives in the same city) so that those that would like to can see the children and spend time with them. Apart from the fact that I’m no longer married and don’t want to give anyone the wrong impression, I would rather not have my children making any long-distance road trips at this time. So I planned to just stay in one spot.

Of course, my in-laws are putting immense pressure on me (in the nicest way) to make that trip to the village, and their eagerness to see the children warms my heart. My mother-in-law is getting older, and it would be great for her to see her grandchildren.

I mentioned to my son this evening that it looks like we’ll be spending a night or two in his village. He immediately replied: ‘I’m not going.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Just tell them I said I’m not coming. You guys can go ahead, though,’ he said flatly.

‘Why would you say that? Where’s this coming from?’

He said something about how, with his father’s sparse involvement in his life, he didn’t see why this particular visit to the village was necessary.

I paused.

‘Come here,’ I said. ‘Close the door, let’s talk.’

And I told him about all the phone conversations I’ve had in the last week and how his uncles and aunties were all beside themselves with joy at the prospect of seeing him and his sister. About how, when I said I was coming with ‘the children,’ they all wanted to be sure I meant I was coming with both my son and my daughter. (He was as amused by this as I was).  I told my son that his family is much bigger than just me and his maternal relatives. I told him how much he is adored on both sides of the family. I told him that his father’s people are his people, and that they are good people. He comes from a large family of good people. I told him that if I had to choose in-laws again, I would choose the ones I originally chose.

I told him about my traditional wedding: about how, when my soon-to-be in-laws paid a visit to introduce themselves to my people, and later on, on the day of the bridewealth payment (a misnomer in my case, as my father didn’t believe in receiving bridewealth for himself), his father didn’t utter a word. It was ‘his’ wedding, but he barely featured in it because it wasn’t about him, really. It was about two families of good people coming together – and he (my son) was a part of this big, new family. I told him about his paternal grandmother, great-uncle, and uncles, who did all the talking that day on his father’s behalf.  My in-laws came along with their in-laws, too, that day – men who had married their daughters. My father was very impressed by this and would later remark that they put together ‘a powerful delegation.’ I have always been pleased with my parents’ impression of my in-laws. They are truly people who know how to ‘do’ family.

I told my son that where we come from – where he comes from – a marriage is not just about two people. About what a good thing that can be because it means that he is protected and will always ‘belong’ somewhere. He will always have an intact identity, no matter what. I told him that in his culture, it doesn’t matter that his parents are divorced; this means little when it comes to him as a child. His parents’ divorce has not changed his location in his father’s village because his family is much, much bigger than just me and his dad. And this is why they were all busy twisting themselves into a pretzel trying to figure out how to welcome him.

I said a lot of other things that I can’t remember now. What I will not forget is the fluctuating expression in my son’s eyes, which went from defiance, to surprise, to pride, and finally, to respect.

‘Okay,’ he said, soberly. ‘I’ll go.’

So, Nigeria: here we come.

Monday, 24 June 2013

A man named Bill

The book editor turned out to be nothing like what I expected. Not that I’d ever really given it much thought. But when he turned out to be: 1) a ‘he’, 2) White, 3) American, and 4) Roman Catholic, I suddenly realized that this wasn’t what I had in mind (subconsciously) at all.  

But what do I know? I’m a novice who hadn’t planned to start a blog in the first place, much less a book, and who really didn’t know what exactly the role of a book editor was, anyway. All this is one big adventure to me.

The publisher sent me the editor’s profile to review. His name really is Bill. His credentials were terribly impressive – so much so that I sent a quick thank you email to the publisher for choosing him with such care. I was still really apprehensive, though, about some of the remarks made by authors Bill had worked with in the past. I noted one in particular who talked about his book having to be re-written ‘with 75% new content, just as [Bill] had predicted.’ This author sounded really happy. I balked at the thought of having to re-write stuff. Where on earth would I find the time? I read some more of Bill’s profile and found that this author’s book ended up doing really well. No wonder he sounded so happy.

I sent the profile to my sister along with the first couple of emails from Bill so we could compare notes. I thought he was absolutely hilarious. He ends almost every email with a joke that cracks me up.

‘Doesn’t he sound like fun?’ I asked my sister.

‘He sounds absolutely delightful!’ she replied.

