Star Baker or The Apprentice?

Back in the Boardroom, Sugar, Brady and Littner are giving the aspiring Apprentices a masterclass. Teaching them the hardnosed, ruthlessness of surviving in business. In previous weeks, David dared to point out problems and faced the pointy finger. Tom led from within and was lucky not to go out. And Frank was fired simply for being himself. All good attributes but being loved by your neighbour, it isn’t.

In the gentler atmosphere of the Bake Off Tent, the desire to win is just as determined – and Hollywood and Leith can be just as brutal. Ruby’s opponents almost saved the collapsing showstopper and everyone comforted the distraught Manon. And don’t you just want to take Rahul home with you!

It all makes for good television – and, of course, we only see what the producers want us to. But what do these programmes say about comparing ourselves with others? Do we see our lives as always waiting for a Sugar-coated finger or a Hollywood handshake?

As humans, comparing ourselves with others is one of our least helpful attributes. Applied negatively more often than not, doing so exacerbates feelings of stress, inadequacy and failure – especially when it all gets too much. “If only… I was as good as him, had her friends, their house, job, money, health, faith…”

All that time and effort. Wishing we were like someone else. Only to miss out on being the person we are.

Oscar Wilde said: ‘Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.’ Sounds simple, but how does that work in the complex reality of our lives?

Well, there is a clue in something Jesus said: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ (Mark 12:31)

Now, most of us probably feel comfortable with the ‘love your neighbour’ bit… thinking of others, being kind to people… “Yep, I can do that. That bit’s OK.”

All the same, it is difficult to love those we don’t like or don’t get on with. We often have a choice about the friends we keep or don’t keep, albeit street neighbours or work colleagues can present challenges, for example. But, pretty much, the act of loving our neighbour (wherever they are) can be fairly straightforward and comparatively easy.

But what about, ‘as yourself’?

To love ourselves in the same way as we love others.

Umm… tricky that.

Many of us focus on our failings. The bad bits. The mistakes. The wrong words. The difficult memories. The hurts. The things we messed up. The times when the finger pointed.

There are good things in all of us, though. It may be hard to focus on them, but they’re there. The things we got right. The successes (they don’t have to be showstoppers). The compliments we receive (even if we struggle to actually believe them). What we’re good at. What we like about ourselves.

Loving ourselves requires having a balanced view of who we are. Having a balanced view enables us to see what God, in his love and grace, has made good within us. The ways in which God not only shakes our hand but also embraces and holds us.

All the same, what if you still feel you’re not exactly a Star Baker?

God’s love isn’t based on success and achievement. You don’t have to prove anything. Hired or fired, God loves you no less than anyone else. Complete with all the good bits and all the bad bits.

Thing is, it’s easier to accept that’s true for other people, isn’t it? It’s that comparison thing again. “Me. God loves me? I mean, what about this… don’t forget that… oh, and there’s these other reasons too, Lord…”

We’re probably all apprentices in some respects.

So ‘In this week’s task…’, have a think about these questions:

• What makes you you (and not just the person you want others to see)?
• What do you love about yourself?

God’s got a treat lined up for you. And you don’t even need to go back to the Boardroom to get it.

 

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When it all gets too much

A while ago, one Sunday morning after church I met my son and daughter at a local café. They went upstairs while I got the drinks. I set off up the long, wide, wooden staircase carrying a tray full of hot chocolate, teapots, milk, and cups and saucers. And then disaster. At the very top of the stairs. On the very last step. Down I went. Drinks splashed and cups smashed. Down the stairs it all flowed. And yes, I did cry over spilt milk. It had been a hard week. A very difficult weekend. And now this. A symbol of it all getting too much. The tray of life was too full and too heavy.

We all have times like that, don’t we? (oh, please tell me you do too…) When the load we are carrying is too heavy. When work and home life all gets too much. When we fail, worry and make poor decisions. Times when our behaviour towards others changes. We become irritable, quiet or stick our head in the sand. We might even call it stress.

Stress is a much overused word but there are times when we struggle to cope, whether at work or home, or both. There is no such thing as ‘good stress’. We all need a degree of pressure to get things done, to perform well, to do a good job or to please others. But when those pressures exceed our ability to cope with the demands upon us then that’s stress: and there’s nothing good about it.

We all respond to stress in different ways too. Stress affects us physically (palpitations, eczema, muscle ache, sleep disturbance, for example), emotionally (anger, worry, tearfulness etc) and behaviourally (irritability, restlessness perhaps). People talk a lot about ‘work-related stress’ but the biggest cause of long-term sickness absence are non-work related issues. Financial difficulties, care for the elderly, care for the children, relationship problems, difficulties at church and numerous other factors affect the ability to work. Left unmanaged, stress causes health problems and affects our mental wellbeing.