Perhaps it was naïve of us, but my sister and I still couldn’t get over the fact that he was actually a ‘he.’  It was also interesting to us that he wasn’t African and wasn’t of the same Christian ‘flavor’ as I am. But the not-being-a-woman part was something that really gave us pause. No disrespect at all to the male readers of this blog (nor to men in general), but I did wonder how possible it would be for him to really ‘get it’ – to deeply understand where I, as a woman, was coming from with the very personal thoughts and perspectives that make up the blog. I mentioned this to him when I received his first set of comments. I mentioned it out of relief, really, as I discovered that I need not have bothered. I also mentioned how much I hate reviews (well, I hate having my own work reviewed, anyway, even though I love the benefits in the end). I spend a considerable amount of time at work getting peer-reviewed and providing peer reviews, and if this is what a book editor did, then I was going to dread this process.

Fortunately (very, very fortunately), it turned out that I had nothing to worry about. I found that I thoroughly enjoyed responding to Bill’s comments, and it has been a pleasure stealing time on my weekends to do so.

When I pitched the idea of blogging about the process of turning the rmj blog into a book, he enthusiastically replied: ‘Feel free about mentioning that your editor is a guy from Texas!’

So I’ve conveyed his message (J). More to come. 

Sunday, 16 June 2013

On my honor

I am not my divorce.

And yet … I am.

The divorce is an important part of my life, without a doubt. It’s just that it’s not the whole thing.

I am so many other things apart from divorced that I can hardly keep up with me.

Granted, I often see life through the lens of divorce – just like I once used to see life through the lens of what-seemed-to-be-a-really-promising, and then what-turned-out-to-be-a-failing, marriage. I suppose this is only natural. But after my initial ‘divorce stare’ at an issue, I make a concerted effort to subject the same issue to other perspectives, too. There is no point in letting marital status kick one out of balance.

I want to try and dwell on the positive ways in which divorce has shaped me, is shaping me.

I am no longer using my relationship with a marriage partner as an excuse not to dare to to have a life of my own.

I am no longer afraid of the idea of being alone,like I was prior to marriage.

There is a crack in everything, as this blog post reminds us: http://www.marydemuth.com/there-is-a-crack-in-everything-tedd-cadd/. That’s how the light gets in.

The ‘crack’ in my life that my divorce represents has let in light, no doubt. That light gives me the energy to strive and hope for good things now and in the future. And because I believe life is essentially good, I pledge the following:

I pledge not to lose my smile. To smile with my eyes and not just with my lips. To continue to smile often.

I pledge not to make my life all about me; to continue to take an interest in others. To be compassionate toward others.

I pledge to deliberately reach out to others – to not get so absorbed with my own set of circumstances that I forget just how much I still have to give to others.

I pledge to use my voice – but to try and remember to do so in a way that is gracious and edifying for others, rather than just plain hurtful.

I pledge to use my gifts, talents, abilities, and experiences to bless others. I already know that I won’t always feel like it. I also know that whether I feel like it or not at the time, in the end, it’s always worth it, and I end up feeling more blessed than those I was meant to bless.

I pledge to sincerely root for the troubled marriages that come my way to make it, the way others once rooted for mine. With a very different style, I suppose, but I’ll root for them nonetheless.

I pledge to give people a fair chance: to not judge anyone by my past experiences, but to give people time to show me who they are – and then (only then) make a decision as to where they belong in my life.

I pledge to stay grateful; to see my glass as half-full rather than half-empty.

I pledge to step out more, to try new things (not too many new things, but at least some!), to not stop trying at life in general.  

I pledge to never drift too far away from joy. To find my way back when I do drift.

I make this pledge to myself.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Three Questions (or ‘Headstrong’ Part III)

I thought it best to hold off on answering the final question right away.

I can’t say I was completely blindsided by it, but I was still unprepared. They wanted to know if I would consider delivering some of the Sunday sermons at church.

I blinked with surprise.

I could see how all three questions were closely linked, we did not discuss this fact. If I wasn’t a known tither and if my attendance of regional church meetings was poor, then these were strikes against me. I would be expected to get all my ducks in a row, so to speak, if I were to accept this role. I was humbled that they saw me in this sort of light despite my obvious inability to play completely by the rules. I was also a bit confused, though. Why would they want to risk this – i.e., want to risk placing someone like me in that sort of a position? And by ‘someone like me,’ I’m not referring to my marital status. I’m referring to my annoying, non-conformist nature tendencies. I saw what they were proposing as a recipe for disaster, and wondered how well they had thought this through. As I’ve asserted elsewhere, THERE’S SOMETHING ABSOLUTELY WRONG WITH MY CHURCH!

I held off of on answering the question out of respect. I had an immediate response formed in my head, but felt that two ‘negative’ responses were enough for one day, so I asked for a bit of time to get back to them. My response was relayed a week later via email. I thanked them for the faith they had in me but politely declined. My reasons were simple:

  1. Playing the proposed role really isn’t an interest or desire of mine.
ü  I like to keep a low profile and want to keep things that way.
ü  I lead a really busy life and taking on more responsibility at this time wouldn’t be wise. My children don’t need me to be even more distracted than I am right now.
ü  I’m mindful of my church context and have observed that divorce is a really sensitive topic for the overall institution. The result is that there is a lot of fuzziness in members’ minds about the church’s actual position on it. I would rather not take on such a public role without absolute clarity on the issue among the members. Even then, I’d still turn such an offer down.

  They left the offer on the table in case I change my mind. I know I won’t.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Three Questions (or ‘Headstrong’ Part II)

The second question had to do with why I don’t attend regional church programs.

Regional programs are those meetings/events that bring all members of one overall church from different branches together as one. I’m sure these programs serve many different purposes. The ones I can think of off the top of my head are: They provide a forum for getting to know everyone else in your city (and even beyond) that attends the same overall church as you, but not necessarily your branch. They foster a greater feeling of oneness in churches with a vision of having lots of conveniently-located branches – particularly since such churches risk getting ‘out of hand’ due to the sheer numbers of their membership. And so, these meetings actually also help the overall leadership guage the collective pulse of their extensive membership and keep all church branches in a certain region abreast of important developments at the same time. They represent one way of doing the extremely difficult job of overseeing several churches at once.

I’m a ‘small’ church kind of person. I’ve always naturally gravitated toward smaller congregations. I suppose that’s the case for a lot of introverts. I like the easy-going, informal, family feel of small groups. That was part of my attraction to my current church. To be fair, when I went through the formal procedures of becoming an actual member of the church, I had no inkling what role ‘The Region’ was expected to play in my life. I remained blissfully oblivious for several years, actually. I would hear the announcements about regional programs and think to myself, ‘How nice that this is available to whoever wants to attend,’ without it occurring to me that I should participate. Little did I realize that as one who served in some department of the church, attending these meetings was mandatory, and I was supposed to know this. Whoever took me through the church membership procedures must have left that part out.

The idea of attending regional programs makes me feel like I belong to two totally different churches, even though I realize this isn’t the intention. It’s just a bit ‘much’ for me, and actually quite disorienting. We ‘Phlegmatics’ are known for our low energy levels. There’s just not enough to go round and so it has to be apportioned carefully. As I can barely keep up with all the programs in my own church branch, adding on another layer of church activity is just unfathomable. There was a time when I could have done it – when I was younger and without responsibilities. In those days, I used to live for church programs and I enjoyed every bit of doing so.

That was then, though. Today, with parenthood and a high-stress job, I secretly pat myself on the back for even being able to sustain my current level of church involvement. I’ve told my pastor honestly that I don’t believe I need to be in every single church meeting. But I will do what I can to be there for as much as I feel I can handle at this point in my life.

As I relayed this information to my visitors, there was some understanding of where I was coming from. I wasn’t the only one that was surprised by how large ‘The Region’ would loom after joining what I thought was my little church branch. The issue of being ‘under authority’ re-emerged. I thought about this a bit. I could see how I might be perceived as ‘unserious,’ as ‘disobedient,’ as ‘disrespectful,’ or as having a chip on my shoulder if I’m absent from these meetings when I’m expected to be present. But I don’t think emotions such as guilt or the need to appear a certain way in others’ eyes (or even respect for others) should be my motivation for attending meetings that are meant to draw me closer to God. The last thing I want to do is spread myself too thin, making technical appearances (which is what many of them would be for me), and attending anything and everything when I actually don’t want to – and then start grumbling behind everyone’s back about it.

Call me stubborn, call me crazy, call me not-Christian-enough. All I’m trying to be, though, is balanced. Balanced for me, that is, as I am the one that has to cope with all the moving pieces of my life. I can’t stand biting off more than I can chew. I don’t do so well when that happens. 

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Three Questions (or ‘Headstrong’ Part I)

They wanted to know why they have never seen me come out to give my tithe.

They asked in the nicest, most polite way possible. I understood that their intention was not to be offensive, and I took no offense. I also sensed that this question was a sort of build-up to another, overarching question – that this visit was no ordinary visit.

I have to explain what they meant by ‘come out.’

For years in my church, tithe-giving (that is, giving a tenth of one’s income towards the work of God) was a private affair. In the recent past, however, this changed unceremoniously. As I remember it, one Sunday, a visiting pastor asked all those that had their tithes to come out to the altar for a special prayer. And that was it. From then on, it became a weekly occurrence – an announcement each Sunday for all those with their tithes prepared to come out for prayer prior to the act of giving.