Of course, it’s nothing new. Nearly 2,000 years ago, Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans (7: 22-25a) ‘that which dwells within us turns us against ourselves, the law of our body is at war with the law of our mind’. Paul also sums up the feelings we have about ourselves: ‘Wretched person that I am’. Stress exacerbates our inadequacy: “I am so stupid. I’m hopeless. I am such a failure.”

So amidst this rather depressing passage (and this rather depressing post), come some surprising words. Paul writes, ‘Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!’ A simple statement of a fundamental truth but also a far too simple statement. Profound and deeply meaningful and yet one that trips off the tongue in glib repetition. When I fell at the top of the stairs, thanking God through Jesus Christ was not at the top of my list.

And yet, all the same, let’s turn to Jesus own words: ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’ (Matthew 11:28-30)

Familiar verses. There will always be burdens and heavy loads to carry, but it’s what we do with them that matters. At times when the tray is full (or, preferably, before then) we can hand it over to Christ and receive the promise of rest. Through that rest comes strength: a strength that is made perfect in our weakness. Alleluia!

And what do we do next? We take it right back again, don’t we (oh, please tell me you do too…).

Over the next couple of posts we’ll look at managing such loads and gaining that rest and strength. We’ll consider the difficulties of comparing ourselves with others, some practical ways of addressing the balance of work and the rest of life, and looking after our mental wellbeing.

We may still have to carry the tray, but Christ can make it lighter.

 

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The Greatest Honour

Christine was my manager for 12 years. In the year 2000, she contacted me in my previous job inviting me to be part of a group setting up a new employment service to help people experiencing mental health conditions. We started working together at Workways some 18 months later: it was a role she created especially for me. In the years that followed I got to know someone who saw potential in everyone. She was totally dedicated to her staff both professionally and personally. I am not alone in the fact that we worked together, laughed together and cried together. I am not alone in the fact that without her I would not being working in such a innovative, dedicated and supportive team. Without her, I would not have found my vocation. Without her, there would not have been Mindful Employer, developing as it did from a small local idea in to an UK-wide and international initiative. Without her, I would not have got an MSc. Without her, I would not have been appointed an MBE.

A month after she took early retirement in 2014, Christine was diagnosed with cancer. A couple of years later she rendered me speechless by asking if I would take her funeral. The greatest honour there is. To accompany someone and those who love them on that final journey. Just over two weeks ago Christine died. And today I took her funeral.

Christine demonstrated many of those attributes of leadership that I considered in the previous blog. She led from within. She accepted questions, doubts and mistakes. She listened, taught, affirmed and, yes, corrected – you always knew where you stood with Christine. She did lots of things we never knew about and equipped people to do even more. Christine was in it for others. It was an honour to have known her.

By her own admission, Christine was an atheist. As mentioned last time, Christians don’t have the monopoly on good attributes and good works and what I, and many others, saw and received from her was both humbling and honouring.

In the New Testament there are two letters written by the apostle Peter. In the first one he advocates that we are to ‘honour everyone’ (1 Peter 2:17) and quoting from the Old Testament book of Proverbs, ‘to clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another, for “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”’ (1 Peter 5:5; Proverbs 3:34).

We’ll explore the attributes of honouring others and humility in some posts in the New Year. But for the moment as John Baldoni put it, ‘Humility is an approach to life that says, “I don’t have all the answers and I want your contribution.”’

That was Christine.

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Leading from within

It was the farewell lunch for a long-standing employee. It had been a difficult few years. Change and uncertainty. Redundancies. A pensions black hole in to which the business was falling. Restructure after restructure wrought havoc among the team. It wasn’t simply that they lacked leaders – it was also that some decided not to follow. Returning for the occasion, the former Chief Executive, whose success had been measurable, spoke fondly of the good days: “A time when all the noses were facing in the same direction.”

“Different people have different definitions of leadership,” said former United Nations Secretary-General, Kofi Annan. “I believe that leadership is not about the individual. When you have macho leaders who believe that they have to shine and it all has to be about them (they are) forgetting that what is required is the welfare of society and the people they serve.”

Leaders will tell us there is no ‘I’ in team yet some behave in a way that says there is no ‘u’ in me.

As Methodist Church leader and Human Resource specialist, Janet Arthur put it: ‘While it (is) necessary to have vision, passion, make firm and decisive decisions and ensure (others) do not suffer… It is equally important for a leader to demonstrate nurture and care for their people so they remain motivated and willingly come along with (them). Different leadership approaches may be suited to different people and issues… leadership has to have a purpose; and a key part of the leader’s role is to work out which approach will best enable them to drive positive change.’ (Parenthesis mine)

The classic Biblical image of a leader is that of a shepherd. In some countries, the shepherd goes in front of the flock and the sheep follow. Each shepherd has a particular sound they make and the sheep recognize and respond to that call. Elsewhere, the shepherd drives the sheep from behind and they may have one or two dogs to help. In a sense we need both types of shepherd. Both types of leaders. We need people who will lead from the front: bringing ideas and a vision of where we are going. And we need those who lead from behind, encouraging us to move forward. And yes, we need a dog or two – people who will keep us together. People who help to keep our noses facing in the same direction.

But there is a third type of leader. The one who leads from within.

We see this in Jesus. Jesus’ ministry was a collaborative one. He called people to be part of it – to follow him. He led a mixed bunch of people – not just the core team of twelve disciples but others such as Mary Magdalene, the siblings Martha, Mary and Lazarus, Joanna, Susannah and Salome. Numerous men and women followed his leadership, sometimes at risk to themselves, like the high-ranking Jewish leaders Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea.

Jesus was a leader who saw potential in people. He accepted their questions and doubts. He knew they would make mistakes. He taught them. He listened to them. He affirmed them. He corrected them. Instead of doing everything himself, he equipped others to do what was needed for the purpose of his work. There was a humility in Jesus’ leadership. His leadership wasn’t about himself. His leadership was about bringing glory to God and enabling people, everyone of us, to experience God’s love in all its fullness.

Christians don’t have the monopoly on good attributes and good works (indeed there are some churchgoers in whom you’d be hard pushed to see a connection between belief and behaviour) but in Jesus we see a role model for leaders.

Leaders who see potential and accept questions, doubts and mistakes. Leaders who listen, teach, affirm, correct. Leaders who don’t do everything but equip people to do it for them and the organisation. Leaders who are not in it for themselves but are in it for others.

It can’t be that difficult, can it?

There are leaders and managers who display those attributes and plenty of them. Next time, I’ll tell you about someone who was such a leader.

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Stability in times of change

‘Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes, Turn and face the strange’ David Bowie’s lyrics reflect the way that change is a constant and often unsettling companion.

Over the last 30-40 years, the workplace has changed beyond all recognition for many people. Technology, the internet and social media has brought massive change. Organisations go from one restructuring to another restructuring. Gone are the steady 9-5 routines, the lunch break and personal work space. In has come a long hours culture, hot desking, unachievable targets and 24/7 e-mails.

Part of the difficulty in ‘turning to face the strange’ is that while the world around us changes at a very fast rate, as human beings we often change much more slowly. The core characteristics of who we are take years to develop as we go through life being shaped by events and other people. I’ve been preparing to make the change from employment in to retirement for 2-3 years and I have no doubt it’ll take a few more months to fully adjust. It takes time to change. You may like to think about how you’ve changed in the last 5, 10, 20 years – and how you would like to change further in the next 5, 10, 20.

Whether of our own choice or not, it is often the waiting and the uncertainty of the prospect of change which is the most difficult characteristic of this unsettling companion. We like to know where we stand. The bigger picture remains blurred as we focus on the detail. We may accept the office move but what we really want to know is ‘Where will my desk be?’ or indeed, will I even have one? In such times, we want to hold on to that which remains the same. Hence why sometimes we are often resistant to change, be that at work, home or church.

This need for stability is reflected in one of the main principles, or vows, of Benedictine monasticism. Stability for the nun and the monk is about remaining in a specific community for life. For those of us living outside such settings, stability often finds itself dependent on many things: our house, family, job, finances, the place we live, the people we know or the church we go to, for example. And when something threatens those things, such as change or uncertainty, life becomes unstable.

The Rule of St Benedict retains a relevance to our lives in a world where change is often feared, stability can be elusive and busyness interferes with listening to God. For all seeking a deeper relationship with God, stability is found by becoming increasingly rooted in the one with whom that relationship is sought. This is further enhanced by two other Benedictine vows: listening to God and conversion of life. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, this conversion, or change, is necessary for our relationship with God to grow. Whether a monastic or not, the principles of these vows can be viewed as threads running through our faith.

So how do we experience stability in God, particularly in times of change? Through prayer, in part, yes, and you would expect me to say that. But what does that prayer look like?

The principle of the ‘daily quiet time’ so beloved and valued by many Christians finds it source in the times of St Benedict and well before then. We see it in Moses going up to the mountain top and Jesus spending time alone in prayer. Setting aside times of giving intentional attention to God.

Crucial to experiencing stability in God is making such specific times to pray (as well as the ongoing prayers which act like punctuation marks in the sentences of our lives). It is the daily rhythm and the place for doing so that are key. To enable such times to become as natural as all the other rhythmical practises in our life – in the same way as times for eating, getting dressed, travelling to work or watching our favourite television programme. Such daily practices and routines provide us with a sense of stability. And it is often in those stable times that we experience the closeness and love of God more clearly and deeply.

As we do so, and as we listen to God, we become increasingly aware that in order to change, stability is needed; and in order to be stable, we are also to change.

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