I thought this was odd as I had never witnessed this practice before in my years of church attendance in various countries, but I also reasoned that it wasn’t obligatory to come to the altar if one didn’t feel right about it. (This wasn’t a cult, after all.) I kept my thoughts on the matter to myself, though, and have continued to give my tithe privately. No one had ever called me out on it, and I never expected anyone to as no rationale was ever given for this abruptly-introduced, new practice. In the meantime, I have observed as the number of tithe-givers at the altar increased from month to month.

I appreciated the fact that I was now asked this question point-blank by a couple that I deeply respect. My response to them was that the fact that one doesn’t give their tithe publicly doesn’t necessarily mean that one isn’t a tithe-giver. My position is that the important thing is to give your tithe, and that the process of doing so may be different for different members. If the church has concerns that its members are not doing so, then it needs to devote time to teaching about the rationale and power behind giving.

I’m very aware of the debates around tithing and I’ve met one or two members of my own church who are of the opinion that tithing isn’t meant to be a modern practice. Even then, few people I’ve met that have issues with tithing believe that Christians should simply not be givers. I think most people of faith are more concerned about being manipulated (or about watching others experience this) than about giving itself.

With my divorce, I’ve had to get smarter about my finances, and so I have a number of finance-related books by my bed. I must have at least 4 of Suze Orman’s books. I read Jean Chatzky, too, and some others. One of the things that I know Suze Orman teaches for sure is the importance of giving some of what you have away (I think Jean Chatzky does, too, but don’t quote me on that!). Giving really does seem to be an important principle that the wealthy tend to adhere to, whether they are people of faith or not – and, of course, there are so many ways to give that are beyond finances alone.

They assured me that the church didn’t raise any concerns about my giving, and that these were just their personal questions to me.  I explained that I thought it was a bit manipulative to have all tithe-givers make themselves known publicly. It also had the potential to encourage certain wrong motivations for giving. There was some agreement about this, but I was asked to consider those who might not be giving their tithes because they had the impression that I (as a church worker/leader) wasn’t giving mine, either.

I pointed out that it all goes back to proper teaching, if this was indeed a concern. Besides, why would anybody base their tithing decisions on my behavior alone, and not on that of the majority of the church members who did give their tithes publicly?

There was a reminder that being ‘under authority’ in a church, sometimes you do things out of respect for the authority that you operate under. I explained that I believe in reasoning with the authorities about things I may not agree with. Plus, even the authorities have blind spots, and if no one points them out, then we’re all in big trouble.

The tithing question was one of three that I was asked that day. The discussion took me back to how I began tithing in the first place.

I started tithing at age 16 or 17, which is the first time I actually heard the word ‘tithe.’ In those days, Bishop Benson Idahosa’s ministry brought Frederick K. C. Price’s ‘Ever-Increasing Faith’ program on the air in our little town, and Frederick Price was doing a series on tithing. I got the part about the tithe being ‘one-tenth’ of your income, but I didn’t fully grasp the process through which tithes should be paid. I calculated my tithe for the first time ever and it was exactly five naira. I mailed it to the address on the screen (Idahosa’s ministry), with a note saying I wanted to buy some tapes with it (I don’t remember if they were music tapes or teaching tapes). My understanding was that I could use my tithe to buy ‘Christian’ stuff. (I’m not sure how I came up with this idea.)

Some weeks later, I got a package from Idahosa’s ministry. I was so excited! It was pretty large. I thought it would contain the tapes I meant to purchase. I opened it up to find a large book instead. It was a book by Fred Price about tithing. There was a note, too, politely explaining that I couldn’t actually purchase things with the tithe, but that here was a book that would help me understand tithing better.

I read the book from cover to cover and referred to it many times over the years. I wonder where that book is right now. It was such a good resource and I think it mysteriously disappeared in my early years of marriage.

Now, that’s how I learned how to tithe. I learned because someone took the time to teach me. They could have taken my ‘measly’ five naira tithe and ignored me and my note. It was such a small amount of money, after all – certainly not worth the book and the postage back then. But they took the time, bless their hearts, and sowed a seed that has absolutely flourished over the years. The message that their actions impressed on my teenage heart was that giving was so important that they were prepared to spend their money to ensure that I learned how to do it. Again, it all goes back to proper teaching.

So do I give my tithe? The answer is a big ‘YES!’  I’ve been a serious tither ever since that day. Just not publicly.